Using the Expeditionary Learning/EngageNY curriculum in your 6-8 ELA classroom? Here’s some resources for you.


I’ve worked in ELA classrooms in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade using the Expeditionary Learning curriculum (freely available on EngageNY), and now I work supporting other ELA teachers in the Bronx, who often also use this curriculum.

I think the curriculum has a lot to offer*, but it’s also a heck of a lot of work to unpack. While each lesson provides a script, there’s few you could deliver as is. First of all, you’d never be able to get through many of them in a normal period. EL throws the kitchen sink into these lessons. Furthermore, you’d find yourself stranded in the middle of a lesson confused, trying to figure out where it was supposed to be going, or discovering you were supposed to have an anchor chart drawn up to refer to.

Like most curricula, Expeditionary Learning ELA curriculum requires each teacher to have first read, processed, adapted, and developed additional resources to complement each and every lesson. My co-teachers and I would develop our own “talking points” based on our interpretations of a lesson, then create an accompanying presentation, and finally, create a student guide/handout that matched our talking points and presentation. Doing this was intensive work for each individual lesson. The teachers I’ve been working with also find this incredibly daunting to do — most especially because they are also often told to implement the Teacher’s College writing curriculum alongside of it (. . . which is a whole ‘nother can of worms I’m not going to get into here). Suffice it to say, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can help other middle school teachers process and implement the EL curriculum efficiently and effectively.

So this summer I worked on a couple of tools to try to help ELA teams and teachers to be more strategic about how they are using the EL curriculum.

First on offer is a curricular overview of all the modules from 6-8, starting from a departmental-wide overview, then moving to a pacing calendar, which includes all of NYC’s official calendar dates. If you’re not in NYC, then of course modify to match your own district’s calendar.

At first glance, this may look like I’ve just copied and pasted a bunch of stuff from the original EL materials and reorganized it. And much of it is exactly that (my intent is to make it more accessible; EngageNY’s materials can be hard to manipulate and adapt). But I’ve also made a few editorial additions and decisions, which I will explain shortly.

In order to use the document, first make a copy for yourself, then you can edit it as you wish. Please share this with any teachers you think might be able to use it.

  • The first thing you’ll see is a departmental overview, consisting of Enduring Understandings, Essential Questions, and Focus Skills/Standards. These are not an explicit part of the EL curriculum itself, so I created the EUs and EQs based off the the module-level content. The focus skills I pulled from the EngageNY 6-8 Curriculum Map, which lists those focus skills for each Module 1-4 across the grades, so I thought those made sense as an encapsulation of the overall focus.
  • You’ll want to discuss these as an ELA team. Are these the Enduring Understandings you and Skills you want your students to graduate your school equipped with? Modify these first, then tailor the modules and units to match your focus.

  • I then included all the protocols and practices that EL provides as part of the curriculum. These are all good. But you would be wise to discuss these as a school, across all your content areas, and select a few common protocols and practices that you will use consistently across classrooms.

  • You’ll notice I’ve included every single module, including the alternative modules. So you will need to delete the columns and content that your team are not actually using, both in the section for Essential Questions/Assessments and in the Sequence section.

  • For the Focus Skills/Standards for each module, I literally went through every single lesson standard for each unit and looked at what was consistently practiced across the unit, then counted only those most practiced as the focus skills. I then pulled the “I can” statements that were developed by EL to align with those standards. But even still, you’re most likely going to want to focus and narrow these down to make them even more targeted.
  • I didn’t include the Focus Skills/Standards for Unit 3 of any modules because I’ve made the strategic decision to advise the schools I am working with to cut Unit 3 from each module. There’s simply not enough time, and while Unit 3s are nice, they are not essential. They are the fluffier “performance task” pieces. There’s a lot more to explain about my rationale on this, but not going to get into it now. Ask me if you want to know more. In any case, I didn’t want to waste my own time digging into something I wasn’t going to use.

  • Now you get to the pacing calendar. This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s nice to say you want to do all 4 modules. Go ahead, try to pace those out, while ensuring you’re including assessment days for MOSLs, baselines, iReady, test prep, or whatever the heck else your school will throw into the mix.

  • Or don’t. I already did it for you, leaving some extra time in there in March with the assumption you’re doing some test prep. If you wanted to do full modules, including Unit 3, you’d only be able to barely get through 3 modules.
  • So either you barely do three modules (probably still would need trimming). Or you cut Unit 3s and do Units 1 and 2 only for four modules.
  • You then need to consider your marking periods. Do you want the modules to align with those? If you’re doing four marking periods, it can be done. But it requires cutting Module 1 quite a bit. What you can do is cut Module 1 at the Unit 2 Mid-Unit assessment. This isn’t as tragic as it seems, since if you think about it, module 1 is really about getting students up to speed and engaged in reading and writing — then you can move on for deeper work in module 2.

  • Finally, the next thing you’re really going to need to take a look at as a team, aside from the actual lesson planning and development, are the mid and end-of-unit assessments. Do these align with the focus that your department has for your students? Do you want to modify them to include more multiple-choice, or more short-response writing? Do you want to design your own to supplant them? This is important work, because it will determine the type of data that you are looking at most closely to determine student feedback and grades.

Here’s an example of an adapted calendar in which Units have been cut and paced out in order to match a real school’s calendar. You can see that once you cut out all the school’s assessment days and “skill” days on Fridays, you’ve only got roughly 100 calendar days for the EL curriculum, and even that’s probably being optimistic.

The other resource I’d like to share is that EL has done some nice work turning the standards into student friendlier “I can” statements. But unfortunately, they embedded these wonderful statements deep within and across their many lengthy documents. So I pulled them all out and put them alongside the relevant grade-level standards so that you can access them more easily.

I am aware that the NY standards are being revised, but let’s be honest — they aren’t substantially different than the CCSS, and tests won’t align to the new ones for a few more years. I’ll update these accordingly, but it will just be a matter of some shifting around and deleting of a few of the standards.

I hope these are useful resources as you plan for your upcoming school year. Please let me know if there’s anything that I need to clarify or revise, or if you need further assistance in using these. Good luck!

* As a footnote, I want to note that Expeditionary Learning’s materials have a long way to go before they could be considered a viable curriculum in practice (in my opinion). And yet, comparative to most other ELA curricula, this is some of the better stuff out there, though I’d advise you to check out LearnZillion’s work with Louisiana’s Guidebook Units (disclosure: I’ve done a little bit of work on those and with LZ in general) or Great Mind’s Wit and Wisdom for clearer and more user friendly ELA curriculum.

What this tells us is that we’ve got a lot of work to do before we have rigorous curricula in more ELA classrooms that every teacher can effectively deliver.

But I also want to point out that the fact that EngageNY has provided this curriculum under an open license and for open access is the only reason that we’re able to have this conversation and that I’m able to provide these resources. I can’t do that for Teacher’s College curriculum because it’s proprietary. So the more we can share open educational resources, the more transparently and widely we can develop better stuff.

Thanks, Expeditionary Learning, EngageNY, NYSED, and the Public Consulting Group for providing these resources to the public. Now let’s get to work making ELA curriculum better and more usable.


Operationalizing Democracy

In my last post reflecting on Will’s query of “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I focused on the first part of that question, the concept of an overarching regulatory system. I noted that centralization of regulatory power is not necessarily a bad thing (though it certainly can be), and I also made the point that an attitude of openness to utilizing a diversity of regulatory methods is important, because there is most likely not one universal best way to govern all things at all levels.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the second, most important part of that question: the engagement and empowerment of local communities and individuals. Engaging local communities and individuals in decision-making processes is critical to ensuring that democracy is upheld.

But wait. Why do we even want to uphold democracy? Is democracy the best process for making decisions?

I’m not being facetious. We’re so browbeaten with the word ‘democracy’ that it’s become akin to the catch-all word ‘love‘; through overuse and diversification of usage, such embracing words become stand-ins for “something we agree is good that we can’t quite define.”

The simple version, I suppose, is that we cherish democracy as an ideal because we are aware that a concentration of power can lead to tyranny. The concept of a balance of power is integral to the founding of our nation, after all. But there’s more to it. As Cosma Shalizi and Henry Farrell argued in Cognitive Democracy, democracy can be seen as a superior mechanism (over markets and hierarchies) for tackling complex social problems, problems such as the achievement gap in public education, poverty, and mitigation of climate change.*

However, in order to best tackle such problems, Farrell and Shalizi caution that two features must be present: 1) facilitated communication between a diversity of viewpoints; and 2) relative equality in decision-making processes between affected actors.

Arguably, our own democracy fails to incorporate those features at an operational level, both historically and concurrently. Oftentimes, our democracy seems to function as determined by those narrow-minded interests that possess the deepest and most vested of pockets. The incidences in our nation’s history in which fuller acceptance of human and civil rights has occurred have only transpired due to an active and strong organization of aggressive interests, such as by unions and legal organizations.

I’m not a full-fledged cheerleader for technology, but I do believe that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift (cue world weary skeptics critiquing the use of this phrase) due to technology and social media. I don’t want to oversimplify complex processes, but we can witness this shift in the lessening power of those organizations embedded in bureaucratic, monolithic models such as the newspaper, music, and movie industries, and the rising power of smaller, agile, adaptive organizations. I say this cautiously, knowing that we are still on the cusp of any evolutionary, mature adaptation to the new paradigm. I think we would be hard pressed to think of models of any independent news organizations, for example, that have truly found a way to leverage new financing models and achieve financial stability (while we’re on that topic, please help support one of the best independent education news sites out there, GothamSchools). But without a doubt, things have changed, whether we like it or not. There’s no going back.

I see one great positive trend in all of this current disruption, and that is the growing empowerment of civil society through technology and social media. It is a reality in the business world, for example, that there is a much greater transparency and visibility, and thus a greater accountability to the public. This move towards greater transparency holds great potential for changing the responsiveness of those who govern, and a call for greater openness and sharing of data critical to accountable public service is also being made in education. Unfortunately, as Will and I continually point out on this blog, the data that is being collected and shared tends to be skewed in favor of a narrow-minded focus on shallow test scores and student value-added, to the detriment of student well-being and an enriching curriculum. And as Cedar Riener cautioned on Twitter in response to Felix Salmon’s article, the “problem is that convenient, cheap data does not always adhere to best goals. Common data narrows goals.”

I believe the empowerment of civil society through technology and social media provides us with an opportunity to make democratic decision-making a reality, thus providing a solution to the conundrum  Will posed in his question. I don’t know what such a mechanism might look like in actual operation, but here are some features that I believe are essential to its functioning:

  • Technology/social media and universal and speedy broadband access must be seen as a requisite to a functioning democracy, not as a bell and whistle
  • Prior to any decision-making process, there must be an information gathering phase in which a diversity of perspectives must be deliberately harnessed, listened to, and responded to. The data from this process, of course, must be publicly available and transparent
  • Everyday, local problems should be relegated to autonomous decision-making processes by local communities and individuals
  • Decision-making may still be subject to the standards of an editorial hierarchy, but those standards and hierarchies must be clear and transparent (vis-a-vis open source governance models)

*. [Let me just note here that I don’t necessarily subscribe to clear distinctions between democracy and hierarchy and markets; I see things as more intertwined, but for the purpose of this post, I’m running with it. And it should also be noted that Cosma Shalizi and Henry Farrell are talking about these things in relation to “macro institutions,” whatever that may mean.]

Innovation, Systemic Change, and Learning Communities in Public Education

Book: Second International Handbook of Educational Change
Paper: Innovation and Diffusion as a Theory of Change
Author: Tom Bentley

Big Idea: Operating systems and software (Linux and open source), civil society, and businesses are increasingly utilizing open and collaborative processes to adapt to a complex, interconnected global environment. How can we apply these processes systemically in the education sector, which remains heavily constrained by bureaucracy?

Before we dive deeper into Bentley’s insights, let me just plug in here that I have discussed elsewhere how open source governance models and process should be utilized in curriculum development. I’ve also argued for the great need for collaboration between teachers and other stakeholders in public education. In recognition of this need, let me furthermore give a shout out to The VIVA Project, which is working to craft innovative, direct collaborations between policymakers and educators that utilizes a process akin in spirit to that of open source.

Now let’s get into the meat of this excellent paper:

Much recent thinking about the shaping of social and economic behaviour has focused on the evolution, through open and self-organising processes, of complex adaptive systems. Rather than the formal, rational goals and accountabilities of the institutional framework, which is the focus of so much school reform, this thinking focuses on the patterns and dynamics of behaviour in systems which hold together without explicit systems of command. . . . . 

I love this phrase: “complex adaptive systems.” I originally termed this concept “foundational systems of interconnectivity.” Another way of saying it would be . . . ecosystems! This view of schools as complex, intricate, dynamic living systems is the very argument we are attempting to forward here on this blog. Bentley furthers this recognition here:

The evolution of these adaptive systems can lead to increasingly complex pat terns of specialisation, interdependence and self-organisation which hold together different needs, functions and interests in a wider community (Wright, 2001). Such systems contain many diverse parts but still operate as coherent wholes
which generate more than their sum (Chapman, 2003). Ecosystems function in this way, with clear hierarchies, specialised division and sharing of labour between species and within groups, a constant, evolving mix of competition and collabora- tion and physical boundaries set and shaped by the interaction between landscape,
population and capability. A school system could be characterised in the same way, except that its evolution is directed by human intentions and norms and not simply by competition and natural selection. [Bold added]

Specialization, interdependence, and self-organization. Those terms are aligned to the ecological principles that Will and I have been discussing here on this blog, such as niches, biodiversity, and succession. I like these new terms a little better, as they make more sense in the context of schooling, and I think I will adopt them in further explorations–if that’s alright with Mr. Bentley.

Note also that Bentley clarifies a point I have made before, which is that when discussing a school ecosystem, we aren’t referring to wilderness, but rather a cultivated ecosystem for a specific societal purpose.

Some of the most powerful educational innovations are disruptive: They require radically different patterns of organisation, using time, space, information and people differently in the learning process, in order to achieve their potential impact. But as Richard Elmore has persuasively argued, the multiple layering of organisational systems and authority, and the strong separation of the core technical and practical knowledge of teachers from the organisational knowledge and authority of educational administration, creates a potent “buffering” effect.
Thus policy makers and experts are insulated from the classroom, and individual teachers are insulated from the expertise and exposure to new practice that might make them directly accountable for generating the best possible outcomes (Elmore, 2000).

I also love this term: “buffering effect.” This is the argument I’ve been making when I’ve argued that policymakers are disassociated from the contexts and reality of the classroom. But there is a flip side to that coin, as Bentley points out, which is that teachers are also insulated from important knowledge outside their immediate sphere and practice. At the ground level, we are still coached and instructed in methods of identifying and teaching to childrens’ learning styles, when research is pretty clear that there’s no such thing. Teachers also tend to be fairly resistant to the few good things that do end up trickling down to us, due to oversaturation from fads and reforms. It’s important for us to also bear in mind that we must be welcoming to learning from policymakers, researchers, and other experts as well.

But while the introduction of fresh external stimulus may be recognised as essential to the prospects of systemic change, how best to combine them with the resources of the existing system remains a challenge unmet. In short, educational reform has become more adept at creating new directions and new models in the last generation, but still struggles to gain leverage for these innovations across whole systems. 

So strategies for diffusion must be based on our understanding of the ways in which people actually come to learn and adjust their own behaviour in social groups and organisations (Bentley, 2007). [Bold added] 

Yes. We must leverage and recognize what works at the ground level. The current mentality of going to ‘war’ to promote education reform (I’m going to delve more into this topic soon when I discuss Paul Tough’s great book on Geoffrey Canada, Whatever It Takes) all too often disregards the value, expertise and knowledge already within the field. It’s worth listing the strategies for diffusion which Bentley outlines in his paper: imitation, iteration, improvisation, inspiration, immigration, and interpretation. It’s worth going into the paper, by the way, to examine Bentley’s explication of each of those strategies more in full. In fact, I think I’m going to have to steal some of those terms in further discussions of ecological principles, as well!

These forms of learning, of course, feature in the repertoires of great teachers. Ironically enough, they rarely appear explicitly in innovation strategies designed for the larger systems that teachers inhabit. . . . .

Yes. Ironic indeed. Our system, heavily focused on high stakes yearly testing, also too often constrains the very practices that educators know to be most effective in the classroom.

Bentley then discusses an exciting model of these ideas for providing a learning community that offers a model of convergence of openness, innovation, complexity, and collaboration. Located in Hume, Australia, it is termed the Global Learning Village, and I’m excited by the potential transfer of some of these ideas to public schooling here.

In Learning Together, the centre outlines a vision of “a learning community where people embrace learning as a way of life, for all their life, thereby creating a community that values learning as the key to strengthening individual and community wellbeing.” Hume’s strategy is to transform and enhance what is achieved within its
education institutions by linking them directly to its wider communities. . . . The Hume Global Learning Village is one illustration of how open systems of governance and learning can support more ambitious educational strategies. It
uses practice-based innovation to generate collective action to change the context in which individual experience and service delivery occur. . . . .It seeks to create community, as well as to serve it. [Bold added]

This concept of an open learning community that extends beyond that of the simplified notion of factory K-12 education we uphold here is pretty awesome, and it expanded my own limited conceptions of what a school might look like. This idea of a community of learners, both adults and children, extending into more of a semblance of a communal village than a worker’s factory, reminded me of a passage in Deborah Meier‘s great In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, in which she discusses the critical need for adult role models and experts in the school:

Children are expected to learn to do hard things in the absence of ever seeing experts at work doing such things—to become shoemakers when they’ve never seen shoes or a shoemaker making them. We’ve cut kids adrift, without the support or nurturance of grown-ups, without the surrounding of a community in which they might feel it safe to try out various roles.

Creating a positive, dynamic, inclusive learning community that is a real community that extends beyond the limited, prescribed notion of a K-12 factory that only focuses on the learning of children . . . Yes, that is precisely what I believe folks like Sir Ken Robinson are talking about when they discuss the need for a focus on ennabling creativity and innovation in schools. Will Johnson has also pointed out how the relationships between students and teachers should more rightly be perceived as symbiotic.

Anyway, I need to close up this here overlong post. Let’s return to Bentley for the finale:

As I argued, successful open systems are not governed by free-for-alls. An essential feature of open-source programming is that it maintains a clear editorial hierarchy and quality standards against which any adjustment can be judged. The crucial feature is that access to these standards, and the opportunity to test out new
ways of meeting them, is openly shared. 

Twenty-first century education cannot succeed without becoming more explicit or authoritative about the meaning of understanding and excellence. [Bold added]

This is an important point to make. I’ve also noted that child-centered education does not obviate our responsibility to provide guidance to children, nor to teachers on matters of curriculum. What is important is that our governance models are transparent, open, and clear. It is precisely that lack of guidance and clarity that is one of the biggest issues in schools today.

I urge you to read Innovation and Diffusion as a Theory of Change in its entire. I apologize for the amount of self-referential links and comments I’ve made here; I get excited when I come across something that so closely aligns with our model of schools as ecosystems!