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

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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.

 

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Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls in ELA classrooms

Have you ever heard of a “low floor (or threshold), high ceiling” task?

I’ve stumbled across it over the last few years in the math realm, such as in articles by Jo Boaler, or in tasks by Dan Meyer, and I found it intriguing as a general framework for lesson and unit planning. Finding ways to include both lower and higher performing students in rigorous academic instruction is something I think a lot about, and this seemed worth exploring. However, I work primarily in special education and ELA, not math, so I was having trouble generalizing.

So I did a little more digging. Here’s what I found:

The concept of low floor, high ceiling was first formulated in the 1970s by Seymour Papert, a professor at MIT heavily influenced by Piaget, as a design principle for a programming language called Logo. The idea was to make programming accessible to young children, while simultaneously being usable at a more complex level by adults.

A robot turtle was developed to provide concrete access to kids for using the programming language.

By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19501049
By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Mitchel Resnick, another professor at MIT, added the useful concept of “wide walls” to the design metaphor of a room:

 

When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.

But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.

Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.

. . . Our ultimate goal is to help all kids develop their thinking, develop their voices, and develop their identities. None of that will happen unless we continually ask: Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone—everyone—with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves?

Resnick offers some further advice for designers in an MIT paper, “Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids” (bearing in mind this is for construction kits, not for academic content):

  • Design for Designers
  • Low Floor and Wide Walls
  • Make Powerful Ideas Salient – Not Forced
  • Support Many Paths, Many Styles
  • Make it as Simple as Possible – and Maybe Even Simpler
  • Give People What They Want – Not What They Ask For
    • “Often, designs with well-chosen parameters are more successful than designs with fully adjustable parameters” ← I like this quote. This connects to the idea of constraints.
  • Invent Things That You Would Want to Use Yourself
    • In ELA, this translates into assigning tasks that you would want to do yourself. For writing tasks, this most likely would result in something you’d actually enjoy reading.
  • Iterate, Iterate – then Iterate Again

This is all well and good if you’re designing a gadget or a programming language, and it kinda makes sense in math in the sense of a well-designed problem, but what does “low floor, high ceiling” mean in terms of designing lessons or units in ELA? This is where it gets murkier. Does a concept that applies to design have a translation to academic literacy instruction?

Here’s my thoughts on that question:

Usually in ELA we are engaged with texts. A rich text has multiple layers of meaning and ideas well-worth exploring, but the level of abstraction and demands of the language can be a barrier for many students. We can therefore think of the text itself as the “high ceiling” for many lessons (I think, in any case, I could certainly be off base on this).

In many cases, therefore,  the “high ceiling” aspect has already somewhat been defined in an ELA lesson (assuming you are studying rich texts together as a class).

So then, how you do you provide a “low floor” for all of your students to a complex text? And more abstractly, how do you support a wide diversity of pathways or perspectives?

Designing Scaffolded Tasks and Activities

What comes first to mind are the tasks and activities that a teacher designs to prepare their students for understanding the text, for interacting with the text, and for responding to the text. For an exemplar of this type of scaffolding, I highly recommend taking a look at Lesson 2 from Stanford’s Understanding Language unit on persuasion, specifically at how they scaffold student understanding of the Gettysburg address through multiple readings that are even fun. Close reading instruction will readily fail when a teacher simply asks students to re-read a complex text multiple times with no varied and scaffolded forms of engagement.

Designing Provocative Questions

I think the most critical consideration for “wide walls” and spanning from low floor to high ceiling is what sort of questions you plan. For example, for an 8th grade unit I co-designed on the topic of segregation, we generated a series of questions, ascending from elemental (“What is segregation? What is integration?”) to provocative and open-ended: (“NYC schools are largely segregated by race and class. Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?”). That final question represents the cumulative question for the unit. There’s certainly room for different ways of expressing knowledge based on a student’s own perspective on the topic. This could be via an essay, an action plan, a presentation, or a socratic discussion, as a few possible examples.

A critical element to both “low floor” and “high ceiling” is designing units and lessons around a provocative question. For example, watch this video of master teacher Sarah Wessling Brown modeling a high school ELA lesson on monsters (Easter egg: see if you can spot me in the background). She asks the provocative question, “What do monsters teach us about human nature?” and then designs engaging activities to engage students in the texts and knowledge they need to explore it.

I think questions like these embody what LFHCWW design is all about. They provide both engagement, and therefore access, but have ample room for sophistication and complex thinking.

One mistake some teachers make is to assume that a “higher order” question is beyond the purview of their struggling students, and they try to dumb down their questions. My advice is to worry less about the “cognitive level” of a question, and more about the language that you use and the manner in which you phrase it. Language and phrasing can either present a barrier to understanding, or a scaffold. A precisely constructed question provides the initial direction and language that students will need.

We haven’t even really gotten started

But this post is getting overlong. How do you think the concept of a task with low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls can apply in ELA classrooms? Share, and let’s build a common understanding of what this might mean in our lesson and unit design.