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Westfield Schools' Language Arts Supervisor Discusses New K-5 Curriculum

The new program increase uniformity and autonomy throughout the district.

Westfield public school students in Kindergarten through fifth grade will begin the 2012-2013 school year with a new Language Arts curriculum. 

The program, which comes up for revision every five years, will now take a reading and writing workshop approach, something Westfield's Language Arts Supervisor Tim Harrison said represents a shift in methodology.

"Westfield has a pretty long tradition of having really excellent literacy instruction but just like any other field, we want to stay on top of best practices," explained Harrison, who taught Language Arts for a decade before coming to Westfield 18 months ago. "Excellent teaching has been going on but we did want to make it a little more uniform throughout the district so we built the curriculum around units of study. 

"The nice thing about this approach is there's a whole class mini-lesson but then the kids go out and choose their own books based on their interest and their readiness, their reading level. The teacher does a lot of one-on-one and small group instruction. So, if you have some students working at a different pace, it's individualized and that's really nice for the whole spectrum of readiness levels. For the students that are moving at a faster pace, the teacher can accelerate their learning."

Harrison said the program works the same way with writing. For example, third graders will have a persuasive essay unit and over the course of three to four weeks the class will go through a series of mini-lessons to make sure students have the skills and knowledge they need. The unit culminates in a final written piece.

The new curriculum, which is based on the concepts of the nationally-recognized Understanding By Design, created by scholars Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, puts a huge emphasis on collaborative learning, Harrison said. Even in Kindergarten, students will begin working with a partner to discuss reading and phonics.

Beginning with the end in mind is intuitive but it hasn't always been the way curriculums have been created, Harrison said.

"One big idea, one big essential question drives the whole unit and then based on that you identify the skills that need to be taught to reach that objective," he explained. "Based on those skills the teachers build the mini-lesssons and they may teach each day for 15 minutes and then students will break into small groups for risk-free practice and then go out on their own."

In order to implement the curriculum, the Westfield school district has partnered with Teachers College at Columbia University, home to the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins more than 25 years ago, to train teachers in reading and writing workshop. 

Harrison said he is continually awed by the dedication and professionalism of the Westfield district's teachers, 85 of whom will attend a voluntary week-long training starting Monday, Aug. 20.

"Starting next week we're going to have a five day—it's called a home-grown institute—and essentially we're having three of the Teachers College consultants come in and train the teachers on reading workshop,"  Harrison said. 

In addition to the summer institute, Teachers College will continue consulting throughout the year. Two consultants, one for Kindergarten through second grade, and one for third through fifth grade, will train teachers and visit classrooms during the school year.

"It's job-embedded, on-going professional development, which is a research-based best practice," Harrison said. 

In addition, teachers from each elementary school have been identified as literacy leaders who will act as a support system for their colleagues.  

"One of our big goals was to make it a little more cohesive and consistent throughout the district," Harrison said. "We want to make sure that a second grader at gets a very similar experience, gets the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that a second grader at or or gets. Again, teachers are going to make it their own but they have common units and common skills that need to be achieved by the end of the unit. It's a framework; teachers still have the freedom to make decisions based on the individual needs of their students."

What can parents expect as the new curriculum is put in place?

"Especially for the upper grades, three, four and five, their child will not necessarily be reading the same thing as their classmate," Harrison said. "We're moving away from the whole 'class novel' and so forth. It is a best practice because, again, it gives students autonomy and choice and that's very important both in the literacy research literature as well as educational psychology research literature. It's been shown that giving students autonomy and choice really makes a difference."

Parents should not be put off by the "sloppy copies" that may come home. It's all part of the process, Harrison explained. Students will revise their spelling and grammar before their final drafts are complete.

Harrison said teachers will share more details with parents at upcoming

"We're all very excited about it. It is new and anything new is going to be challenging but we have highly-capable teachers and administrators helping implement this also," he added.

Intermediate and high school Language Arts curriculums will be up for revision in 2015.

SN August 17, 2012 at 12:02 PM
I hope this works better than Everyday Math does for the math curriculum! I had to teach my child the "old way" of multiplying and dividing with the blessing of his teachers, who agreed that Everyday Math doesn't teach kids the fundamentals the way we learned in school. Will I now have to teach reading and writing too? Time will tell...
Gary McCready August 21, 2012 at 01:24 PM
It's great that the reporter, Elizabeth Alterman, focused on reporting the key factor for success in a curriculum like this - training the teachers and getting them on board with the program. It's really impressive that 85 teachers are attending a " voluntary week-long training" before school starts - I'd assume without compensation. In a lot of distructs, something like that would be forbidden by their union. Hopefully, teachers who can't attend will be brought up to date on the program during the school year. Also, one should expect a follow-up report by the end of the school year on how the implementation of the curriculum is going, and parents should be given the chance to reiview the program and expectations both at a meeting near the start of the school year and via online materials (or even a forum!)
fred norris August 22, 2012 at 06:38 PM
SN, while EDM does fall short on the "old way" of solving mathematics equations, it promotes better problem solving and analysis of information. In an age when you are fingertips away from solving a division problem on your phone, having better problem solving skills are more valuable skills to practice and master.
Edumom August 30, 2012 at 01:49 AM
All I can say is FINALLY!!! I am thrilled to see that Westfield is finally embracing what is well researched as best practice in the area of literacy instruction. It seems that the introduction was well though out and I am thrilled that Westfield was able to be a Home Grown district. I know some districts have been on the waiting list for years. Kudos! My only hope is that the professional development continues in days and years to come as it is a critical component for ongoing success as TC is constantly researching best ways to reach students and that this is not a one shot deal for the teachers that were able to attend or that they are expected to turn key such important information. I also hope the TC developers that come in share the latest of TC's research which now states that writing units are 5-6 weeks (rather the 3-4 mentioned) creating multiple completed pieces (not just one as stated earlier) as they have found that this increases opportunity for the transference of skills. Another new key component is the importance of on-demand pieces at the beginning of each unit for a teacher to create lessons based on the needs of the class and individuals as well as on-demand pieces at the end of the unit to measure student growth and gather data for future lessons. Another positive aspect of Reading and Writing Workshop is that it is already aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Well done, Westfield!
Edumom August 30, 2012 at 01:52 AM
Hit submit before checking and noticed my typos- don't worry- I did not learn to write using Writing Workshop otherwise I would have learned to edit before submitting : )

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