DC: Embarking on a Knowledge Revolution

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2015

Over the past few years, an increasing number of DC schools have been revamping their curricula to teach dramatically more knowledge. Frustrated by low reading scores and nudged by the Common Core standards’ explicit call for building knowledge across subjects, they’re now convinced that broad knowledge—not hour after hour of practicing comprehension strategies—is the key to better reading comprehension.

They’re right.

But the shift to developing broad academic knowledge is challenging for teachers, students, and parents, especially if they haven’t had a chance to learn why knowledge is so crucial for comprehension and critical thinking. Thanks to Natalie Wexler, a terrific DC-focused writer, DC’s knowledge revolution is being chronicled on Greater Greater Washington and DC Eduphile.

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, she captured the DC Public Schools’ effort to instigate this revolution:

Fundamentally, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap….

The Common Core State Standards tried to attack this problem by getting schools to build children’s knowledge from an early age. Unfortunately, that aspect of the Common Core has gotten lost in the noisy debate over the initiative’s merits….

Still, DCPS got the idea. Administrators began developing a curriculum rich in science, history and literature beginning in kindergarten. They created “units of study,” six- or seven-week modules on themes such as “Plants are Everywhere” in second grade and “Early Americans” in fourth….

These units of study should help DCPS ensure that all students have a common educational experience with the same minimum level of quality. Ideally, the curriculum should level the playing field for students who aren’t acquiring as much knowledge at home as others.

But DCPS doesn’t require teachers to follow the curriculum or use the units of study. Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for DCPS, says that 83 percent of teachers report that they use the curriculum. But there is significant variation among classrooms….

As Pick recognizes, a curriculum is an eternal work in progress.

“Curriculum-building is like if you were given a rock and told to turn it into a perfect sphere,” he says. “You’re always going to be polishing, refining, making it better, making it richer.”

As Wexler notes, teachers are being drawn into that polishing, so I have high hopes that it will continue to improve and be more fully implemented. Eventually, I’d love to see all DCPS schools embrace the curriculum, allowing teachers to learn from each other, equalizing students’ opportunity to learn, and smoothing the transitions for mobile students.

DCPS’s great strides seem to be rubbing off on DC charters—which is critical since 44% of DC students are in charters. Leading the knowledge revolution among charters is Center City, which has six P-8 schools. Wexler writes:

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called “ANet” (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

“Whatever ANet’s assessing in the next nine weeks, that’s what I’m teaching,” says Center City’s director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn’t collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they’ll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Combining rich curriculum with enthusiastic, skillful teaching, Center City is seeing immediate results:

In one 1st grade class at Center City’s Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

“Magma!” they chorused, drawing on knowledge they’d gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for “fire”—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

This revolution won’t lead to a new nation—but it is opening doors to a new life for DC’s neediest children.


Our universe is inherently interesting–and our curricula should be too (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

From Dull to Vibrant: How Core Knowledge Provided an Excellent Platform for Student Writing

by Guest Blogger
April 30th, 2015

By Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds has been teaching for over ten years in grades K-2; she currently teaches second grade at Diedrichsen Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada. Diedrichsen is located in a middle- to lower-socioeconomic neighborhood, with 44% of students being of low-SES background. The student exemplars presented in this article are from a student that is in the lower 30% of Reynolds’s class. All of her students, except two special education students, are able to accomplish these writing tasks with very similar outcomes.

Not long ago, I dreaded my second grade students’ writing. I agonized over helping them have something meaningful to say, elaborating on their ideas, and adding information and details. Despite my best efforts, their writings were often flat, repetitive, and rigid.

Today, I truly look forward to my students’ writing activities—especially their final products.

Here are three excerpts from a recent assignment in which my students wrote as if they were participants in early America’s Westward Expansion:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

My students’ writing changed when I began teaching Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). At first, I did not see the potential for their writing, but as I tried different strategies and organizational tools, their writing transformed, becoming reflective and thorough. When students are given an opportunity to build knowledge and a way to organize what they’ve learned, their writing thrives. They are motivated to share their newly formed thoughts and ideas. Having taught second grade for six years, I’ve found some of their finished projects quite amazing.

In my class, we use a four-step process to produce great writing:

1. Build Background Knowledge. First, I begin our writing projects by building my students’ knowledge and vocabulary through listening to and discussing CKLA’s read-alouds. The read-alouds are grouped by topic; each topic takes two to three weeks and has ten or so read-alouds. My students have learned about fascinating domains like Greek Myths, Cycles in Nature, and Immigration. At the conclusion of each read-aloud, my students answer comprehension questions and discuss key details from the story with their peers, as CKLA suggests. We use this time to clarify misconceptions and deepen understanding. Listening and speaking about the content really helps them gain knowledge and grasp concepts.

2. Transition Oral to Written: Students then participate in some sort of writing exercise, such as whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea—anything that helps them take the content they’ve heard and write it out. This helps them solidify their understanding. We do this with almost every read-aloud. Sometimes it’s independent, sometimes it’s in small cooperative groups, and sometimes it’s whole group.

3. Organize Information: Once we finished all or most of the read-alouds for a given topic, I provide my students with a graphic organizer to help them organize and build their writing piece. Throughout CKLA’s domains, we use a variety of different forms of writing such as narrative, informational, argumentative/opinion, reflective, or a friendly letter.

4. Publish: Once the graphic organized is filled out, they begin a rough draft. What they bring to each part of their story is truly amazing and individualized. Although you will see some of the same ideas, no two stories are alike. They each carry their own voice and their own selection of details. After completing a draft, they edit their writing independently for mechanics and grammar, and have a peer edit it for a second time. After self-editing and peer-editing is complete, I conference with them individually to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing. At long last, they rewrite their rough draft into a final copy and finish with an illustration.

For the domain on Westward Expansion, which has nine read-alouds, I chose to use the CKLA activity of creating quilt squares and ultimately a final quilt. This engaged the students in writing every day about key ideas. After each read-aloud, I began by having them brainstorm a list of key ideas and details from the read-aloud. Then they filled in their individual quilt square template (which is provided in the CKLA Westward Expansion Anthology’s workbook pages).


Here’s a sample from one of my students. The front of the quilt square has key details and phrases, as well as an illustration of the story.


The back of the quilt square has a summary of the story’s main ideas and details.


Once they are assembled, student’s individual quilt squares help them create a writing piece that conceptualizes their leaning.


Here is the final quilt that I made alongside my students. (It’s much easier to read because I did mine in black ink instead of pencil.) As they completed their squares, I did the same. We enjoyed sharing our pieces as we completed them. Once all squares were completed, I put my quilt together as an example for them to follow. We glued them onto a 24” X 24” colored piece of chart paper, and we talked about making a 3 X 3 array on each side being careful to line up the right fronts and backs.



For this particular domain on Westward Expansion, I chose to have them write a narrative piece about traveling west with their families and what they may encounter on their journey.  The graphic organizer I used, shown below, breaks down each part of their story into smaller pieces, so that students are not overwhelmed by the breadth of the information they need to cover or hindered in trying to organize all of it. I give my students one prompt and topic sentence a day to work on from “sloppy copy” to final copy. The activity takes about 30-45 minutes a day as I have them use their new knowledge (and often background knowledge developed in prior domains) to develop each part of the story. Since they’ve also been writing and summarizing information every day on the same topic, they have a nice repertoire of information to pull from.

DR Directions for journey west Narrative


Voilà! A beautiful and meaningful masterpiece…written by a second grader!







An appraisal of Core Knowledge Language Arts

by Guest Blogger
April 21st, 2015

By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 34 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This appraisal was originally published as a Teacher to Teacher column in the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, and was posted on the UFT website. The opinion expressed in the column is the author’s own and should not be construed as an endorsement by the union.

As a 24-year veteran of teaching in elementary school, I have seen literacy programs come and go. Each new program that claims to be “Common Core-aligned” always seems to fall short of experienced teachers’ expectations. So when I finally had the opportunity to try out and pilot a Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum that I felt had potential, I jumped at the chance.

The program, which is called Core Knowledge Language Arts, is the recommended New York State ELA curriculum for elementary schools. All the materials are available on the EngageNY website. I admit that when you first look at this program, it seems overwhelming and daunting. But I have found that the advantages of getting to know this curriculum on an intimate level far outweigh the risks of being lost in a sea of learning objectives.

Any longtime teacher will tell you that there is no magic, all-encompassing curriculum that is perfect right out of the box. As educators, we know that ELA curriculum needs to be adapted to meet the needs and demands of our students, whether they are struggling readers or high-achieving students. Good teaching means we adapt and differentiate the best that we can with the resources we have available to us.

When I piloted Core Knowledge Language Arts at my school last year, I was generally familiar with the components and basic premise of this program from my work as a New York City Common Core Fellows member, who for two years evaluated different types of Common Core-aligned curriculum options.

The program has two main components: First, there are 10 to 12 domains, or units, depending on the grade, that are heavily content-based (in social studies, history and science) and focus on vast academic vocabulary, background knowledge, critical thinking skills and class discussions. Then, there is a second component that focuses on reading skills, allowing teachers to meet reading foundational standards. Students have their own readers and skill workbooks to practice these important skills. The program is designed to meet students where they are and help them grow as readers.

So far, teachers at my school see our students engaged in the content as well as the vocabulary. Students participate in turn-and-talk discussions about real-world events and form opinions about real-world learning.

There are a few challenges with the program. Each lesson begins with a list of core content objectives as well as language arts objectives. Teacher teams need to come together and make instructional decisions on which ones to focus on in the classroom. Collaboration and sharing of ideas are essential for getting through these extensive lesson plans. Individual teachers also need to determine the needs of their students and choose the objectives that will be most effective in meeting their needs.

The lessons are rigorous, and questioning is extensive. Lessons are delivered in 60-minute blocks of time (60 minutes for listening and learning and 60 minutes for skills). In addition, teachers need to plan for independent reading and guided reading times. There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking and lends itself well to developing writing activities; however, the writing extensions included in the daily lessons are hit-or-miss. Some activities have perfect writing activities and some lack writing tie-ins altogether, so teachers will need to develop their own writing activities.

The listening-and-learning strand is primarily focused on teacher read-aloud and questioning, which means teachers will need to develop more interactive discussion through accountable talk. It is always a challenge to engage all of our students in discussions. This program lends itself to think/pair/share discussions with rich questioning and discussion topics.

Because of the large volume of vocabulary taught in each lesson, teachers also need to provide additional instructional opportunities to reinforce the new vocabulary. The skills strand is designed to meet students at their current reading level and support their growth throughout the school year.

In my 2nd-grade classroom, my students are eager to learn and discuss some grown-up topics thanks to this curriculum. It is allowing me and my fellow teachers to meet the demands of the Common Core — not in terms of testing, but in terms of meeting the high expectations we have for all of our students.

“Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

by Guest Blogger
January 22nd, 2015

By Bridgit McCarthy

Bridgit McCarthy teaches third grade at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina.

Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!

My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.

“How mean!  Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.”

“JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.”

These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.

”Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.”

These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.

Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content.


Caesar courtesy of Shutterstock.

The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.

I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.

The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.

In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.

As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.

For teachers in schools without a really rich, cumulative curriculum in which the topics build off of each other, it can be hard to understand just how much children can learn in the early grades. For example, I have a good friend who teaches third grade in another school—one that does not use Core Knowledge. In a recent conversation, she shared her “word a day” way to tackle tiered vocabulary words and complained about highly scripted practice-test items that she must teach to prepare for the end-of-grade tests. I shared that my Rome unit is going well, but she worried for me: Are we covering the state standards? She meant this as a genuine professional concern, and she wondered what my students’ real “take-away” would be from our unit on Rome. I shared a little anecdote from my class, showing that my students are developing sophisticated language and useful knowledge: A student was playing a dune-buggy race car computer game in my room during indoor recess. I scoffed at its total lack of educational value. He pouted at me a bit and said, “Dang, that’s what my mom said last night! Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

‘Unlocking the Gate’ to ELA Achievement in Spokane

by Guest Blogger
June 10th, 2014

By Heather Awbery

Heather Awbery is the principal of Balboa Elementary School in Spokane, Wash. This post originally appeared on Amplify Viewpoints.


She was always a quiet student, and for a long time we questioned her ability to comprehend what we were teaching her in class. She seemed to be really struggling, and in first grade she qualified for Special Education Services. As she entered second grade in September, she continued to perform behind her same-age peers in English Language Arts and other subjects.

September was also the time we began piloting Core Knowledge Language Arts in our kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms. It took a little while for our teachers to feel comfortable and confident using it, but they quickly got the hang of it, and by October, they were coming in and showing me some of the earliest assessments, as opposed to those we use in the district right now. They were seeing immediate results and were just starting to fall in love with CKLA. They were talking about it in their lunchtime conversations.

Parents were calling us and saying, “What’s going on over there? All my kid asked for for Christmas was books on the War of 1812,” or “my first-grader is talking about Westward expansion at the dinner table.”

We’re all blown away by what these kids know and are retaining as far as deep rich content. Our librarian has figured out what she needs to order for next year that she didn’t have this year; she can’t keep certain books on the shelves, and that’s all stemming from CKLA.

Sometimes I equate it to crackers: We may have had Saltines for a long time and enjoyed them until the Ritz came around, and they’re golden and good for all. CKLA is really leveling the playing field in the classroom. No matter what a student’s background or socioeconomic status, CKLA really levels the playing field. It lets kids grow independently and also enables a classroom to grow collectively.

Most boxed curricula come and they’re written for the average student—not low or high, but average. In everything I’ve seen so far with CKLA, it has rich and deep content and rich strands. Those in the middle are stretched further than they normally would be. We’re seeing significant improvement for all of our kids.

In March, one of our classrooms had 90 percent of the kids meeting the district standards for the May cutoff—so they were meeting May expectations in March. This is what our teachers are finding super exciting.

Some of our highest achieving students really struggled with CKLA’s listening and learning strand in the beginning. They were used to just kind of being exceptional with what we had given them in the past. They had to stretch themselves a bit more. The curriculum is built such that it’s right above the middle with rigorous content, so higher-end learners are getting what they need as well.

And as for that second-grade girl I mentioned? The quiet one who was placed in special education? Recently her teachers visited one of our kindergarten teachers with five examples of a student’s stellar work, asking her to guess which of her previous students they belonged to. The teacher couldn’t figure it out, and when they told her it was this kiddo who had had so many challenges showing us what knowledge and skills she had in the past, she couldn’t believe it. The great news is that this student was exited out of special ed this spring and is performing well alongside her second-grade classmates.

The listening and learning strand of CKLA was huge for her because it started to build her confidence and unlocked the gate that was closed. She was always very quiet but always wanting to give answers—very deep, rich answers. Her comprehension is better than her decodability, and CKLA helped her build up the skills she needed, and we saw her writing improve 100 percent and her learning improve 100 percent.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.


What’s the Difference Between Great Lessons and a Great Education?

by Lisa Hansel
July 11th, 2013

As many have hoped, the Common Core standards are giving educators across the country a platform for sharing lesson plans. While some online instructional collaboration was happening before the Common Core, we clearly see the benefits of common standards: a common language aimed at common goals has opened the door to a massive increase in teachers learning from each other.

Of course, teachers are not the only ones uploading resources; the whole landscape of educational materials is changing. Sean Cavanagh of Education Week, writes, “The menu of products available to educators today includes not only textbooks and digital products offered at a cost, but also a growing number of ‘open educational resources’ developed or supported by nonprofit groups, universities, philanthropies, individual teachers, and entire states.”

What does this mean for teachers? One teacher Cavanagh spoke with has a compelling answer:

Mr. Lemon, a math teacher at American Fork Junior High School, south of Salt Lake City, worked on a team that helped design open resources in that subject. Today, he uses the state’s open resources to guide his 9th graders through “mathematical tasks,” core daily lessons. He said he still turns back to materials produced by commercial publishers, mostly to give students extra practice and increase their “procedural fluency.”

Open resources give teachers more power—and more responsibility, Mr. Lemon said. Teachers are obligated to vet open materials and figure out whether they make sense for lessons, rather than relying on textbooks for guidance, he said. States and districts would be wise, he said, to back professional development to help them figure that out.

I think Mr. Lemon is absolutely right—and I would extend his point further. Teachers have to make sure the materials suit their lessons; they also have to make sure their lessons form coherent units and courses, and contribute to a coherent prek–12 education.

That’s why I find growing efforts for teachers to share their curricula even more exciting than the websites for sharing materials and lesson plans. Better Lesson, for example, isn’t just offering a massive database of resources—it has a “Plan Your Curriculum” option that invites teachers to “upload, organize, and share with fellow educators, down the hall or across the globe.”

Having great lessons is essential, but great lessons do not automatically create a great education. Knowledge and skills must build within an across grades, so all those great lessons need to be organized into a coherent, spiraling curriculum.

Coordination within schools and across schools—especially in the transitions (i.e., elementary to middle school) and in areas of high student mobility—is essential to prevent gaps and repetitions. Students shouldn’t end up practicing persuasive letter writing two years in a row but never write a science lab report. They shouldn’t do two close readings of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but never read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Some structure for organizing lessons month to month and grade to grade is obviously necessary. With the Common Core, most schools now have a shared language and shared goals. Why should curriculum development remain a task that each teacher or school tackles in isolation? Just as lessons get better through being shared, critiqued, and revised, so could content maps and curricula. And just as teachers both upload lessons and revamp the lessons and materials they download, schools could both contribute to a shared curriculum and customize their particular curriculum. Nothing about sharing has to result in rigidity. Between the free-for-all of each teacher selecting his own content and the restrictiveness of a mandated, scripted curriculum, there is a fruitful middle ground in which students get a coherent education from teachers who have embraced both the power and the responsibility this new resource landscape provides.

I hope educators seize this moment to use their collective wisdom to not only develop great lessons, but to develop several paths to a great education. The Common Core standards provide a strong scaffold—could it lead to five or five dozen truly world-class curricula that have been developed (and are continuously enhanced) by tens of thousands of teachers?

There is no guarantee that will happen, but it is possible.

A quick example makes the importance of trying quite clear. As readers of this blog know, before the end of the summer kindergarten – third grade Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program will be online for free. Preschool will be online for free soon thereafter, with everything coming well in advance of when it needs to be taught. All of us at the Foundation are excited to see CKLA spreading as teachers are already downloading the sample units we’ve had online for the past several months.

And yet, I can’t help worrying just a bit. In March, when I helped with the final edits of CKLA’s Listening & Learning strand for third grade, I wrote about how carefully constructed the domains are:

In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.

The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary…. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.

This goes to the heart of why a string of great lessons may or may not result in a great education. And it highlights how right Mr. Lemon is when he says the new landscape of educational resources increases teachers’ power and responsibility.

Let’s look at the domains in the Listening & Learning strand in kindergarten:

1. Nursery Rhymes and Fables

2. The Five Senses

3. Stories

4. Plants

5. Farms

6. Native Americans

7. Kings and Queens

8. Seasons and Weather

9. Columbus and the Pilgrims

10. Colonial Towns and Townspeople

11. Taking Care of the Earth

12. Presidents and American Symbols

Each domain takes two to three weeks to teach, so a couple of questions arise frequently: Why does the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain come so late in the year? Wouldn’t it be better to teach that domain on Columbus Day?

Teachers certainly could preview the domain on Columbus Day, but if you study the list of domains, you’ll see why it comes so late in the year. We don’t want students to memorize a few isolated facts about Columbus; we want them to learn a great deal about Columbus and understand his place in history from multiple perspectives. That’s doable, even with kindergartners, but careful attention must be paid to slowly building up all the prerequisite knowledge.The information needed to really grasp Columbus and the Pilgrims starts with the Plants domain. That leads directly to Farms and Native Americans. Now children have a good foundation for understanding what Columbus encounters when he gets to the “New World.” But from what perspective is this land Columbus stumbles into either new or a different world? Students find out in the Kings and Queens domain.

Okay, you get the picture. Great lessons matter. Great lessons in a thoughtful, coherent, grade-by-grade, spiraling curriculum make for a great education.

This Is What Equal Opportunity Looks Like

by Lisa Hansel
May 21st, 2013

A few days ago, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote about supporting the Common Core State Standards—and doing whatever it takes to implement them well—simply because they reflect real-world standards. Institutions of higher education and employers have high standards. For many children from disadvantaged homes, rigorous schooling offers the only hope for being well prepared. Tucker recalled:

Years ago, I was running a focus group in Rochester, New York. I was asking parents how they felt about standards. An African-American single mother living on welfare said, “My boy is in middle school in the city. He is getting A’s just for filling in the colors in a coloring book. The kids in the suburbs have to work really hard for their A’s. When my child graduates, all he will be good for is working the checkout counter at the grocery store. I want my child to have the same opportunities they have. I want him to have to do as well in school as they have to do to earn an A.”

Tucker points out that instead of shying away from the Common Core, we ought to accept it as one necessary step in a total overhaul of our educational approach. “We will have to do what the top-performers everywhere have done: radically change our school finance systems, academic standards, curriculum, instructional practices and tests and exams. Not least important, we will have to make big changes in teacher compensation, the way we structure teachers’ careers, the standards for getting into teachers colleges, the curriculum in our teachers colleges, our teacher licensure standards and the way we support new teachers.”

All true. I argue that the place to start is standards and curriculum. The standards provide the goals and the curriculum provides the specific content. With those as the foundation, we can rebuild the rest of our educational infrastructure—especially teacher preparation.

Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is a comprehensive reading, writing, speaking, listening, and knowledge-building curriculum for preschool through third grade that could be used to strengthen the elementary grades.

Teachers are excited about it because it develops decoding and encoding skills while also engaging students in listening to and discussing rich teacher read-alouds. Fiction and nonfiction, the read-alouds have a mix of fables, science, and history, including tales from around the world, ancient civilizations, the human body, and astronomy.

To really understand it, you have to see it. Take a look at this video featuring two schools that participated in the pilot of CKLA in New York City: P.S. 96Q and P.S. 104Q.

In the video, Alice Wiggins, Core Knowledge’s executive vice president, explains that one great benefit of CKLA is the carefully organized content: Children “are pulling knowledge from what they learned earlier in the school year and even in prior years because of the way the program spirals.”

Hope Wygand, a teacher, has seen this in action. In her hands, CKLA builds knowledge and excitement:

In second grade, I know I have to teach ancient Greek myths because in third grade, they are going to do ancient Roman myths. So it all builds….

When you can start a lesson and the children already know what you are talking about, they are so much more interested because they already have an investment in it—and they want to show you what they know.

But don’t just take it from me. See for yourself.


TTBOMK, Paying Attention Is MIA. NISM?

by Lisa Hansel
May 15th, 2013

Translation: To the best of my knowledge, paying attention is missing in action. Need I say more?

I don’t need to say more about the problem, so let’s get right into what to do. Many thanks to Dan Willingham for drawing attention to, as he put it, “the 21st century skill students really lack”:

It’s unlikely that they are incapable of paying attention, but rather that they are quick to deem things not worth the effort.

We might wonder if patience would not come easier to a student who had had the experience of sustaining attention in the face of boredom, and then later finding that patience was rewarded….

Students today have so many options that being mildly bored can be successfully avoided most of the time.

Most students are able to avoid being mildly bored, but the result may be that they become boring people. I doubt it is possible to learn a great deal about the world—to make “the inside of your head … an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”—without enduring some boredom. Many great books pull you in slowly—it’s only after 50 or so pages that you’re hooked. Likewise, many academic subjects only become fascinating when you’re far enough in for contradictory details to emerge and for questions that once seemed clear to become debatable. I was one of those teenagers who thought that learning about raindrops as prisms would ruin the rainbow. It didn’t. The textbook diagram was dry, but the next rainbow was more vibrant. Suddenly, I was glad that I had diligently studied that textbook, not merely crammed for the test.

Paying attention and then being unexpectedly rewarded for it is an experience many of us have had—but we can’t just assume all students will be so fortunate. As Willingham wrote, “If we are concerned that students today are too quick to allow their attention to be yanked to the brightest object (or to willfully redirect it once their very low threshold of boredom is surpassed), we need to consider ways that we can bring home to them the potential reward of sustained attention.”

Willingham mentioned a Harvard art professor, Jennifer Roberts, who “asks her students to select a painting from a Boston museum, on which they are to write an in-depth research paper. Then the student must go the museum and study the painting. For three hours.”

Some boredom is assured, but would be painting be ruined or enhanced? Roberts explains that it is enhanced as students see more details. Willingham notes that students’ patience is rewarded, revealing the value of persisting and paying attention.

I think there is one more element here—the quality of the work being studied. Students were not to spend three hours gazing upon any painting; it had to be one in a Boston museum.  This assures that they are looking at the original work, and that the work itself has been judged by several experts to be worthy of preservation.

We should indeed encourage students to pay attention—and we must also hold ourselves accountable for giving them things worthy of their attention.

That said, how do we help more students learn to value paying attention and persisting through initial boredom? I hope Willingham will answer that question with rigorous research. Meanwhile, I’ll offer a common sense approach: start early and build slowly.

Just that happens in Core Knowledge Language Arts and Will Fitzhugh’s Page Per Year Plan.

In Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA)—a knowledge-building reading, writing, speaking, and listening program for preschool through third grade—teachers slowly develop students’ ability to pay attention by reading aloud. Importantly, the read-alouds start short and grow longer over the course of the school year and across school years. The read-alouds also provide information worth learning and are grouped by domain so that students have time to grasp concepts and acquire new vocabulary. Even better, the domains themselves are carefully sequenced, with early studies of topics like plants and farms providing a foundation for later studies of pilgrims and ecology. Squirmy young children quickly grow into attentive students as they realize that these fiction and nonfiction read-alouds contain interesting stories and answer questions about the world.

Fitzhugh is the founder of the Concord Review, a scholarly history journal with well-researched essays by high school students. Fitzhugh often laments that the traditional history term paper is quickly becoming a relic. He hopes to reinstate the term paper through his Page Per Year Plan:

Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper, ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with sources, and so on, until each senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper, with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic.

This would gradually prepare students for future academic writing tasks, and each senior could graduate from high school knowing more about some important topic than anyone else in the class, and he/she may also have read at least one nonfiction (history) book before college. This should reduce the need for remedial instruction in writing (and perhaps in remedial reading as well) at the college level.

I believe there’s one more benefit: sustained attention. Year by year, students would have to put forth a little more effort, take a little more time, and grasp a little bit more deeply the learning that results from researching and writing about a topic. I’d bet that those Harvard students who dutifully studied a painting for three hours (as well as wrote a research paper on it) were prepared for the task with similarly rigorous studies throughout their K – 12 years.

Today’s typical 12th grader would likely struggle to write a 12-page history paper. YKWIM? (Translation: You know what I mean?) But a 12th grader who had already written 11 other history papers would likely succeed beautifully. Fitzhugh has been touting his Page Per Year Plan for more than a decade. Maybe it’s time we listened.

NVNG! (Translation: Nothing ventured, nothing gained!)


Why Is There So Much Listening in the Core Knowledge’s Reading Program?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 31st, 2013

Earlier this week my colleague Alice Wiggins noted the strong alignment between the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program and the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy. Drawing on decades of cognitive science research, I made the case for a totally new approach to reading instruction in The Knowledge Deficit. It is heartening not only to see CKLA come to life, but for it to do so just as the nation is ushering new standards that support stronger, more research-based reading instruction.

I would hazard the guess that, because of its deep foundations in linguistic and cognitive science, CKLA has no peer among early literacy programs. Whenever students in CKLA have been accurately paired with a control group using another program, the CKLA students came out ahead on reading tests. The CKLA program is designed to optimize the use of time by students and teachers alike.

There is every reason to expect the superiority of CKLA to become more pronounced as students stay in the program and continue on through the elementary grades. Why? Because with each passing year, CKLA students will know more, have larger vocabularies, and be able to comprehend better what they read.

To explain the science behind Core Knowledge’s generous use of listening in its reading program, it’s necessary to distinguish decoding from reading.  Let’s call decoding the sounding out of words from written marks, and let’s strictly reserve the term “reading” for understanding what those words mean.  Using the term “reading” to mean comprehension is common usage anyway.  The whole education field, and much of the general public, has been mired in the overlap between these two senses of the word “reading”—decoding and comprehension. But “comprehension” is just too cumbersome a term to keep inserting. We really need only two distinct terms: “decoding” and “reading,” where the second term always means “understanding what one has decoded.” Please tolerate this preliminary defining of terms. It’s essential for gaining clarity about what’s needed in a good literacy program.

The proof that decoding is not comprehension is easy:  One of the best ways of testing decoding fluency and accuracy is to present nonsense words, such as those Lewis Carroll famously wrote:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

A second grader should be able to sound that out acceptably, but none should be able to say confidently what it means.

What about the connection between listening and reading? Shouldn’t we make a careful distinction there? Less distinction than one might think. If decoding goes with sounding out and therefore with “hearing,” then “reading” goes with “listening.” Let’s take the term “listening” to mean comprehension too.

And this brings us to the nub: in the early grades, when the immensely difficult task of learning to decode is paramount, there is not much time left in the language arts block to improve general knowledge and verbal comprehension—especially for disadvantaged students who enter school with subpar knowledge and vocabulary. That’s why CKLA divides decoding and knowledge building into separate segments of the school day. CKLA is comprised of two strands: a Skills strand that teaches all the skills and mechanics of decoding and writing (or encoding), and a Listening and Learning strand that builds background knowledge, especially in history, science, and the arts. It’s the Listening and Learning strand that is really unique. Most reading programs are aware of the research showing that background knowledge is essential to comprehension, but then—misunderstanding the implications of that research—they think texts must stick with familiar topics like friends and pets. CKLA is carefully designed to expand students’ background knowledge, enabling them to read about their world, past and present, fiction and nonfiction.

CKLA’s main vehicle for building knowledge, as you may have guessed from “Listening and Learning,” is read-alouds. Why? Many years ago, the researcher Thomas Sticht discovered the important fact that reading does not catch up with listening until late middle school or early high school.

Source: T. G. Sticht and J. James, “Listening and reading,” in P. Pearson, ed., Handbook of Research on Reading. New York: Longmans, 1984. (1984)

It would be quite remarkable if this were not the case. In the early grades, so much of the “channel capacity” of the mind is taken up with the arduous process of learning and applying decoding that there is little mental space left over to process new or difficult meanings. Decoding in the early years is a barrier to progress through the written word. Hence the ideal structure for an early literacy program is to foster progress in decoding by the most efficient means, and to foster knowledge and vocabulary by the most efficient means. For knowledge, the most efficient means is through listening (along with heavy doses of watching, questioning, etc. as described in Alice’s post). Another finding of Sticht and his colleagues is that early listening ability predicts reading ability many years later. Learning to listen at a high level is closely connected to learning to read at a high level.

Some educators may think that listening is too passive an activity. It can be physically passive, but it is anything but mentally passive, as shown by brain scans that Dr. Bennett Shaywitz of Yale (and others) have done while people are listening. These scans prove that listening is very active indeed—which is unsurprising, since all language comprehension is a highly active process involving active predictions, inferences, and guesses. Listening can be downright tiring.

Another connection between listening and reading is the now-established fact that reading is itself a form of listening. The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading. And since in the early years students learn through listening much faster and more extensively than through reading, systematic listening is the fastest route to progress in reading during the early years.

Want still more information on listening, reading, and learning? See “Why Listening and Learning Are Critical to Reading Comprehension.”