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Dedicated to Teachers

Responding to the Challenges of the 2020-21 School Year

9-3-20_SmartSocial_Option-2Responding to the Challenges of the 2020-21 School Year: Adapting Curriculum to Meet Social/Emotional Needs, Foster Equity, and Build Online Communities to Support Learning

Written by Lucy Calkins and TCRWP Coauthors

Colleagues, I want to tell you about the new student-facing virtual units from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) and explain how and why we made them. These units aim to support you if your school is continuing with virtual or blended learning, so that rather than all the fifth-grade teachers having to film the same minilesson, they can opt to have a TCRWP colleague as a co-teacher. These lessons can also be mentor texts for your own teaching, and you may find other innovative ways to use these in blended learning. No matter what, the sole goal of our work was to make your work easier, so you have more time for your students.

This curriculum helps teachers adapt the print Units of Study curriculum to anticipate what you might need in the 2020–21 school year. We have made adjustments to the curriculum so that we can get students back into reading and writing with joy, with volume, and with intensity. We have highlighted attention to amplifying students’ identities.

For my colleagues in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, as for you, the challenges that we’ve faced since March have been ones that none of us could handle alone. We’ve been asked to outgrow ourselves, to learn whole new technologies, ways of teaching, and tools, while going to the ends of the earth to reach all our students and families. For us, as for all of you, the challenges at work have been matched by challenges at home and in our communities.

A Time for Generosity and Collaboration

The one thing that has made the difference at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project is that we have been generous and collaborative—we have worked on behalf of each other. I know many of you feel the same about your communities of practice. At TCRWP, some of us have delved deeply into e-libraries, working on ways to make these feel more like our classroom libraries. Some of us have tested a zillion tech tools, helping colleagues bypass all that time-consuming trial and error work, settling on just a few favorite tools.

Some of us have worked with curriculum, thinking about how to revise it for this new way of teaching. Everyone has thought about the impact of what’s happening in the world and how to situate new instruction inside of social justice and antiracism work. The fact that no one of us has had to do everything alone and that we are all for one and one for all has made the difference.

We’ve learned, and are continuing to learn, about what teaching toward racial justice means while teaching literacy. We are rethinking and re-vetting texts, striving to increase representation, to mitigate damaging stereotypes, to amplify in-our-own-voice authors. We have sought narratives that give students of color hope and strength and pride in their identities. We hope to increase empathy and insight through the mirrors and windows that students encounter in the stories they read for school. Along the way we have discovered texts that have been in the curriculum for a long time, that no longer sit well, and you’ll see that we make recommendations for other texts.

But this work is about more than finding the right texts, or about increasing diversity in libraries. We are also reexamining pedagogy and assessment. We want to honor and amplify the voices of all our students—the unique identities they bring to school, the ways they speak and write, the knowledge they bring. We want to make sure our assessments find students’ strengths. We want to resist honoring some students over others, and some ways of being over others. We’re increasingly concerned with the role of the teacher as listener, with how we find out more about our students and their families, so we can better serve them.

We also want to strive for connectedness in this time of isolation. With students and teachers coming from months of both intimacy in family groups and relative isolation from others, we want to use every tool, every opportunity, to connect children with each other and teachers with children and their families.

Through this endeavor, we’ve tried to extend the spirit of distributed leadership and collaboration in ways that include the larger community that surrounds the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

Adapting Curriculum Designed for In-Person Classrooms to Virtual Settings

Each unit of study was developed virtually by a TCRWP staff developer who knew that unit especially well and who had been given extensive opportunities to learn methods of virtual teaching. That staff member collaborated with the coauthors of the unit and with TCRWP leaders to adapt the unit so that it can work as well as possible virtually. In a few instances, the decision was made that a particular unit should be shelved until schools are once again brick and mortar. We gave special consideration to three key elements:

  1. As we adapted the units, we found ourselves working especially hard on how to make the minilessons more fluid and fast-paced, how to make them even more intimate and engaging, and how to inspire a drive to go off and try the work. We also had to rethink what the link, or send-off of lessons would look like, so that we could offer choice and flexibility for work time, knowing that students were working in their own homes. You’ll see that the minilessons sound a lot like what is transcribed in the unit of study, but not exactly like those. Just as you would adapt these lessons when you were teaching, we adapted, with special attention to increasing engagement in virtual learning.
  2. We also thought hard about what small-group work and conferring would be especially helpful when kids are working virtually. You’ll see that we make recommendations about predictable ways to support kids, in hopes that you can match your kids to some of these conferences and small groups. The whole goal is for you to spend less time planning and more time responding to your kids and the work they do.
  3. Because virtual learning is such a community endeavor, we’ve included a video for parents and families as well. This was one of the great lessons of virtual learning—that reaching parents virtually lets us connect to many more families. We wish we had been reaching out to parents in this way before the pandemic, and we vow to do more outreach by going “to” families moving forward. The goal of these videos for families is to help caregivers understand the work that students will be doing, its aims and its impact, as well as ways they can support their child.

 We hope that these resources save you hundreds of hours of fretting, filming, planning, re-filming. We hope that the time you save can be spent studying student work and working with individuals and small groups of kids—and with your colleagues. And we hope that you feel absolutely welcome to study our efforts at virtual teaching and to discard our teaching in favor of your own teaching. We created the Virtual Teaching Units with the intention of supporting your role as the primary teacher. The staff developer who leads any particular unit cannot see the children on the other side of the screen. We do not know your children’s names, their dogs’ names, who they share a home with, how they might access books. But you do. We can be the colleague you’ve brought in for part of the day, but you will be the one to make all the difference in that child’s learning and in their life.

—excerpt adapted from A Quick Guide to Virtual Teaching for Units of Study, included in the Units of Study Virtual Teaching Resources

More Information about UOS Virtual Teaching Resources

Look for part two in this blog series coming next week: How Can Teachers Use the Units of Study Virtual Teaching Resources to Support Blended and Virtual Teaching Across the 2020-21 School Year?”


Topics: Units of Study, Lucy Calkins, Digital Learning, TCRWP, Teachers College, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Writing Units, Reading Units of Study, Units of Study Phonics, Distance Learning, virtual

Date Published: 09/01/20

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