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When Complexity Isn’t Enough: Focusing on Content in ELA Curriculum

Guest bloggers: Rachel Bradshaw, Lindsay Zorich
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
College- and Career-Readiness
Student Learning
Teaching and Instruction

How well do you know your English language arts curriculum?

If it’s aligned to college- and career-ready standards, it has students practice increasingly complex skills with increasingly complex texts each year. But what are those texts about?

Do they reinforce what students are learning in history and science lessons? Do they represent a wide variety of peoples and perspectives? And are they organized in ways that build students’ knowledge of the world?

These are some of the questions school districts across Massachusetts are grappling with as they continue to implement college- and career-ready standards.

The questions matter, both ethically and pragmatically. Ideally, when students engage with texts they do more than practice reading: they also glean valuable knowledge of the world—knowledge that in turn makes them more skillful readers and thinkers. For that to happen, texts need to be chosen and organized with attention to their content.

A strong teacher does this work at the classroom level, arranging texts to build students’ understanding of one topic after another. A strong shared curriculum does the same thing at the system level, ensuring for example that students aren’t reading about the same concept, theme, region, or century year after year. But when teachers plan instruction in isolation, without knowing what content students have studied, are studying, or will study in other classrooms, learning falls short of its potential.

One initiative underway to connect these dots is the Knowledge Map Project out of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. Researchers are working with districts to take stock of the many texts students encounter in their English language arts (ELA) classes over the years: documenting their contents, noting what and who is represented, what and who is missing, what would benefit from resequencing. Several Massachusetts districts are in the midst of knowledge mapping initiatives as we write.

To bring the benefits of the Knowledge Map Project to more of our 400+ districts, we set out last fall to develop a tool we hoped would help any interested district conduct a far simpler, do-it-yourself version of knowledge mapping. And because even that was a daunting task, we limited our scope to the high-school grades, where ELA curriculum tends to be most decentralized. We dubbed our nascent project the Text Inventory.

Building the Text Inventory

We started by using Google Forms to build a survey instrument designed to gather information from teachers about the major texts they assign in various classes. The tool is customizable: accessing it online prompts the user to download a copy to modify for local use. Teachers complete the survey once for each text, and the default version asks them for three types of information:

  1. Basic data such as the text’s genre, its approximate time and place of origin, and the grade or course in which students encounter it
  2. Ways in which the text connects to specific topics in our standards for history and social science and for science and technology/engineering
  3. Ways in which the text or its author represents specific cultures, identities, and perspectives: for example, races, religions, and family types

We then developed a user handbook to accompany the survey. The handbook urges districts to align their inventory with local needs and goals and includes guidance on communicating about the process, administering the survey, interpreting the data generated, and acting effectively on those data.

We hoped this tool would help teachers and schools identify gaps, redundancies, and untapped opportunities in their curricula: a dearth of Caribbean literature where the student population is predominantly of Caribbean descent, an overreliance on contemporary or European or male-dominated texts, a unit on Harlem Renaissance poetry that's ripe for collaboration with the history teacher down the hall. In cases like these, of course, increased coherence—which we define as purposeful organization, not homogeneity—could benefit much more than literacy skills.

We piloted the Text Inventory with 13 Massachusetts high schools in early 2019. The pilot sample was geographically diverse and included a variety of school types: charter and regional, vocational and comprehensive, large and small. At its conclusion last month, the feedback from participators was promising.

For one, every school reported that the Inventory—or rather, the data and conversations it generated—had been valuable. In surveys, participants shared how they used the Inventory and what insights they gained about their ELA curriculum. Below are some excerpts focused on diversity of representation in texts:

“Almost twice as many of our characters and authors are males than females, and no characters are nonbinary. Although we have some representation of all LGBTQ groups, the vast majority of our characters and authors are heterosexual.”

“It was interesting to note so easily how we also have a glaring lack of … stories with characters who have [a] diagnosed disability. Especially for our demographics, we see inclusion of texts with characters who have diagnosed disabilities as one way to enhance the students' ability to use texts as ‘mirrors’ into their own lives.”

“It is pretty easy to see that we have a strong bias towards White, male authors and characters. I am planning to review this data with the high school department head and academic dean to develop a plan for addressing this disparity.”

“This data will give us a [lens] for conversations moving forward regarding the lack of diversity in our English curriculum. Participating in this process gives us some good data to start a conversation and make plans for adjustments."

Planning Next Steps

We and our pilot participants know that their most important work in this area is yet to come, and that it involves decisions not only about what texts to teach but also how to teach those texts: what critical lenses to use, what other texts to juxtapose, what conversations to have with students and families and colleagues and community members. We believe, however, that our Text Inventory is a first step toward a more coherent and well-rounded curriculum for our students. 

Rachel Bradshaw is the Manager of Instructional Policy for the  Center for Instructional Support (CIS) at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Lindsay Zorich is a specialist on the  Educator Effectiveness team, part of CIS.