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The Wild West of open literacy resources: 3. Quality and reflection matter

by Sarah Tierney and Tracey Waters

We’ve all been there: Maybe it’s Sunday night; maybe you have a few precious minutes of planning time. You’re scrambling to prepare a lesson and you think, “Why reinvent the wheel? Let’s check the interwebs.” You google your topic and…28,000,000 results pop up. How on Earth do you decide what might be worth using with your students?

ANet has developed a three-step system of guidance to empower teachers and leaders to make good choices about instructional materials to support literacy instruction.

In the last two posts, we discussed how to identify and evaluate high-quality instructional materials, how to unpack those materials in order to deepen your understanding, and how to strategically adjust them based on students’ needs. In this post, we want to share a case study of two Chicago teachers’ approach to using the open-source materials offered by the Vermont Writing Collaborative. 

Third graders excited about writing: 
A Case Study with the Vermont Writing Collaborative

Changes in the classroom

Third grade teacher Danielle Volta with her students

Danielle Volta’s third grade students at Carter School of Excellence had taken pencil to paper right after the class bell. It was the last week of school and they were engrossed in a culminating writing task about dormice. They had spent eight weeks learning everything there was to know about Alaskan animals, and Danielle could see the confidence emanating from her students as they interacted with the text—returning to different sections to search for evidence and revising their opinion statements. 

“I saw so much improvement from the first to last writing task,” said Danielle. “Students knew what was expected and they kept returning to the text to pull more evidence. The materials built them up as readers and experts of Alaskan wildlife and they were able to demonstrate quality writing as a result.” 

Third-grade teacher Sarah Reardon

Danielle’s experience mirrors that of Sarah Reardon, another third grade teacher, over at Morton School of Excellence. She discovered that, even with her most struggling readers, “talking about what the text said—about Alaskan animals’ adaptations and challenges—helped my students gain command of the content.”

The biggest change in student writing hasn’t been merely using commas effectively or opening with an enticing hook—it was bigger than that. More students were using writing as a way to convey important understandings from their reading. It was purpose-driven, and it was a testament to the amount of reading and knowledge building they had done. 

Great resources to support great teaching

Danielle and Sarah used a “research pack” from the Vermont Writing Collaborative to support the development of their students’ writing. They served as teacher-researchers, collaborating with VWC specialists to evaluate the impact of the high quality materials and instruction on student learning. 

“Our work with teachers has taught us they need specific, thoughtful steps…and that’s where the research packs come in,” says VWC’s Joey Hawkins. “These are materials for students and teachers. Easy to use, but with a general backbone of pedagogy that teachers can learn from, too.”

Not only were the resources high-quality and standards-aligned, but the instructional framework of the research packs included built-in opportunities for students to engage in a rhythm of reading and writing as an entire class with the class pack, then in small groups, and finally the individual packs—going from a highly guided approach to independent. This Rule of Three, which is at the core of VWC’s approach, helped students feel more comfortable and confident in writing, and it helped teachers, too.  

“It shows how connected reading and writing really is: you read to write, and you write to reflect what you’ve learned from what you’ve read,” said Danielle. “That way, you’re not doing the two things in isolation.”

Teaching and learning

When she began planning her teaching, Danielle first sat down with the research pack and examined it at a high-level. “I had to see the end in mind and I read through the entire pack. I wanted to understand what the students and I would be doing every day. Then, day by day, I reread the materials and text to anticipate misconceptions. It’s important to know the materials well—especially the text—before you teach it.”

The process looked similar for Sarah. “I first looked at the text and the writing experience students would engage with. I dug in to see how the materials supported the text and writing and then thought about my classroom—what will I need to support students to fully engage?”

Their deep study led both teachers to choose slightly different paths of implementation. Sarah deliberately increased the amount of time spent discussing the content of the text, both as a class and through teacher-student conferences. The verbal processing was a necessary step for her students to understand the information and evidence called for in the writing. 

The exemplar writing piece provided with the research pack became Danielle’s go-to resource. Students revisited this time and again as a model of the high expectations they were striving to meet; constantly checking it against their own writing.

Engaged students and impressive writing gains

Diana Leddy, M.Ed.

Diana Leddy and Joey Hawkins of VWC reviewed student writing from both classrooms. “We saw huge growth from pre to post in terms of students really showing understanding in the writing. There was evidence of greater understanding and meaning making over the course of 8-12 weeks,” said Leddy.

Joey Hawkins

“One thing we noticed in pre test was that some students were plugging in sentence stems, but they didn’t really make sense with the content. There was much more evidence of student sense- making by the post writing. It seemed to us that many more students approached the text expecting to understand and make sense of the writing prompt.”

Sarah recalls, “Students were leaning over with their writing partner saying, ‘this is where you start your new paragraph.’ They were really taking ownership. By the third research pack, or unit, many more students wanted to use recess to work on their writing!”

Danielle noticed that, “toward the end, they were really starting to write on topic and understand what constituted coherence across paragraphs.” Sarah recognized the same momentum with her students. “The packs catapulted them into understanding that writing is meant to convey something.”

The art of teaching is always a work in progress.

This three-part series was intended to support the need for high-quality instructional materials  surfaced in the RAND study and what we see and hear from our work with teachers and leaders across the country. The process outlined in the first two posts and the pilot program described in this post sheds light on the power of leading preparation efforts with purpose and intentionality. Teachers should feel empowered to own this process, sleuthing for the best materials to put in front of students, rolling up their sleeves to unpack those materials, and using teaching and reflecting as a way to adjust and make improvements to instructional content.

The plans Danielle and Sarah have for the future are testament to the success of this process. Danielle mentioned that she is planning to start this process at the beginning of the year. “These materials support how connected the reading and writing is—reading to write, writing to read are a big part of CC...not doing this in isolation.” Sarah had already put the wheels in motion. “I started thinking about and planning what this might look like with my new class of fourth graders and the support it could offer.”


Learn more about the Vermont Writing Collaborative and access their free research packs for Grades K-5.

Sarah Reardon is currently a fourth grade teacher at Casals School of Excellence, as part of the AUSL network, in Chicago, IL.

Danielle Volta is currently a third grade teacher at Carter School of Excellence, as part of the AUSL network, in Chicago, IL.

Diana Leddy and Joey Hawkins are educational consultants. They co-authored the book, Writing for Understanding: Using Backward Design to Help All Students Write Effectively.

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