*For more insights about strong classroom instruction, head over to the Edthena blog

Watch this #PLtogether Lounge Talk with Natalie Wexler for what to remember when implementing a schoolwide curriculum for content knowledge building.

You can find the full transcript below:

– Welcome to PLtogether Lounge Talks. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO. Today, we’re talking with Natalie Wexler. She’s an education journalist and author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System and How to Fix it.” Today, we’re talking about literacy and equity and translating that to schools. Natalie, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thanks for having me.

– Well, I want to continue our conversation about literacy and what teachers should be doing or could be doing but through the lens of the school leader and how they can support teachers. So there’s a lot out there trying to wrap their hands around, is this science of reading? Is this the right thing? Is this the wrong thing? But when a school leader comes to you, how do you help them break down the problem? And I’ve heard you say the why, the what, the how, but what does that even mean at a big picture?

– Yeah, and I just wanna say school leaders are critical to this kind of change because individual teachers there is much they can do to build knowledge for their students, but there’s a limit because building knowledge is a gradual cumulative process that extends across grade levels and not limited to one school year. And no individual teacher has control over what happens in other grade levels. And ideally, this is gonna be a logical sequence of knowledge so that when you’re in 5th grade and you’re expected to learn about the American revolution, you already have learned about the American colonies and that kind of thing. And so it’s really administrators, policymakers who hold the key to solving this problem. But it’s not that simple always because this kind of approach that focuses on content over just sort of abstract comprehension skills and strategies and building knowledge in a logical sequence it’s gonna be very different from what most teachers are used to and very different from what they’ve heard about during their training, et cetera. So it’s not just a matter of adopting a coherent knowledge building curriculum but that is a crucial factor. But I would start with the why, why is change necessary? Because change is hard and if teachers don’t understand why they’re being asked to change they may not go along. So you don’t have to spend years explaining the why. But I think a certain minimum level of being introduced to what the evidence says about how comprehension actually works and why just focusing on disembodied skills and strategies is not going to be able to move the needle much for many kids, I think that’s important. Secondly, the what, the instructional materials, the curriculum, that is going to give teachers the content they’ll be teaching rather than them having to go online on a Sunday night and quickly try to get things together. That’s a huge burden on them. And it’s also likely not to be very coherent and unfolding in a logical order. So the what, the curriculum is extremely important. But in addition, there is as you mentioned, the how, which is how do you teach these materials in the best way for your particular students, adapting them to the needs of your students? And for that, many teachers will need some guidance. And that could look like coaching delivered by someone who really does understand the curriculum and why it’s put together the way it is. And also collaboration among teachers can be very useful. So that kind of support will help teachers overcome what may be significant obstacles to changing to this kind of approach. Because first of all, if you’re hearing it’s important to build knowledge and make skills sort of secondary, that might contradict everything you’ve ever heard and it’s natural to be skeptical of a message that contradicts everything you’ve ever heard. And then there could be emotional obstacles as well because if you’ve been teaching in a certain way for years in a sincere belief that you’re helping kids and someone comes along and suggests that actually maybe you’re not, now, it’s not anybody’s fault, but that can make you feel guilty. And we are all as human beings likely to raise defenses against taking in that kind of painful message. So these are things that need to be born in mind that this is probably not going to be a change that happens overnight and it is gonna take support and patience in most instances.

– You know, I’m curious when you talk about kind of defining this how within the context of your school and your students, how do you think that using video reflection and video observation might accelerate that process for those communities of practice?

– Well, I think, I am not an expert in this field but I have heard that it can be very revealing for teachers to see themselves, what they are doing in the classroom. And it can certainly be revealing for a coach or an administrator to support teachers in, not to police them necessarily, but just to say oh, look, here you were putting the skill in the foreground rather than the content. And so, maybe you didn’t even notice that. Another possible obstacle to change is just habit. It’s that teaching is a really complex activity as I’m sure anybody who has ever taught knows. And so even if you want to change what you’re doing, it can be hard to remember to do that in the moment and very easy to slip into longstanding habits. And I think video could really help sort of illuminate that that might be happening. Someone described this as the balanced literacy hangover that if you have been teaching in a certain way and you’ve got very deeply ingrained habits, you may think you’re doing something differently. But then if you can stand back and look at it you might realize, oh, wait a minute, that’s really not as different as I thought it was.

– Right, I love how you’re kind of pointing out that kind of gap between the plan and what happens, the practice, and how video can help teachers kind of identify that as you said, but also it sounds like it can help the community of practice develop that shared understanding of what this new style of teaching looks like and do it together. So I really liked that. So one of the other things, when you were defining the how before that I noticed, which is the professional development to support the implementation of the curriculum which was the what, you define that in terms of the students rather than the curriculum. And so I don’t know if that was on purpose but I wanna circle back on that because I noticed that, how are we going to teach our students versus how are we going to implement this curriculum? So tell us about that nuance and why that framing is important.

– Well, I mean, I think it is a question of how are we going to implement this curriculum in a way that works best for our students? So it’s both really. And I think that part of the sort of standard educational orthodoxy has been that if you’re a good teacher you don’t really follow a curriculum. And that can be a problem if the curriculum is actually a good curriculum. If it’s not a good curriculum, yeah, maybe you don’t wanna follow it. But if it’s a good curriculum that’s well thought out, I mean, no curriculum is perfect but teachers should use that as, certainly when they’re new to a curriculum it makes sense to give that curriculum a chance to implement it with fidelity. But at the same time let’s say it’s a curriculum that has 5th graders reading a fairly dense, difficult text and your particular 5th graders are not ready for that, well, what can you do? You might need to tweak that. And one way to tweak it instead of choosing a different text that’s simpler would be to read that more complex text aloud and lead discussion on that text so that all students in the classroom no matter what their level of decoding ability have access to it and build their knowledge of the topic that way through read-alouds and discussion of that complex text that focuses on the content has them using that vocabulary they’ve just heard, using those same concepts which really helps the new information, the new vocabulary get into their long-term memory. And then this is like the baseball study which we talked about earlier. Once students, once anybody has knowledge of a topic stored in long-term memory, they are likely to be able to read about that topic at a higher level. So what you might do is then come up with a text on the same topic that after they’ve heard about this topic, that is an easier level. But then you might try having them read a more difficult text on the same topic maybe the one that is in the curriculum that you read aloud. And at that point they might be well equipped to read and understand that more complex text.

– Well, Natalie, we need to take a break. If you’re curious about the baseball study or anything else we might have already or will talk about, head to PLtogether for the rest of this interview as well as many more. Natalie, thanks so much for being part of PLtogether.

– My pleasure.