A new literacy curriculum in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 elementary schools has shown signs of growth for the district’s youngest readers, with nine out of 10 schools surpassing the state average when it comes to student progress on state reading tests in 2019.
The curriculum is in its third year of implementation. In that time, it has transformed how elementary schools teach reading, introduced essential social/emotional learning (SEL) elements into the classroom, and increased student interest and engagement in reading.
Additionally, it is an example for how District 191—or any district—can find success implementing new programs by putting teachers first in the process, which began about six years ago when the district gathered a reading steering committee. The committee comprised two teachers from each school, as well as digital learning specialists, intervention teachers, special education teachers, EL teachers, Continuous Improvement Coaches and principals.
“The people that use the materials need to be at the heart of the decision making,” said Bethany Van Osdel, Systems Improvement & Student Achievement (SISA) coordinator, who facilitated the reading steering committee. “This team became leaders in the district and champions in their buildings.”
The first task of the committee was to determine priorities for the district around instruction. While teachers were considering changes in how they teach, the committee spent a year researching what they would teach. Two priorities emerged from that research: that the curriculum would support the district’s work in creating classrooms that are culturally proficient, and that teachers would be able to focus less on designing their own lessons and more on how their students were responding to what they were learning. Based on those priorities, teachers selected curriculum from the Center for the Collaborative Classroom.
In Tracy Hiebert’s first grade classroom at Hidden Valley, students participate in independent reading time—20 minutes every day for students to read a book of their choice at their skill level. Choice is an important part of this curriculum. While students read during this time, Hiebert connects with individual students to gauge their progress. She asks questions about the book they are reading, why they chose that book, and whether or not they believe it is the right fit.
After individual reading time, students break up into groups. Some meet with English learner teachers, others work on reading skills on a tablet, and about five meet with Hiebert at a semicircle-shaped table to learn new skills. They read aloud the same book. Hiebert occasionally helps with vocabulary and phonics. Different groups are differentiated by need, ensuring all students are all reading at the same level, and learning the skills that they need to improve their reading.
This was an instructional change that teachers found important: create opportunities for multiple levels of instruction, including individual reading, small group lessons, and whole class read-alouds. In the midst of these different instruction strategies are various SEL strategies that aim to encourage positive interactions between students. For example, during “Turn and Talk,” students have a framework to learn about their peer’s point of view in one-on-one conversations about what they are reading. They learn to disagree respectfully, ask follow-up questions, and maintain eye contact with whomever is speaking.
“We have the gift in [District 191] of having many diverse learners that come into our classrooms every day,” said Van Osdel. “What we want is for every student that walks into our classrooms to feel like they are part of that community; that they belong.”
Between the SEL strategies, and the consistency in learning that this curriculum provides—every class in every grade works on the same lesson every day, in every school—creating a sense of community in each classroom is as simple as learning a name.
There have been several stories, including a fourth grade classroom at Rahn Elementary School, where a student who transfers from one district school to another in the middle of the year engages immediately in their new class during the literacy lesson.
“One of my teammates had just got a new student that day,” said Alissa Tofte, fourth grade teacher at Rahn. “[The student] said, ‘Hey, we were reading this book at my old school,’ and he had no problem jumping into that conversation as a brand new student...and sharing what he wanted to say.
“The power in that—already feeling connected to his community—it was really pretty cool.”
Hiebert observed the benefits of the new curriculum and the impact that it has on students almost immediately. “I remember getting our kindergarteners the year after they had it for the first time,” she said. “We could not believe how many skills they came into first grade with. They were the highest readers we’ve ever had since I’ve taught [at Hidden Valley]. That’s when I said, ‘this works.’”