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New ELA curriculums bring consistency, equity 

Building blocks to better reading

Comstock Park — In English Language Arts class, Mill Creek Middle School teacher Amy England worked with sixth-grader Ulysses Hernandez to help him write a response in 240 characters or fewer to the question, “What makes a video game timeless?”

Ulysses was practicing writing concisely, a skill he is learning through the district’s new curriculum introduced last fall, which aims to bring ELA instruction into alignment in all the district’s schools and K-12 classrooms.

“The reason you have limited characters is to help you be concise and not doubling up on your words,” England said as the two read through Ulysses’s response to see where he could trim.

The question about classic video games is part of a SyncBlast, a short reading and writing activity that is a feature of StudySync, an ELA curriculum for grades 6-12. Comstock Park this year implemented StudySync, along with Open Court Reading, for grades K-5, as its ELA curriculum to provide consistency in the district’s language arts program and to give teachers dedicated resource materials. 

“It was really important for us as a district to provide (the teachers) with a high-quality, comprehensive resource so we could create equity between classrooms,” said Katie Austin, curriculum director and instructional coach. “It shouldn’t depend on who your teacher is that determines what novel you get to read.”

Building the Basics in Elementary 

Austin said it is difficult to find a single curriculum that covers foundational skills that students learn in grades K-5, and more advanced skills in 6-12. Rather than trying to find one complete program, ELA teachers selected curriculums to meet students’ developmental needs.

They selected Open Court Reading for K-5, offered by McGraw Hill, because of its focus on the Science of Reading philosophy, Austin said. Based on scientific research in early literacy instruction, Science of Reading focuses on awareness of sounds in spoken language, phonics and word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension of both oral language and text. 

“We’re totally on board with the Science of Reading,” Austin said. “It was really important for us to have a resource that supported that, because we know that if we can develop these highly skilled readers that are able to decode words when they’re young, that they will be able to read to learn when they get older.”

Open Court Reading incorporates decoding, comprehension, inquiry and writing in a three-part progression. Those foundational skills are part of the Common Core State Standards.

During a recent class, Ashley Riggs started reading time with her first-grade class by going over the “ph” sound with students. Next, she reviewed the words that have the “ph” sound in the story that students would read. The class read the story together, then students broke into pairs and read to each other. 

“It is nice not to have to find your own resources to pull together a lesson,” Riggs said.

The curriculum provides an outline of what is covered in each grade level. That way, teachers in each grade can focus on the same skills, standards and expectations. 

Echoing Austin, Riggs said that creates uniformity in each grade level and through K-5, while providing equity as students are all receiving the same information regardless of class or teacher.

“I am excited to see how some of these skills that have been introduced this year transfer into the next grade level,” she said.

Moving in a Positive Direction 

With any new resource, it can take a few years for a district to see its full impact. Austin said Comstock Park has been utilizing the resource for the elementary foundational skills since 2019 and has seen those improve over the years, especially in the early elementary grades. 

“With the addition of the explicit instruction of comprehension, vocabulary, writing and grammar that Open Court provided this year, we saw great gains in our upper elementary classrooms, and that was really exciting to see,” Austin said.

The district is waiting on data for its secondary classrooms, but plans are in place for some summer work on learning and fluency with StudySync, she said.

Riggs said she has seen improvement in her own classroom.

Sitting in front of the room, first-graders Emma Holliman and Kennedy Bicksler worked together highlighting all the “ph’ words in their books. They then read to each other and when one stumbled or paused, the other helped sound out the word. 

“We are best friends,” Emma said as she wrapped her arm around Kennedy. “That’s why we read together.”

Being Consistent, But Having Flexibility

Teachers chose the secondary program with the focus on providing students with an equitable experience and teachers’ autonomy. Teachers are able to bring their own style and pull from other resources, but the content will be consistent in that grade level, Austin said. 

“The ultimate goal is that all the students would still be able to pass the same assessment and could show mastery over the same skills.”

Teachers chose StudySync, which has partnered with McGraw-Hill, because it provided a guide to teach from and flexibility for individual teachers to decide if a class needs to focus more in a certain area. 

Secondary students build on skills learned in elementary, England said. Sixth-graders focus on developing critical thinking skills, where they read for a purpose and analyze text. In seventh grade students add counterclaim to study whether text supports and proves its claim.

Topics vary from social studies to current events, with lessons that use a range of different texts such as short excerpts, novels, poetry, classics and original writing. 

“I am very excited to have a curriculum after so many years of not having one,” England said. And it has allowed her to focus on areas where her students struggle.

For each SyncBlast assignment, students are given a question to answer and a number that they have to guess what it means. During one task, England moved around the classroom asking questions to help the students as they wrote. 

“What do you think makes a video game timeless?” she asked. “What are some of the skills you need to play a video game?”

Sixth-grader Joseph Orcasitas was quick to list a few: practice, dedication and fast reactions.

“In multiple-player games, you need to be able to work together,” Joseph said. “You have to be able to tell each other what the play is and what your teammates need to know.”

The students read a short passage on Will Gibson, the first human to beat Tetris, before writing a 240-character social media post to answer the question. They also reviewed comments from their classmates.

“It is pretty interesting,” said sixth-grader Addy Bouwman, who was proud that she came close to guessing that the number question, which was 20, referred to the number of hours Gibson played Tetris. “When we do the blasts, I usually learn a little bit from it.”

Read more from Comstock Park: 
In this classroom, they are thinking on their feet
Good leaders and drawing monsters: there’s a tie-in

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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