What Do Game of Thrones and Curriculum have in Common?

Earlier this week I wrote about a recent trip I took to Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) to learn more about the how the Gates Foundation’s investments in Baltimore schools were supporting the district’s broader Blueprint for Success. One of the key components of the City Schools’ Blueprint is a focus on improving literacy across grade levels, including the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum.

Fewer than 1 in 5 Baltimore City Schools students are currently meeting grade-level expectations in English Language Arts. At the same time, feedback from local employers emphasized that strong writing and communications skills were necessary for jobs in the local economy. But how could they tackle this problem?

The first step was getting on the same page. Baltimore wanted to see if the ELA curriculum they were using was aligned with the expectations they had for students. They partnered with the Johns Hopkins School of Education, Achievement Network, and The New Teacher Project to conduct an audit of their existing curriculum and assessments. This meant doing things like analyzing classroom assignments and surveying teachers to get their perspectives.

The good news? Teachers found the existing ELA curriculum easy to use and appreciated the strong pairing of fiction and non-fiction texts. The bad news? There was a lot of room for improvement. Teachers felt that their curricular resources were disorganized and not adequately preparing students for college and career. This led to more than half of ELA teachers surveyed saying they were spending at minimum a full work day looking for supplemental resources, often online.

The audit also offered some clear recommendations, including transitioning to a higher-quality ELA curriculum for grades K-8 and articulating a vision for what excellent ELA instruction in the classroom should look like. From those recommendations, Baltimore City Public Schools has taken some important steps worth highlighting:

Starting with a high-quality curriculum aligned to expectations. To address teacher concerns about quality and the alignment of materials, City Schools turned to EdReports to inform their selection of a high-quality curriculum. Think of EdReports, another partner of the Foundation’s, as a “Consumer Reports” for curriculum. They provide a free review of available products and score them based on their quality and whether they are aligned to high-quality academic standards. The district also needed to consider other factors, like whether a new curriculum could meet the needs of all learners or whether teachers would find it easy to use.

Ultimately, the district decided to move forward with Wit & Wisdom, an ELA curriculum created by Great Minds that scored highly on EdReports’ metrics and seemed best positioned to meet the other needs the district had applied to their selection, such as being culturally relevant for Baltimore students.

Supporting teachers so students and teachers are learning. Choosing the right product is the first — and arguably easiest — step. But bringing the curriculum to life in classrooms in a smooth and purposeful way is just as important as adopting it.

We saw what thoughtfully putting curriculum into practice looks like firsthand when our team visited Calvin Rodwell Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. We saw how literacy coaches joined teachers during their lesson planning time to review how the last lesson landed with students and how they planned to tackle the next lesson. We walked through a 7th grade classroom with a rubric in hand that school leadership uses to give feedback on the lesson — ascertaining whether it was being taught in the right sequence and in an inclusive way, or whether students were engaged and doing rigorous work, for example.

In speaking with teachers, literacy coaches, and the school’s principal, Sam Rather, it was clear that everyone in the school building was learning and investing in the new curriculum. As Principal Rather humorously put it, “Wit & Wisdom is the Game of Thrones of curriculum! If you dig in, it all makes sense and you’ll get things that appear later.” With a high-quality curriculum and time to “dig in” and learn, the educators we spoke with said they were better equipped to bring their energy and passion to each lesson. You could see it in how the teacher we watched made Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales feel relevant to her students, and how the students argued over a specific passage and whether it was a good example of “explosive” writing. It was engaged learning and it was fascinating to watch.

Learning what works before expanding. Wit & Wisdom is being applied across the district in grades K-8, and the district is still in the process of identifying a quality ELA curriculum for grades 9–12. As this work continues, Baltimore City Public Schools is being smart and intentional about how they are capturing lessons learned. For example, leaders like Principal Rather are regularly engaging with their peers as part of the district’s Literacy Intensive Learning Sites and operating as a network to share best practices.

This kind of thoughtful approach to what’s being taught in the classroom — and how it’s being taught– not only inspired me, but reinforced my belief that schools really are the unit of change. If we can support more schools to be the lead learners of their own improvement efforts, and identify and share what works, tremendous things are possible for our students — in Baltimore, and across the country.

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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