We recently sat down with Danielle Gaither—an educator of 22 years in Asheville, North Carolina—to talk about her experience implementing Geodes® alongside Wit & Wisdom® and Fundations®. Danielle started her career as a Title I literacy intervention specialist and is now in her eighth year as a Title I literacy coach. As a Great Minds® Fellow, Danielle also trains and supports classroom teachers, coaches, and leaders across her district on Wit & Wisdom and Geodes.
- Buncombe County Schools
- 45 total schools, 26 Title I schools
- 22,079 students
- 70% White, 17% Hispanic, 7% Black
- Began Wit & Wisdom and Geodes implementation in school year 2021–2022
Can you tell us about the literacy programs you use and what the literacy journey has looked like for the district?
Danielle Gaither: Our Tier 1 instruction includes the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Curriculum in grades K and 1, Fundations® in grades K–3. We also use Wit & Wisdom in Tier 1 instruction for grades K–6 and Geodes in Tier 1 instruction for grades K–2, and this is our second year of implementation of both curricula. Then we implement Geodes in Tiers 2 and 3 as an intervention tool as well, which we don’t limit to grades K–2.
Our district has used Fundations® as our universal phonics curriculum for about seven years, and each of our Title I intervention programs started using Geodes levels K–2 as they were released. When our district received COVID-19 relief funds, we weren’t using a core language arts curriculum at all, so we researched five different curricula and our teachers voted on Wit & Wisdom. It was a perfect fit because we were already using Fundations®, and teachers were familiar with Geodes through Title I. We were ultimately able to adopt Wit & Wisdom for grades K–6 and Geodes for every K–2 classroom.
What materials were you using prior to adopting Wit & Wisdom?
Danielle Gaither: Teachers were writing their own ELA curriculum. They were sourcing their own texts and materials and purchasing them with funds they had access to or could raise. Their work was guided by the North Carolina Standards, but the way the Standards were interpreted, the style of each teacher, and the materials used to teach the Standards varied by school, grade, and teacher. It was rare for teachers to collaborate and build their curriculum off previous grade levels. Teachers were serving as curriculum writers as well as classroom teachers and as a result, students’ learning experiences were inequitable.
Did teachers welcome the opportunity to have a curriculum across the whole district, or was there resistance to moving to a core program?
Danielle Gaither: There was some pushback. Classroom teachers liked what they had created and they were proud of their work. They had written it, invested so much into it, and revised it throughout the years. There will never be universal agreement, but even veteran teachers have said, “This is what we needed all along. I can’t do this on my own. I can’t be a curriculum writer and a great teacher. Now I can focus on being a great teacher, and the district can provide me with a top-rated curriculum.”
Before adopting Wit & Wisdom, we all were kind of living according to the belief that programs teach kids. But we are in our first year of LETRS training right now, and one of their sayings is, “Programs don’t teach kids, teachers teach kids,” and Wit & Wisdom has really driven that home. We’ve provided K–6 Teachers with the best word recognition curricula with Heggerty and Fundations® along with the best knowledge-building curriculum with Wit & Wisdom, and we’ve given K–2 teachers Geodes so students can practice phonics in context and build knowledge. We don’t have to supplement instruction with outside programs because we have everything we need.
How has the implementation of Wit & Wisdom, Fundations®, and Geodes changed your literacy block?
Knowledge-Building in Action
“In kindergarten students study the 7 continents and then in grade 1, they read about how students around the world have access to books. When students learn about the children in Indonesia receiving library books that are delivered on a boat, they access their background knowledge on the content of Asia from kindergarten. Then, in grade 4, when they learn about the Revolutionary War, students reactivate those neurological connections relating to Europe.”
–Danielle Gaither, Literacy Coach
Danielle Gaither: We’ve come a long way from balanced literacy, guided reading, and teaching isolated literacy skills. Now we engage in a topic over a 9-week period, and students’ knowledge is built by reading, writing, speaking, and listening about the topic. These learning experiences aren’t dependent on students’ socio-economic status or their life experiences up to this point. We’re not asking students to write about what they did this summer when some of them didn’t leave home and some of them were fortunate enough to visit the beach. Now we’re asking them to write in response to the same complex text, using academic and content vocabulary that they all encountered in the text.
I’ve seen students develop reading confidence when they pick up a Geodes text that is at least 80% decodable based on the phonics rules they’ve already learned and is also written on the same topic that they are studying in language arts. That’s a far cry from the leveled texts that we used to read with students. Teachers were differentiating by planning lessons for multiple letter-leveled groups of students, using leveled texts that were controlled for everything but phonics rules. Now, with Geodes, all the students read the same text and the teacher differentiates their teaching in one of three ways. We’ve also stopped teaching our leveled literacy intervention program to our readers who struggle with decoding. Instead, we plan intervention lessons based on skill deficits as evidenced by data.
We dig into our data at the district and school levels. We understand what student data is telling us about our instruction and about our student’s understanding, and we use that information to differentiate our instruction in a much more focused way. That applies to grouping our students in small groups, recommending students for supplemental and intensive support, and identifying whole grade-level weaknesses and strengths. We can see which teachers have a strength in teaching a specific skill, and we have teacher-leaders emerging now that we are using universal curricula at all 27 of our elementary schools. It’s really brought everybody together.
Could you talk a little bit more about using one Geodes text in three ways?
Danielle Gaither: Most teachers use Geodes immediately following their Fundations® lessons. So they teach a phonics lesson to the whole class, then they break students into groups based on the most immediate hurdle–accuracy, fluency, or comprehension–that will keep them from reading their Geodes text. Students who struggle to decode do most of their work on accuracy. They practice applying the phonics skill taught in Fundations® by reading the Geodes text that matches that skill, and they focus on accurately decoding words in context. Once students become fluent decoders, they join the fluency group. The students in this group focus on their reading rate, expression, and phrasing. Teachers coach students in the moment as they listen to them read with the least support necessary and they take anecdotal notes to mark progress. The final hurdle is the comprehension. The students in this group are taught to attend to the nuances of grammar, the vocabulary words, and the information presented in the images, and they begin to make connections between the Geodes content and the Wit & Wisdom topics from whole-class instruction.
“It’s way easier to differentiate with one Geodes title than it is with three different leveled texts.”
–Danielle Gaither, Literacy Coach
Geodes are the only texts that have really been accessible to all students and allowed them to learn to read while reading to learn. It’s a beautiful thing when all students are reading the same Geodes text, and the teacher knows which notes to focus instruction on using the Inside Geodes manual. It’s way easier to differentiate with one Geodes book than it is with three different leveled texts.
We’ve witnessed a level of confidence develop within our students as we’ve shifted our instruction away from leveled texts. All the students in one grade 2 classroom were reading a Geodes text, and one student looked around while he was reading and saw everybody else in the class was reading the same book as he was. His voice became louder as he read, and he was so proud at the end because he read the same book that his classmates read. He didn’t know that he was focusing on accuracy while others were working on fluency or comprehension. Using Geodes has built that sense of community in the classroom. As students start to let down their anxiety, their mental capacity is freed up because they’re not nervous about what’s going to come next. They’re just really proud to read about topics and share their new learning with the class and their caregivers at home.
Can you talk about how you use Geodes in Tiers 2 and 3 as an intervention?
Danielle Gaither: We use universal and diagnostic screeners to identify students’ skill deficits, then we group students according to lowest skill deficit; most of the time it’s a phonics deficit but sometimes it’s fluency. Our Tier 2 & 3 intervention groups meet daily, for about 30 minutes, and we use our Title I Teams [certified teachers and trained paraprofessionals] to teach these students. The skill gap may have originated in an earlier grade level, but intervention time is when we’re addressing any gaps in students’ foundation.
If a student needs supplemental support and has an identified decoding hurdle, we will re-teach a previously taught phonics rule and present the student with a Geodes text with content that matches that phonics rule, regardless of grade level. The most important thing is that the student practices the phonics rule by reading it in context. For example, if a grade 4 student has shown a deficit in consonant digraphs, we’ll re-teach the concept and then plan time for the student to read a Level 1 Geodes text. That connected text gives students an opportunity to practice the phonics rule that they learned in isolation, but now it’s in the context of a story.
How have you worked with families to help them understand Geodes and Wit & Wisdom and how to support their students who are using them?
Danielle Gaither: We want our work to be transparent. We want to familiarize families with the texts we’re going to be reading, and we want them to be part of the learning. The Family Tip Sheets for Wit & Wisdom and Geodes have been a huge part of family engagement. We have strongly encouraged our teachers to send those home prior to teaching each module, and that has helped change the discourse at home from, “How was school today?” to, “What makes the world fascinating? What did you learn about today?” And instead of saying, “Fine,” it sparks kids to say, “I want to teach you, mom. Guess what? The Burj Khalifa is in Asia, and it’s the tallest building in the world, and I saw a video of a person at the top of it today.”
In one of my schools, for every new module, they make a video. They let families know what book students are going to be reading and some of the vocabulary they will be learning and the essential question they will be exploring in class. The videos are popular because they’re quick, and parents can watch them at their leisure.
In another school, at their open house at the beginning of the year, they asked all their classroom teachers to put out the texts. They have their focus walls where the essential questions are posted along with the focusing questions and a lot of the vocabulary. So when parents came in, they could look at what their children would start learning in Module 1, and that was their first exposure to that school year and grade level. Then after the first nine weeks, the same school had a family literacy night where families from different grade levels came in on different days, and the students and the parents did a scavenger hunt together on the next text students would be reading.
Do you give guidance to teachers around reporting on students’ progress with Geodes?
Danielle Gaither: We refer back to phonics data. We find the data on where students are, we pick a measurable goal, and we progress monitor on meeting that goal. We use the Fundations® unit trackers, and we use diagnostic assessment tools like the CORE Phonics Survey and the PAST Test for our really young learners. If it’s an older student, we may also check their oral reading fluency with a one-minute timed read of a passage. Then there are anecdotal notes that come with the teaching of Geodes. Often the teachers are using those notes for their differentiation, to collaborate with a specialist, or for a parent conference.
Are there any Geodes texts that stand out as favorites for you or for students?
Danielle Gaither: I love Library Cat. I love how it’s done with block print and hieroglyphics, and I love how the recurring word arch is shown in the cat’s back and is also worked into the architecture throughout the book. I also love The Crab and the Urchin. I had no idea that crabs carry sea urchins on their backs as a form of protection, and I think it’s a really cool phenomenon; I love how at the very end of that book, even though it’s illustrated, there’s a photograph in the More section of the book of it actually happening. I also love The Thorny Devil. I think the photography is gorgeous in that book.
Do you have any advice you would offer in terms of sequencing and starting implementation of Geodes and Wit & Wisdom?
Danielle Gaither: We adopted Wit & Wisdom over the summer, and our teachers participated in the Launch Wit & Wisdom, Module and Lesson Study, and Getting Started with Geodes professional development sessions. But starting a brand-new core curriculum was on their minds, and they didn’t pay enough attention to Geodes. We trained them, but they weren’t ready to hear it yet.
So my recommendation is to stagger Geodes after Wit & Wisdom. Really focus on Wit & Wisdom first, and then maybe mid-year, after two modules are taught, come in with Geodes. Then you can say, “These topics are going to be familiar to you from Wit & Wisdom. Fundations® is familiar to you. Now we’re going to give you something to bridge those two together.” At that point, they’re going to be excited. It happens every time at every school I’ve been to. No matter the population of students, no matter the size, they’re finally ready to hear it. That staggering of the Geodes training, I think, gives Geodes the credit it deserves.
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Alyssa has nearly a decade of education research experience. She has led equity and student success research to support K-12 public school districts across the country in addressing their most pressing challenges, including college access, mental health, social emotional learning, and racial justice. Alyssa holds a B.A. in Psychology and Global Studies and an M.Ed. in Globalization and Educational Change from Lehigh University.