In this blog post, Portland Public Schools teacher Teri Joseph shares her journey from teaching reading and writing workshops to adopting Wit & Wisdom® as a part of the shift to a more structured literacy block in elementary school.
New York City, 2006
As a New York City Teaching Fellow, I started my teaching career with access to what felt at the time like groundbreaking and innovative professional development responsible for developing balanced literacy and the workshop model. During each PD session, I was fully absorbed in every utterance of the experts in the room. I learned about how to facilitate a workshop model, and I was excited about the promise that my students would be able to read successfully if they only read texts that connected to their interests and met their “just right” level of reading. I also believed my students could “write with their minds on fire” if they had full choice of their topics. As a teacher in NYC in the 2000s, the pedagogy of the workshop model was so fervently implemented that it felt like there was really no other way to teach reading and writing.
But there was a problem. I returned to my school in the Bronx, fresh with the newest methods for facilitating a reading workshop. Every day I delivered a mini-lesson on a reading strategy; for example, how to skip over a word that the student didn’t know. After the mini-lesson, I conferred with my students and attempted to help them apply the most relevant strategies. During each lesson, I had to think on my feet, as I addressed the use of 28 individual strategies to 28 students in 28 different books and managed 28 different reading conferences. I then did a similar routine with writing instruction, as my students developed their 28 individual pieces of writing. I fully believed this was differentiation at work, but my frenetic workshops and endless reading and writing conferences did not show much growth in my students’ abilities.
There was a serious disconnect between what I was taught in professional development and what I was seeing in practice in my third-grade classroom. The majority of my students were at least two grade levels behind, and I constantly felt like I wasn’t able to support their reading. I started to notice that many of my students did not have the foundational skills to read grade-level texts, and if they did, they lacked the ability to comprehend big ideas in their reading. I also described many of my students as “reluctant writers” who struggled to start a piece of writing. And my students rarely reached any depth in their writing, as many of them lacked the knowledge they needed to write clearly.
I left the Bronx in 2010 with the nagging feeling that there was more to learn about how to effectively support my students with reading and writing at grade level.
I eventually moved to Portland, Oregon, and I found myself immersed in the science of reading movement. I was trained by Orton-Gillingham and became a dyslexia specialist, and through this work, I learned the necessity of teaching children to read in a very explicit and systematic way. I remember being in awe as I learned the rules of the English language and thought to myself, “This is helping me as a reader, so why aren’t all children learning to read this way?”
In my role as a specialist, I began to see a pedagogical shift happening in schools—and the science of reading and balanced literacy were on a crash course. This didn’t just affect the way that students learned to read; it was becoming more and more evident that students needed to build rich and lasting foundational knowledge on a variety of topics, acquire a stronger base of vocabulary, and learn to write about their reading—not just about topics that were personally important to them. When I moved back to the classroom, I tried to bring all my previous knowledge and experience to the workshop model, but the curriculum left huge gaps and failed to fully support students’ growth to reach grade-level expectations.
So when my school district announced that they were adopting a new language arts curriculum and were looking for classroom educators to be a part of the process, I jumped at the opportunity to try a new approach. When the time came for teachers to pilot, I was selected to try out Wit & Wisdom.
I dove right into the curriculum, and I found myself studying lessons with a sense of awe and wonder. Instead of managing the individual needs of 28 different students, the curriculum offered whole-group instruction with a variety of access points for every student. I was amazed by the intentional scaffolds embedded in the lessons and how the modules spiraled students’ reading, writing, listening and speaking skills to greater complexity. I quickly found that it was easier to prepare a lesson and be intentional about supporting students than when I facilitated a workshop model.
In the first module, I was impressed by the depth of knowledge all of my students acquired about the Nimiipuu and the westward expansion of the United States government. With every student reading the same text, our class could engage in rigorous and critical conversations about a meaningful topic. Even my students who needed additional support to read the core text were able to participate in the Socratic Seminar with their peers. And one of the most profound discoveries I had was in the writing instruction. Suddenly, I didn’t have to spend days helping my most reluctant writers decide what to write about. They knew what they wanted to say. They could speak and write with confidence and clarity.
By the end of the pilot, I knew that Wit & Wisdom could help me level the playing field for my students.
We adopted Wit & Wisdom in the 2022–2023 school year.
The first year of implementing a new curriculum is full of many challenges, including the amount of time required to plan out a lesson and learn new routines and procedures. Once I understood the cadence of Wit & Wisdom lessons, I spent less time reading and planning and more time analyzing student work. I continued to see a depth of knowledge and confidence in students' reading, writing, and speaking skills.
There were many successes last year, but one particular student stands out. Angel came to my fifth-grade class reading at a PK level. She couldn’t identify all of her letters, and for the ones she did recognize, she didn’t know their corresponding sounds. Angel needed a lot of support, including significant intervention with foundational skills. But due to the embedded scaffolding and a shared text, Angel was able to build her knowledge around the text and topics of Wit & Wisdom, too. Angel participated in Socratic Seminars and stayed connected to grade-level content when in years past this might not have been possible. Her confidence soared, as did her test scores.
This is the curriculum I’ve longed for: It challenges students in their reading and writing, and it prompts all students to think critically about the world around them. At the same time, Wit & Wisdom builds strong foundational knowledge about relevant topics and real-world content. And due to the shared text, my whole class goes on a learning journey together.
My district values equity in education above all else, and to me, ensuring that every student in the district has access to Wit & Wisdom, combined with the belief that all our students can achieve greatness, is the embodiment of equity. I am so thankful to have a curriculum that supports grade-level work for every student.
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Teri Joseph is a grade 5 educator at Woodstock Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. While not in the classroom, Teri is either watching her daughter dance or her son play basketball. She loves paddle boarding on Oregon rivers and seeing live music.