Over the past several weeks, Great Minds teacher–writer Emily Gula examined the five Content Stages by connecting with Wit & Wisdom teachers around the country. Through these conversations, Gula gained insight into how these stages build habits of mind to help students closely read complex text.
In our last post, we examined how the Distill stage helps students determine the essential meaning of the text. Wrapping up our final post in this series, we’ll explore how the Know stage empowers students to build their knowledge through reading.
The Content Framing Questions are key questions that lead students through a series of five stages of reading called Content Stages: Wonder, Organize, Reveal, Distill, and Know.
When I taught kindergarten, I began the year with a read-aloud of The Little Engine That Could. I relished leading my students in a rousing chorus of “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!” as they cheered on the little engine. Each new school year was full of promise. Before I knew it, however, I found myself facing the last month of school packed with projects, performances, and report cards to complete. Caught up in the must-dos, I took far too little time to reflect on how far we’d come. It wasn’t until I finished sorting student work into portfolios that I could appreciate how much my students had grown. The monthly self-portraits and journal entries describing “what I learned today” had evolved from drawings and strings of letters to complete sentences, and served as a concrete representation of knowledge gained.
For students and teachers in Wit & Wisdom classrooms, time to reflect on learning is built into every Wit & Wisdom lesson cycle (typically a sequence of five to eight lessons). Rather than waiting until the end of a unit or school year, students engage on a regular basis in each cycle’s Know Content Stage. This stage creates an opportunity for students to frequently reflect on and synthesize the knowledge they have built.
During the Know stage, students answer the Content Framing Question: How does this text build my knowledge? This question implies that reading is not just a skill to master, but a lifelong knowledge-building enterprise — a fundamental shift in how Wit & Wisdom frames the act of reading. Students articulate how each module text builds their knowledge of a topic. They also reflect on the transferable literacy skills they have acquired along the way.
I talked with fourth-grade teacher Sarah Webb from Beverly Gardens Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, to learn more about what Know lessons look like in her classroom.
When Sarah Webb asked her students which Wit & Wisdom module they learned the most from this year, many replied, “Can’t we just say all of them?” Webb’s students started the year with the module A Great Heart, in which they studied what makes a great heart, both literally and figuratively. That unit was followed by Extreme Settings, which focuses on the topic of survival and how hardship can lead to an emerging resilience. Students just finished The Redcoats Are Coming!, a study of the American Revolution that invites fourth-graders to compare perspectives on key historical events.
After reading each core text of each module, students consider how working with the text has impacted what they know and can do. They distinguish between knowledge of the world, ideas, and skills to help them categorize what they have learned. Knowledge of the world includes concrete information about specific subjects. As Webb’s students explored the module A Great Heart, they learned from the book The Circulatory Story what literally makes a heart great, such as plaque-free arteries. Knowledge of ideas includes an understanding of abstract concepts, such as what a figurative “great heart” means. In their study of the American Revolution, Webb’s class discussed big ideas like “fighting for what is right” and “Freedom isn’t free.” Knowledge of skills occurs when students can articulate the transferrable reading, writing, and speaking and listening skills they gained while studying the module texts. For instance, after examining how rich details engage readers in the stories of Extreme Settings, students could explain how to incorporate descriptive details in writing and executed them in their own narratives.
Students reflect on and record the knowledge they have gained both as a whole group and individually. Often Know lessons begin with students brainstorming the most important things they have learned from the last set of lessons. Webb’s students write these reflections on sticky notes, and then collaborate to sort them onto three wall charts that correspond to the three knowledge categories — world, ideas, and skills.
Differentiating between different types of knowledge has led to “great discussions,” says Webb. During the Extreme Settings module, students discussed how learning about survival provided “practical, world knowledge” about what a person needs to survive, as well as knowledge about the big idea of “never giving up.” Her students commented that sharing their learning with one another helps them “learn even more by seeing what other people got from it.”
After the whole-class discussion, students record at least one example from each knowledge category in their personal Knowledge Journals. Knowledge Journals serve as a growing, year-long inventory of all the knowledge students have built. Students reference past journal entries to apply and extend previous learning as they make connections with new knowledge in subsequent modules. Webb explains, “If the modules weren’t so in-depth, and if there wasn’t that time to pause and reflect on them … students wouldn’t have those big ideas still lingering with them two to three months later.”
In addition to their increased knowledge of the world and ideas, Webb has also seen growth in her students’ skills, such as identifying the main topic or planning and writing an informative essay. Students’ knowledge and skills come together in the End-of-Module Task. This culminating assessment “gives students time to think back to everything they’ve learned,” says Webb. “They use their skills to really focus on the knowledge.”
Webb shares that her students “are so proud of their writing” because they “know how to plan and get evidence from the story.” During a state test review session, her students examined a sample essay that received a high score — but many students found elements to critique based on the writing skills they had learned. According to Webb, students pointed out that the sample response “didn’t use transition words” and didn’t “have any quotes.” Webb explains, “They saw this essay, and thought, ‘I can do this.’” The Know stage provides an explicit structure for fostering this powerful form of metacognition, which gives students what Webb calls “that mindset to be successful.”
That mindset comes from multiple opportunities for students to reflect on their successes and catalog their learning during the Know stage. Rather than a teacher telling students what they have learned, students articulate for themselves the knowledge they have built. There is hope in “I think I can,” but students in Wit & Wisdom classrooms like Webb’s get to experience something even more powerful: the joy of “I know I can.”
Emily Gula is a content lead at Great Minds, where she led a team of teacher–writers in creating the first-grade modules of Wit & Wisdom. Emily began her career teaching elementary school in New Orleans, then worked in New Orleans schools as a reading interventionist and literacy coach.