‘The Road Not Taken’ leads to better literacy instruction

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Perhaps you are familiar with these lines from Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  Recently, teachers from around the state gathered together in New Orleans from July 23-26 and debated the meaning of this poem.  Why?  To improve English Language Arts instruction.

The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE)’s goal for English Language Arts (ELA) is that all of Louisiana’s students will be able to read, understand, and express their understanding of complex texts. 

This is critical for students’ college and career readiness; until recently, high school literature and textbooks in Louisiana fell woefully short of the expected literacy levels for college texts, as well as entry-level career and military training manuals.  However, in a bold move, the LDOE set out to solve this problem by enlisting its teachers to create an ELA curriculum that pushed its students to succeed.  Thus the Guidebooks were born.

The Guidebooks provide students with rigorous text sets which serve to support readers in building their knowledge of unit concepts and challenging them to express their understanding in a variety of ways.  Since their publication in 2014, the Guidebooks have undergone a few transformations and been refined to meet the exact needs of the state’s students. 

 Now the LDOE seeks to ensure student success by training its teachers in the most effective strategies to implement the Guidebooks in their classrooms.  And what better way than once again relying on its teachers to deliver this training?

Louisiana school districts chose experienced teachers from a pool of applicants gathered from around their districts to serve as Content Leaders for ELA.  I am a seven-year educator that will be joining Rayville High School this year as the tenth and eleventh grade English teacher.  Representing my new district was gratifying, and getting to know a few of my fellow Richland teachers was a priceless experience as we worked together throughout our week in New Orleans.  We will continue to work together in additional training sessions throughout the fall.  

The Content Leader training focused on the “why” and “how” of good professional development; the goal is to enable leaders to provide Guidebook training to their districts in a way that engages their fellow teachers and fosters a positive, risk-free environment that supports learning.  Most of us have sat through meetings and thought, “What does this have to do with me?” or have been told, “This may not be relevant to you, but listen up anyway.”  To combat this, we learned how to use our heads, hearts, and habits as leaders to deliver effective training that is relevant to what our teachers need to know.

Not only did we discuss how to deliver professional development, but we were also taught what we would be redelivering.  Our facilitator guided us through a series of experiential lessons, of which “The Road Not Taken” was part of.  These lessons showed us explicitly what the instructional shifts of complexity, evidence, and knowledge are and how they are built into each Guidebook unit.  Additionally, we examined the eight components of literacy, how they worked in tandem with the instructional shifts, and how they prepared students for their future college and/or career pathways after graduation.

I would like to be honest for a moment:  I have taught the Guidebooks in grades 6-12 since their introduction in 2014.  Prior to my training as a Content Leader, I was not a fan of them.  Like many other teachers faced with the seemingly never-ending changes brought about by the enactment of the Common Core State Standards, and then the Louisiana Student Standards, I fought against this curriculum.  I thinned unit lessons and sometimes skipped a lesson (or more) altogether.  I knew what was best for my students, and I knew what they could handle and were capable of.  If only I knew how I was crippling them.  

Each lesson in the Guidebooks works in unison with every other lesson in each unit.  They all build student knowledge and skills toward a unit goal, which students demonstrate mastery of through a series of assessments built in to the Guidebooks.  By skipping just one lesson, I was removing a piece of the puzzle students would need later.  I was also demeaning them by assuming that they could not perform a task created for them by experienced teachers that knew what students in their grade level could do and were capable of.  My choices hindered my students.

As a Content Leader, I now face new choices.  I could choose to continue down the well-worn path trod by so many before me that I now know is holding back both students and teachers.  Or I can choose a different, less-traveled path.  A path that will be more difficult for lack of use but so much more rewarding for both myself, my fellow teachers, and my students.  I know which one I will choose, and it will make all the difference.  I hope you will follow me.

Chelsea D. Chisolm is a teacher and content leader at Rayville High School.

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