Any great reading curriculum should be built around books, we think. Reading whole books, cover to cover, helps students develop a deep understanding of an authorial voice. It helps them build deep understanding of ideas and empathy for characters. It helps them sustain interest in a story for an extended period of time. It teaches them to appreciate the most important form in which ideas have historically been communicated. Our own Emily Badillo has been working with schools to help them choose both the books they love and ideal order and she offered these insights:
Building a curriculum around books involves making hard choices: Which books? When? Why?
This is especially relevant to our Reading Reconsidered curriculum because it’s “modular,” meaning a school or teacher can choose from among a variety of book units at each grade level and build their own sequence of texts. Out of 8 or 10 books you could choose from for your sixth graders, for example, a typical school would select, say, five and then decide the sequence in which to teach them. Our assumption is that the “right” group of books and the right order in which to teach them is different for different schools and different teachers.
But choosing isn’t simple of course. There are a lot of factors to take into account. In this blog post we’ll take you through the process one successful school used in deciding on books and book order to help cast a bit more light on the process. We’ll share some notes from our chat with Lagra Newman, principal of Purpose Prep in Nashville, about constructing a Scope and Sequence for the school’s 5th grade students. Our hope is that this rationale can help others make decisions about which units to teach and in which order.
In our conversation, Lagra identified three main priorities for the curricular units in her school’s sequence: she sought units that 1) address rigorous standards and include high levels of text complexity, 2) feature books that are affirming for her school’s majority African American population, and 3) include as much writing support as possible. So, with these three priorities in mind, we started thinking about the trajectory of the year.
For the first unit, we usually recommend texts that will give teachers an opportunity to install systems of shared reading, formative and developmental writing, and discussion. We tend to choose texts that may be more accessible to students—still complex enough for rigorous analysis, but perhaps less resistant—and ones that students are likely to fall in love with. We want to win kids over with a great and engaging story from day one. Lagra chose One Crazy Summer as a beginning of the year novel in 5th grade because of its high interest, quickly paced narrative and relatable first-person narrator. But starting with One Crazy Summer might not be the best fit for every school or classroom. For one thing, it’s a challenging book for fifth graders. Purpose Prep has had its students since kindergarten and its reading program has been extremely successful, so Lagra felt comfortable starting with a fairly challenging read. Believe Memphis, another pilot partner, took a slightly different approach and opted for Inside Out and Back Again, a novel in verse, as the first book of the year. They chose it in part because, planners have incorporated extended opportunities for discussion and personal reflection in the unit, and the Believe Memphis staff felt this would allow teachers to foster a culture of joyful connection and belonging through reading together and that this was especially important early in the year.
As the year progresses and students become more comfortable with the cycles of reading, writing, and discussion in the curriculum, they are ready for additional layers of complexity. This might mean incorporating more nonfiction, books that take place in less familiar contexts and settings or units with opportunities for extended writing. Both Purpose Prep and Believe Memphis chose Wonder as the second book in their 5th grade sequence because of the multiple opportunities for structured writing in that unit. Other schools have opted for Number the Stars or A Single Shard, historical fiction set in contexts that could be less familiar to students, in order to prioritize building knowledge and expanding students’ perspective.
Lagra and the team at Purpose Prep chose The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis in the third slot and we loved that decision. Incorporating more resistant and challenging texts is critically important and The Magician’s Nephew, published in 1955 features complex and challenging language and syntax. It’s also a great intro to the fantasy genre, and these things make it a more challenging experience for students. We think thein the third or fourth spots in the sequence are ideal for a challenging book such as that one. (And we think it’s critical that schools do choose challenging and complex books!) was
Purpose Prep’s next choice was Freak the Mighty—a book that combines a challenging narrative voice with nonlinear time and complexity of story, making it a fitting choice for students who are nearing 6th grade. We’ve built this unit to dig deep into some of the scientific connections in the text and grow student’s knowledge across the curriculum- another reason why it’s great as students approach middle school.
Beyond thinking about individual book attributes such as text complexity and the opportunities for writing, discussion, and knowledge-building within the unit, we also think it’s important to look at the portfolio of books holistically and consider the range of experiences, voices, and genres represented. As educators, we have the immense responsibility and opportunity to choose books that our students will remember long past their middle school years. As Rudine Sims Bishop writes:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created […] a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us […] Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
Through our unit selections, we can strive to craft a scope and sequence that inspires, challenges, and reflects our students’ brilliance. That too is one of the things we liked best about Purpose Prep’s choices—the breadth and balance. When we asked Lagra to share some of her thinking about selecting books, she explained:
For us at Purpose Prep, book selection must consider text complexity and identity affirming content. We want our scholars to be academically challenged by rigorous text structures, vocabulary, themes, and writing styles. Further, it is critical that our children see themselves in positive, powerful, and affirming ways through the characters and narratives that they read. We believe that these two considerations ensure an empowering literary experience for our scholars.
Proposed Scope and Sequence for 5th Grade
|One Crazy Summer||· More accessible text (complex but less resistant)
· Opportunity to install systems of shared reading, formative and developmental writing, discussion
· High interest
|· Bud, Not Buddy
· Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
· Inside Out and Back Again
|Wonder||· Additional opportunities for extended summative writing
· Introduction of more complex nonfiction
|· Number the Stars
· A Single Shard
· Esperanza Rising
|The Magician’s Nephew||· Introduction of a new genre and more archaic text||· Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
· Inside Out and Back Again (introduction of poetry)
|Freak the Mighty||· Resistant text, realistic fiction||· The Magician’s Nephew
· brown girl dreaming (unit written for 6th grade, novel in verse)