Nystrom Elementary believes reading is a civil right

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Photo courtesy of Jamie Allardice 

This story was originally published by GO Public Schools West Contra Costa.

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As we look to return to in-person instruction, we have a unique opportunity to rethink schools — from schedules and staffing configurations, to the very materials used to teach in the classroom. Principal Jamie Allardice from Nystrom Elementary — in deep partnership with his staff — is focusing on accelerating student achievement by creating access to grade-level standards and content rather than remediating to fill learning gaps from previous years. The Nystrom team is committed to completing what is being referred to as “unfinished instruction” which is intentionally different than solving for the “learning loss” that we hear so much about. The logic for this mindset shift is powerful: students can’t “lose” instruction they never received and should not be burdened by the deficit-framed language used by adults. 

High-quality curriculum is a must

Imagine you are just beginning your 5th grade year. Like your peers, you are increasingly aware of your similarities and differences, your need for independence, and a desire to be accepted. You are also developing a better sense of responsibility and starting to understand how things are connected. 

In this vital developmental moment, school can start to feel like your favorite place or a forced serving of vegetables. English class, for example, is either a requirement you trudge through or it is an experience that helps you grow — in Principal Allardice’s mind, it’s the latter. 

In a 5th grade class at Nystrom, the first unit of the EL Education English Language Arts curriculum (EL) is titled, Stories of Human Rights. In this unit, students explore questions like “What are human rights?” and “How do real people and fictional characters respond when those rights are threatened?” Students read Esperanza Rising and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations to explore this theme through both fiction and non-fiction texts. Over the course of 6-8 weeks, students engage in varied expressions of learning: creating a two-voice poem with a partner, writing a four paragraph essay, and developing a monologue to perform in class. 

This moment is incredibly intentional on the part of Principal Allardice and Nystrom’s teachers. This curriculum speaks beautifully to the 5th grade developmental stage and teaches much more than literacy skills — these lessons begin to shape each student’s worldview and how they treat others. This is the sweet spot where rigor and engagement meet and inspire. 

For some practitioners it may feel counterintuitive to believe that a high-cost professional curriculum is in fact not designed with all learners in mind but the reality is that not all educational resources meet high-quality standards. The EL curriculum used by Nystrom is actually open source and free to practitioners (aside from the cost for books). 

A true high-quality curriculum is built on high expectations, is aligned with state standards, and is highly rigorous. It seeks to build background knowledge and often, it incorporates standards from multiple subject areas like English, social studies, and science to connect all parts of our students’ lives. It also contemplates “habits of character” or social and emotional learning that seeks to develop lifelong learners.

The belief in, and use of, high-quality curriculum are core to Nystrom’s Theory of Action. There are four current annual priorities, three of which center on the implementation of a high-quality curriculum. One key priority of this plan is referenced below:

Ensuring that all of our students have access to rigorous, high quality, common core aligned curriculum on a daily basis.

The Nystrom team has gone further and named explicitly that reading is a civil right. In their recently completed Vision for Literacy, they state, “we believe that literacy — the ability to read, write, and understand — is a civil right.” They go on to say, “we know that reading is not a natural process, and given all this, it is our job to explicitly and systematically teach students how to read.”

At Nystrom it is clear that a high-quality curriculum is treated as an essential for creating an equity-focused and just school environment. This may sound simple, but working to ensure that each and every student receives inspiring grade-level content every school day is a huge step toward achieving more equitable outcomes.

Natalie Walchuk is executive director of GO Public Schools West Contra Costa (GO WCC), and this piece was originally posted on the organization’s website here. GO WCC supports a coalition of students, families, educators, and community allies united around generating solutions to ensure that every West Contra Costa student thrives.

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