A Tennessee classroom is bustling as a new school year begins. Students are speaking, pointing, asking questions and helping their fellow classmates during an English lesson. When one student looks lost, his classmate gets up and goes over to point out a sentence in the text the group is reading. At another table, a student excitedly whispers, “I know the answer.”
The instruction in the classroom is academically challenging - creating a level of excitement and intensity for students, and for teachers too. Implementing high-quality lessons that call upon students to take control of their learning by asking questions, building context and working together is helping build strong foundations for literacy. It’s all part of an effort to transform Tennessee through the use of high-quality curriculum that has been in motion for more than a decade. NIET has been a partner to districts in this work - helping to ensure that teachers across the state have the skills and knowledge to use high-quality curricula to support student learning.
“We can go deeper and learn more,” one student said about their English lesson at Lebanon Special School District. “By the time we are in high school - ” they pointed to the ceiling, implying just how much they would grow academically with the instruction they received.
Tennessee’s high-quality curriculum transformation began in 2010 after adopting new ELA and Math academic standards, which later led to a rejuvenation of teacher support and coaching models and the implementation of the Instructional Practice Guide in 2018. The state’s high-quality curriculum implementation gained steam in 2020 through the Tennessee Literacy Networks initiative. Districts participating in the literacy networks propelled academic growth in English classes by officially adopting high-quality curricula and engaging partners like NIET to help optimize the use of high-quality curriculum materials - raising the bar for both student performance and teacher instruction.
NIET’s role in supporting the Tennessee Literacy Implementation Networks is to facilitate the networks as collaborative structures and to provide districts with support for implementing high-quality ELA instructional materials. A high-quality curriculum has the potential to positively impact students by aligning texts and tasks to grade-level standards, connecting teachers in their unit planning and helping students become more active in their learning process. Districts look to NIET to help develop training and coaching for teachers to be successful using a high-quality curriculum.
"As we delved into the materials and explored the structure and organization of the content through the unit prep process, the true beauty of the materials came to fruition," Christine Hunter, a network participant and supervisor of instruction in Lincoln County Schools, said about how participation in LIN improved unit planning for her district.
Grant funding spans five years, and this growing statewide initiative serves 66 total districts. NIET was initially selected to support two of the eight LIN networks, Mid Cumberland and the South Central Network, and recently was selected to support a new network that is being added to the program.
“We are so excited to be a part of this monumental effort to elevate literacy in Tennessee,” Michelle Wolfenbarger, NIET’s LIN Director, said. “It began with educators thinking deeply about what they are expected to teach, and what students are expected to know. Leaders understood that we couldn’t just hand teachers a brand new set of standards and say, ‘Good luck!’ We needed a way to walk alongside them and provide strengths-based feedback as they grew in instructional knowledge.”
NIET’s support for partner districts includes three core strategies:
- Data collection: Using state standards, schools gather classroom data formally and informally throughout the year. The process begins with a formal assessment in the beginning of the year, followed by an informal check-in during the year, and end-of-year data collection. At each step in the process, teachers and leaders receive support to use data to create next steps in supporting students.
- Planning and reflection - Using data, and Tennessee’s Instructional Practice Guide, educators consider questions to identify and take the next step to improve their use of the curriculum and differentiate support for individual students:
- What high-quality texts and resources is my school using?
- What instructional strategies, including questions and tasks, are teachers using?
- What are students doing, saying and writing in response to instruction?
- Individualized support - The Literacy Implementation Networks are designed to support schools to collaborate and receive coaching on the specific high-quality curricula in use in their school. “We ground our support and coaching in the materials that they've adopted,” Wolfenbarger explained.
The Impact of Using a High-Quality Curriculum
A high-quality literacy curriculum provides an increased level of rigor for students by helping them take ownership of their learning and learn to reflect on content in new ways. It calls for unit lessons designed around the needs of students and encourages the class to engage in questions, answers, connections and collaboration.
Even with access to high-quality curriculum materials, teachers have to learn how to use them properly and adjust to Tennessee’s new standards regarding literacy instruction. To accomplish this, district leaders went first to understand the curricula and develop their skills in providing quality feedback to ELA teachers to help improve their practice.
One of the strategies that participants use while working with NIET through LIN is cross-district collaboration and learning walks to gather insights into how a high-quality curriculum is used in classrooms. "Having the opportunity to visit other districts allowed us to see the effects of their collaboration, discuss common challenges and unique solutions, and observe alternative structures," Tracy Hollinger, a network participant and director of instruction and curriculum in Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, said about the district’s participation with LIN. "These experiences have been very informative and invigorating. We are so appreciative of the opportunity to participate in the network, and we are seeing the benefits of that participation in our literacy classrooms."
Teachers can see the intention behind the work of students and how they embrace rigor when using high-quality curriculum, evident by gasps and awes of wonder during class, questions and support from fellow students, and the connections they make from one text to another.
“It gives [the students] confidence in their writing and it makes them think,” one Lebanon Special School District teacher said. “If you stay with it, they can do it!”
For more than two decades, NIET has partnered with schools, districts, states, and universities to build educator excellence and give all students the opportunity for success. NIET's initiatives, including the TAP System, teacher and leader development, school improvement, rubric and observation systems, and educator preparation, have impacted more than 300,000 educators and 3 million students across the U.S.
The Tennessee Literacy Implementation Networks brings together districts across the state of Tennessee that all have a common goal to elevate high-quality ELA materials. Learning walks, focused monthly professional development, and collaborative preparation opportunities have resulted in improved instructional practices, as well as both teacher and student ownership in professional learning communities and classrooms.