Every teacher knows that "within the overall patterns of development, each child's trajectory is unique." In a class of 30, they will each fall in a unique place somewhere on that developmental continuum. Some students come over-prepared, and some woefully under-prepared. However, their level of development shouldn't prescribe the kind of instruction they receive. Students who are 'behind' need time and support to strengthen their phonics and phonemic awareness skills in fun and engaging ways.
I have found that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) allow me the flexibility to expose my students to a larger world through all content areas, no matter where they are in their development. It's up to me to ensure this happens. I must adapt and differentiate lessons and materials so that students can access content and strengthen their skills in a way that moves them toward mastery of the standards. Is it hard? Absolutely. Will all of my kids master them before second grade? Unlikely. Does that mean I stop challenging them to do so? Not at all. I start where they are, and push them to grow from that point to their highest potential. And most of the time, they surprise me.
First Grade Astronomy Lesson
What does this look like? Here's a look at my first grade class's astronomy unit. We spent the first two days reading a fiction book titled, Outer Space Bedtime Race by Rob Sanders. It chronicles a nighttime journey through the solar system to see how the kids on each planet get ready for bed. Vocabulary was introduced about the planets and outer space, and then came the challenging part: after identifying the elements of the story that were made up, we now had to do research to find out what the planets were really like.
At first I put students into mixed ability pairs, and we went over the graphic organizer they would use for their research. It included sections for the size, appearance, distance from the sun, moons and three fun facts for each planet. We discussed the kind of information that would go into each section. Then I sent them off into their pairs to gather information using The Magic School Bus Presents: The Solar System, as their text.
I used a complex text that included academic vocabulary, and I intended this text to provide a comfortable struggle for my kids that they would meet head on. As it turned out, there was much more struggle than perseverance. Some of my lower performing students couldn't get past the first unknown word. Others had difficulty recording information in the appropriate place. Reflection showed me that my text was more at the "frustrational" level, than the comfortable struggle level I was aiming for. Despite being intended for younger children, the Magic School Bus text would have better served as a knowledge building read aloud instead of independent research. In addition, I should have done more to show students how to use the graphic organizer.
Adapting the Lesson
After modeling that process and seeing evidence that my students had mastered the skill, it was back to the drawing board to find an appropriate complex text. With the help of the primary grades ELL teacher, I found a resource on TeachersPayTeachers that provided information on each planet, and text-dependent questions for students to answer. Students were put into groups instead of pairs, while I pulled low-level ELL students.
The difference between our first try using an informational text without explicit teacher support, and our second, was amazing to see. I saw students using highlighters to find information they deemed important (meaning making!) and refer back to the text to respond to questions. The biggest joy however, was seeing the three low-level ELL students I had with me struggle comfortably through their text on Saturn, and tackle each unknown word with skill and determination. All three made sure to verify their answer by finding evidence in the text. After reading the first question, one student said, "I remember that. It's false, look here," and flipped back to a highlighted portion of her text to reread for the group. The student work from this second day showed what my students were really capable of, no matter where they were in terms of development.
Under the Common Core State Standards, my students enjoy rich experiences with text and content. The content supports building a wider knowledge of the real world. The vocabulary increases the language they have to understand that world. The engagement with text through reading, writing, and talking gives them the ability to communicate what's inside their minds to the world.