By Jennifer Fletcher
This past weekend I had the joy and privilege of sharing a sneak preview of the forthcoming ERWC modules for grades 6-8 at the CATE Convention in Monterey, a few miles south of my home in Seaside, CA. I shared poems by Daniel B. Summerhill, Elizabeth Acevedo, Clint Smith, and Joshua Bennett and talked about how the module I’m writing, “Songs of Praise,” includes both integrated and designated English language development. I also offered a quick peek at some of the activities under construction:
Talking about my current work as a middle school module writer reminded me of the monumental effort it took to get the third edition of the high school curriculum out into the world. The development of ERWC 3.0 was unlike any other writing project I’ve been involved with. It was messy, overwhelming, and exhilarating. The project took on a creative life force of its own beyond anything we had anticipated that resulted in a product that exceeded our expectations (and, frankly, our copyright budget). What we now see as ERWC’s “equity upgrade” stretched my thinking and tested my commitment to flexibility in all kinds of ways. If you’ve ever wondered how the third edition came to be, here’s the story behind ERWC 3.0.
Expanding the Inquiry Space
With the third edition of the ERWC, we didn’t just expand the inquiry space; we blew it wide open. We made extensive room and time to leverage the talents and insights of people in our community and to recruit people who could bring additional expertise from throughout California and the State of Washington, our partner in the multimillion dollar federal grant that funded the new curriculum. We sought to bridge gaps in our own knowledge and to adapt and apply what we learned from the first two editions to the redesigned course.
And that meant our content creation team had to grow exponentially. We ballooned from an original task force of around ten members back in 2003 for the first edition of ERWC to a community of module writers that included scores of educators from two states for the third edition. We also sought to bring the ERWC to scale by expanding the curriculum to the 11th grade and the ERWC literacy network to the states of Washington, Hawaii, West Virginia, and New Mexico.
This time, the pool of module authors included high school teachers and college faculty with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and identities. Authors approached the task from various angles and perspectives, and we worked to learn from each other. Each module author thus opened a window into a particular facet of our literacy network. We were able to get a closer look at each others’ teaching lives and social worlds while working to achieve a shared vision of the future we want for our students.
We didn’t just tell potential contributors the budget and specs and send them off to complete their work alone. Instead, we kept our eyes on both the product and the process, knowing that in some ways the latter would have an even greater impact on the kind of relationships and community we built through this work. And we were open to change when the ERWC Assignment Template or a module took a direction we hadn’t tried before.
We also took extra care to expand the inquiry space during the early stages of project development. We took time to review our theoretical foundations, rethink our course and module design, and learn about current best practices in our profession, including Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and culturally sustaining pedagogies. We held workshops on the English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework for California Public Schools. We met in writers’ groups. We developed and reviewed module proposals, developed and reviewed module drafts. Then we piloted the drafts and followed up with more review and revision.
The ERWC’s evolving Theoretical Foundations, moreover, informed everything we did, even down to our smallest edits. For instance, as we revised the draft modules we worked to omit prescriptive or didactic language—words such as “should” or “must”—that was contrary to our rhetorical, assets-based approach.
While the process was at times more generative and serendipitous than we were perhaps prepared for (over 80 new modules were ultimately developed), we believe we have a stronger curriculum and community as a result.
Innovation in Instructional Design
The outcome of this process is a curriculum that offers teachers and students more choices, more literature, a greater diversity of authors and text types, more means of expression (using UDL), more support for English Language Learners, and more opportunities for analyzing visual rhetoric and new media. The third edition also includes mini-modules on key rhetorical concepts such as the rhetorical situation, genre, and kairos. We’re excited to further expand the curriculum and its pedagogies through the forthcoming collection of new language-focused modules for grades 6-8.
What is perhaps most promising about our practice as we approach the 20th anniversary of ERWC is what we’ve learned about the benefits of inquiry and collaboration. The features of ERWC 3.0 that move the course toward greater student agency and educational equity are those that developed out of some of our richest discussions and newest learning: UDL, teaching for transfer, learning goals and reflection, culturally and linguistically sustaining pedagogies, and the California English Language Development Standards. We had to be willing to approach this work with the same open mind and tolerance of confusion that we encourage students to bring to their work with texts. We had to learn to accept the mess and trust that it, too, is generative. We had to embrace the process of discovery.
With the new middle school curriculum, we’re now hitting that pivot point after we’ve expanded the inquiry space and invited mess and complexity where we need to start making some decisions about the final form of the modules. Our task is to make sure we retain those protean structures–rhetoric and inquiry, the arc and the spiral–that allow us to have a shared vision and purpose. This is the piece that needs to be locked into place before we can publish any new iteration of ERWC.
But the other components of the ERWC—the network of over 15,000 teachers, the professional development programs, communities of practice, multi-state collaborations, online discussions and resources, webinars, and blog—will remain fluid and responsive. These are the places where teachers can continue to think through the extent to which ERWC 3.0 is helping students become better readers, writers, and thinkers and how instruction can be further improved. The lesson learned is the need for flexible components in literacy initiatives that remain plugged into the feedback loop, to the lived realities of individual students and teachers and the changing dynamics of particular classrooms.
We can’t wait to see what happens in the next chapters of ERWC’s story. 🙂
Jennifer Fletcher is a Professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. She serves as the Chair of the ERWC Steering Committee. You can follow her on Twitter @JenJFletcher.
NOTE: Please consider submitting a proposal to present at this year’s ERWC Literacy Conference, to be held June 20th in Sacramento and June 26th in Pomona. Cal State University pays travel costs for selected presenters. See the Call for Presenters here.
Conference registration is now open!