I was shocked by the immediate interest of students in reading my first book, Life After Birth: A Memoir of Survival and Success as a Teenage Mother. Then I learned teachers were actually using it to help students improve literacy.
First, an educator asked me if I had a curriculum to accompany the book. I created one that was used in a few schools for five years. Then another educator excitedly said, “Summer, this would be so good for Higher Learning!”.
My response was confused, “What is Higher Learning?”
She explained what it was and that schools were transitioning to use the new standards. I then did my own research and saw how my book and new curriculum could easily be incorporated into any classroom or group setting to improve literacy.
Although I teach in the classroom at the University of Memphis, I am not a full-time teacher. College teaching is much different, and I cannot compare my experience or knowledge to that of elementary school, middle school, or high teachers. However, at the time that I created the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education curriculum (with the support of secondary school educators), I had a school-aged child who I wish would have had the opportunity to use my curriculum in a classroom with his peers. In addition, I have always been a great student- even today.
From talking to at least fifty educators including professional school counselors, English teachers, Reading Interventionist, school librarians, PLC Coaches, principals, and even school board commissioners, I learned a lot about Higher Learning and how to improve literacy for students using the standards that some educators didn’t even like.
Here’s a basic explanation of what I learned about the Higher Learning Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) for the development of my workbooks which would improve literacy and help students deal with and prepare for real life.
Why is Higher Learning Controversial?
The first thing I learned was that Higher Learning is controversial. In talking to educators, I discovered that many felt like it was forced upon them and difficult to implement. Some parents were also frustrated with trying to learn and teach Higher Learning math. However, my focus was English Language Arts, and I was determined to create a solution that made it simple for educators and even parents to teach the standards. And interesting for students to learn.
How Do the Higher Learning Standards Improve Literacy?
The Higher Learning Standards were established to create equal expectations for students across states and are primarily focused on Mathematics and English Arts. Mathematics adaptation and implementation have been the most challenging for students, teachers, and parents. Because my memoir was the non-fiction text used for the curriculum, I focused my workbooks on using the English Language Arts standards to help improve literacy. Those standards include literacy for ELA but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. With the standards, students must learn to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively in a variety of content areas. The standards help them to gain the literacy skills and understandings required for college and career readiness, and there are specific college and career readiness standards.
- Strands are larger groups of related standards.
- Standards define what students should understand and be able to do.
The Key Components of the ELA Higher Learning Standards
- Reading and Reading Strands: text complexity and the growth of comprehension.
- Literature/Literacy– Key ideas and details, craft and structure, integration of knowledge and ideas, range of reading and level of text complexity
- Informational Text– 50% literacy/50% informational text (dates, finance, travel)
- Foundational Skills (K-5 only) –phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition
How the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education Curriculum Uses the ELA Higher Learning Standards Strands and Standards to Improve Literacy
Applying the English Language Arts Higher Learning Standards, the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education Curriculum improve literacy skills by focusing on citing evidence, informational text, sequence, vocabulary, writing, and active discussions. The curriculum uses a compelling, relatable non-fiction text, Life After Birth– A Memoir of Survival and Success as a Teenage Mother by Summer Owens, to teach multiple lessons on overcoming obstacles and eliminating excuses to be successful. Social and emotional issues are addressed as well as important life skills and character education topics that students need to be successful in life and in careers. The curriculum provides educators with a unique tool to connect with students, help students deal with challenges including adverse childhood experiences, and create success plans for their lives.
These literacy standards are directed toward fostering students’ understanding and working knowledge of concepts of print, the alphabetic principle, and other basic conventions of the English writing system. These foundational skills are not an end in and of themselves; rather, they are necessary and important components of an effective, comprehensive reading program designed to develop proficient readers with the capacity to comprehend texts across a range of types and disciplines.
Reading and Reading Strands: text complexity and the growth of comprehension.
- Literature/Literacy- Key ideas and details, craft and structure, integration of knowledge and ideas, range of reading, and level of text complexity
- Informational Text- 50% literacy/50% informational text (dates, finance, travel)
- Foundational Skills (K-5 only) –phonological awareness, phonics, and word recognition
These standards are directed toward fostering students’ understanding and working knowledge of concepts of print, the alphabetic principle, and other basic conventions of the English writing system. These foundational skills are not an end in and of themselves; rather, they are necessary and important components of an effective, comprehensive reading program designed to develop proficient readers with the capacity to comprehend texts across a range of types and disciplines. Instruction should be differentiated: good readers will need much less practice with these concepts than struggling readers will. The point is to teach students what they need to learn and not what they already know—to discern when particular children or activities warrant more or less attention.
Writing and Writing Strands: text types, responding to reading, and research.
- Text Types and Purpose
- Production and Distribution of Writing
- Research to Build and Present Knowledge
- Range of Writing
Speaking and Listening and Speaking and Listening Strands: flexible communication and collaboration.
- Comprehension and Collaboration
- Presentation and Knowledge of Ideas
Example of how the Speaking and Listening standards are used in the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education curriculum to improve literacy.
Language and Language Strands: conventions, effective use, and vocabulary.
- Conventions of Standard English
- Knowledge of Language
- Vocabulary Acquisition and Use
Example of how the Language and Language standards are is used in the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education curriculum to improve literacy.
The Higher Learning State Standard Shifts and how they are addressed by the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education curriculum
Like everything in the world, especially in 2020, shifts happen. When Higher Learning was established, it was designed to build on the best of existing standards and reflect the skills and knowledge students will need to succeed in college, career, and life. That was a perfect fit for my story which focuses on success over obstacles. I found it helpful to understand the changes or shifts as they are called from previous standards. Each of these shifts was intentionally emphasized in each version of the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education curriculum and workbooks.
- Regular practice with complex texts and academic language
Going beyond just the skills of reading and writing, the ELA literacy standards focus on the increasing complexity of texts. The standards are designed to address reading comprehension by encouraging students to improve their vocabulary through learning word meanings and expanding their range of words and phrases.
The non-fiction text used for the curriculum, Life After Birth, has an estimated Lexile band of 1050-1160 which aptly supports the Higher Learning emphasis on text range, quality and complexity. Each version of the S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education workbook also include various activities providing practice with complex texts including Vocabulary.
- Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
The S.O. What! Literacy, Life Skills, and Character Education workbooks push students to provide evidence for the answers they give.
- Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction
The Higher Learning standards for ELA focus on helping students learn through texts with substantial content. Students build knowledge from reading and analyzing the experiences of others, literary non-fiction, which is a shift from traditional standards.
When I started writing my memoir, I expected only a few people to read it. I hoped it would encourage them. Today, I am blessed and grateful that my non-fiction text improves literacy and life outcomes for people all over the world.