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What I Saw in Baltimore Schools Should Inspire Us All

A thoughtful post by Carrie Mattern, reflecting on her experience at the 2019 NCTE conference in Baltimore, is spawning good discussions in social media. Mattern laments that she did not develop a deeper understanding of the city of Baltimore, including its school system, during her visit. “I wondered often about local educators and students,” she writes.

What makes that truly regrettable is that Baltimore is currently a national leader in literacy innovation, and its work should compel all of our attention.

It just so happens that I visited Baltimore’s schools this autumn, weeks before the NCTE conference. I captured highlights in this twitter thread:

Superintendent Sonja Santelises has spoken at numerous 2019 conferences, and the media has taken note of Baltimore’s excellent work. I’ve tried to capture the key parts of Baltimore’s literacy story, for anyone interested in learning more… which should be everyone who cares about literacy in America.

Here’s why we should all pay attention to Baltimore City Schools.

Exemplary Reading Instruction

In the 18-19 school year, Baltimore implemented a new literacy curriculum, Wit and Wisdom.

The district wanted to ensure that all students were building content knowledge about science, social studies, and the arts as part of English Language Arts, because of extensive (and poorly-known) research that shows that background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. So, they selected a curriculum designed around that research. This aspect of Baltimore’s work was profiled in Forbes and Hechinger Report.

Wit and Wisdom is also designed to get all kids working with grade level texts, which helped Baltimore to make a firm shift away from leveled guided reading work (an approach that lacks an evidence base).

The reading instruction puts “real books” at its heart:

Kids grapple with texts, pull evidence from texts, record their thinking in graphic organizers, and discuss their evidence in pairs or groups. Sometimes, discussions take the form of Socratic Seminars:

Writing tasks are connected to the texts, so students communicate their thinking about the books in multiple manners. This text-centered work fits together elegantly, within and across lessons.

In early grades, the foundational skills work continued as it was; Baltimore had been using the Fundations program to ensure systematic phonics work, and Wit & Wisdom was actually designed to pair with Fundations.

The curriculum implementation was accompanied by healthy amounts of PD for teachers on reading instruction fundamentals and how they are reflected in the curriculum; this year, the district also began LETRS training for elementary teachers, to deepen learning.

Overall, Baltimore’s new approach aligns with the key research on how kids learn to read… while also modeling the kind of text-centered, discourse-rich instruction that we seek. Frankly, it’s hard to convey the awesomeness that I saw, because Baltimore is getting so much right, from research alignment to student engagement to social-emotional learning within the ELA block. I wrote a 25+ Tweet thread, and I barely scratched the surface.

It’s not hard to convey the ways the students respond to this work, because… well, the students say and display it so beautifully themselves. Hear from Enver:

A Curriculum Rich With Diverse Texts and Local Focus

When it came time to upgrade the curriculum, Baltimore put a real focus on the texts and themes that students would be studying. An illustrative quote from Superintendent Sonja Santelises:

The Wit and Wisdom curriculum selected by Baltimore is one of the strongest options in K–12 for diverse characters and themes; check out the K–8 modules and anchor texts.

Here are a few sample modules. You’ll find diverse books… and you can also get a sense of the ways that social studies learning happens during the ELA block, via carefully-crafted text sets:

wit wisdom civil rights module

wit wisdom great depression module

wit wisdom courage module

In addition, the Baltimore team enhanced its social studies curriculum by creating BMore Me lessons focused on local history, elegantly complementing the topics of study in the ELA program.

The Baltimore Sun featured BMore Me, while this Christian Science Monitor article does a nice job of describing the overall curriculum change across ELA and history.

Improved Reading Outcomes in Year 1 of Literacy Initiative

Baltimore’s team is rightfully delighted by the rich student conversations and student work that have emerged across the district… but of course we should also note that Baltimore saw gains in MD state testing, as detailed here:

baltimore ela

Conventional wisdom says that you don’t see gains in year 1 with a new curriculum, because it’s an adjustment year. So, the speed of Baltimore’s gains is noteworthy… clearly, they are getting things right.

When you speak with Baltimore’s team, they don’t talk about these outcomes. They talk about areas of improvement that they’re focused on, based on their data (which they pore over). A strong sense of continuous improvement pervades the work.

Outstanding Teacher Leadership

Where do I even start about Baltimore’s teacher leaders?

Two teachers, Melissa Loftus and Lori Sappington, started their own podcast to support fellow teachers with the literacy implementation… and it quickly became a national resource. They’ve interviewed literacy leaders like Natalie Wexler and Brian Kingsley… and they even found time for a chat with me.

Kyair Butts, Baltimore’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, has become a powerful voice for the literacy work in the district. Listen to him talk about raising his own expectations for the kids in his classroom if you want the chills:

(See video in Twitter if you have trouble playing it.)

Baltimore teacher Katie Scotti just hosted the weekly #ELAchat:

I could go on! Baltimore is putting many new teacher leaders on the national stage.

Must-Follow District Leaders

Thanks in part to this literacy leadership, Baltimore’s district leaders have become nationally acclaimed.

Sonja Santelises has been described as a “stabilizing force,” and focuses heavily on instruction: “We’re not going after the shiny new thing… Our work is putting high-quality teaching and learning in place for kids.”

Her keynote at the ResearchEd conference, “Leadership and Equity: Addressing Educational Redlining,” powerfully explained how this literacy work IS equity work. I highly recommend a watch!

Santelises presented her work to the nation’s education writers at their national conference in May:

And she hosted the national superintendent chat on Literacy Leadership, archived here:

She also keynoted Learning Forward 2019 UnboundED 2018the 2018 Carnegie Summit, and more. This EdSurge piece captures her insights nicely.

Janise Lane, the Executive Director of Teaching & Learning, has also shared Baltimore’s work at Learning Forward and numerous other national conferences. You can learn more about Janise’s work here. Literacy Director Ashley Cook is another must-follow leader.

The Importance of Illuminating Instructional Leadership

I believe Baltimore’s work deserves a bright spotlight… and as you’ll see from all the media links and presentations above, I’m far from alone.

But… Baltimore’s work was not featured in any prominent way at NCTE. (A few folks from the district did speak on one panel.)

Baltimore’s work was nowhere at ILA 2019, also this Fall.

So, as much as I adore Carrie Mattern’s reflective post, I think there are bigger questions at play here. The real question, in my mind: Shouldn’t Baltimore’s work have been featured at NCTE 2019… not because they were the local district, but because they are one of the country’s brightest stars, from a literacy perspective?

And… how do we change the culture of the biggest national conferences, so these events allow us to hear from those truly leading change and improving outcomes… like Sonja, Janise, Melissa, Kyair, and Katie?

As we ask NCTE and its conference attendees to think about local context, can we also ask conference organizers to proactively seek out thought leaders like Baltimore’s, and put them on the big stages?

For the reasons above – and so many more – we can all benefit from this kind of thought leadership at our biggest national convenings.


PS – Baltimore is Not a Unicorn

I wrapped my time in Baltimore having a delightful conversation with Janise and Melissa Loftus, which was captured as a perfectly-titled podcast: Karen Vaites Brags About Baltimore.

One thing we talked about: Baltimore is not the only district doing this kind of excellent literacy work, and seeing swift outcomes, supported by one of the newer, far better curricula. Hear us shout out Guilford, Detroit, Sullivan County, Jackson Madison County, and Pawtucket in the podcast. What inspires me is that these gains cross curricula, geography, and district type. Read more in this twitter thread and blog.

For additional reading on the texture of what happens in classrooms doing this work:

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  1. Thank you, Karen! This is an inspiring, evidence-rich story that I hope will trigger a tidal wave of action to do right by kids!

  2. April Barrett April Barrett

    Hi Karen! I just finished reading this article and I am moved by Baltimore’s educational leaders. Their willingness to dive deep and attack issues head on is to be commended. You article was thoughtful and inspirational! Thanks for sharing!😁

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      Thank you for the kind words! I couldn’t agree more about Baltimore’s team.

  3. Amy Pogrebin Bremenstuhl Amy Pogrebin Bremenstuhl

    I’m curious about how the program handles children with dyslexia.

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