Empowering Children to Grapple

3rd grade teacher Esmeralda Rivera embraces the power behind productive struggle and grappling with grade-level content using EL Education K–5 Language Arts

EL Education Language K–5 Language Arts may seem like an ordinary curriculum, however, it intentionally and purposefully includes eight high-leverage instructional practices that empower children to own their learning:
  1. Using Learning Targets
  2. Checking for Understanding
  3. Employing Total Participation Techniques
  4. Fostering a Culture of Grappling
  5. Using Questions to Promote Student Learning
  6. Engaging Students with Protocols
  7. Deepening Student Discourse
  8. Co-constructing Anchor Charts with Students

During my first year of piloting EL Education Language K–5 Language Arts, I immediately recognized a few of these powerful best practices, such as learning targets, anchor charts, and questioning. However, because the curriculum is very robust and rigorous, I struggled with “Fostering a Culture of Grappling.” 

At the beginning of the pilot, I thought the curriculum materials were overwhelming and the lessons and work too rigorous for my students. The first step to overcoming these challenges was to shift my mindset. I had to consider how my mindset impacted curriculum implementation. Therefore, I had to change it before I could change those of my students in order to set them up for success in completing rigorous work. 

I used resources available to obtain a better understanding of the curriculum structure. By doing so, I was able to effectively navigate the curriculum materials. This allowed me to efficiently unpack it and have a better understanding of the purpose of the lessons. This made me feel more confident in my practice. Ultimately, I had to model the habits of character I wanted to instill in my students – initiative and perseverance. 

Prior to implementing EL Education Language K–5 Language Arts, there were less opportunities to allow students to grapple in my classroom. Although I was fostering a culture of grappling, there was more potential. The curriculum defines a culture of grappling as “one which students are supposed to make meaning of their own or with peers, rather than being taught by a teacher first. In the curriculum, students often have a ‘first go’ at something, particularly complex text, before teacher instruction or intervention. The idea is not to ‘give’ the students information or understandings that they can figure out on their own.”  Upon reading this, I immediately understood that my role would need to change to a facilitator role and that learning is very student-centered. This meant changing my instructional practice. 

To support this idea, I learned to “catch and release” and scaffold, but not over-scaffold. Changing my practice allowed my students to productively struggle with challenges that are within their reach. Alongside my students, I learned that productive struggle supports us with building a growth mindset (perseverance) and that it’s okay to take academic risks. The curriculum intentionally embeds habits of character in every lesson. These are frequently taught and modeled, and authentic opportunities are provided for students to practice these habits of character.

I believe that children can rise to challenges. To support them, I learned to trust the process of EL Education Language K–5 Language Arts.  When I did, the children in my classroom were amazed by the knowledge they gained and their high-quality work. 

esmeraldarivera Esmeralda Rivera is a third grade teacher in Hamilton County, Tennessee. She has taught using EL Education K-5 Language Arts Curriculum for four years. She is also a second year Community Coach for Open Up Resources. Esmeralda enjoys building relationships with students and watching each grow academically and social-emotionally through equitable learning opportunities.