Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Working with Wonders: Choices and Challenges

So two years ago my district adopted the Wonders reading anthology. I've been pretty quiet on here ever since then for several reasons:

  1. The process of adopting the anthology was pretty painful, and everything that I'd ever created for curriculum was cast aside, publicly and loudly. Ouch.
  2. The learning curve to assimilate all of the new materials was steep.
  3.  I like to really think deeply about a topic before writing about it. For like two years.

Everything I say here will be based on the sixth grade Wonders materials, which are the only ones to which I have access. I've done two (maybe three?) days of in-service work with the official trainers, and I've used the program for two years.

The Basics
The Wonders series is based on two different books: The Reading-Writing Workshop book, and the Literature Anthology. Each of six units has six "weeks" of curriculum written for it. Each week focuses on an essential question, and has several selections associated with it, often of differing genres.

The Reading-Writing Workshop selections are designed to be shared reads. These are uncredited texts that use the eight vocabulary words for the week, and often I find myself admiring these anonymous authors who managed to work the necessary words into an unrelated text. They range in quality from meh to surprisingly good.

The selections in the Literature Anthology are, naturally, the longer texts that hold the meat of the program. These include selections from novels such as Elijah of Buxton, A Single Shard, and Home of the Brave, as well as magazine articles and other nonfiction selections.

Reading lessons are included in the Reading-Writing Workshop book, and there are many close reading questions for the literature anthology selections in the teachers guide as well. Each week ends with a Weekly Assessment that consists of two uncredited selections, nine multiple choice questions that reflect the week's lessons to a degree, and one text-dependent analysis question requiring students to compare the two texts.

Of course there are scads of other resources that come along with the program, including leveled readers for guided reading, grammar worksheets and assessments, fluency reproducibles, diagnostic and placement tests, a close reading companion, an interactive version of the text for struggling readers, and then everything online as well, et cetera et cetera.

The Great
The best part of this program is the quality of the literature selected for the Literature Anthology. The sixth grade texts have a dizzying variety of form, style, and genre, and many are from well-known authors. The publishers didn't stint on the illustrations, either. For example, an excerpt from Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard is gorgeously illustrated in context-building paintings created especially for the series. Readers can't help but turn the pages to see what happens next! Nonfiction texts, like Into the Volcano, are accompanied by diagrams, maps, and sidebars.

It is easy to find an entire year's worth of instruction in the pages of the anthology. The texts are meaty enough to yield multiple interpretations, and the text pairings can lead to interesting comparisons.

The Good
The connections between the uncredited texts in the Reading-Writing Workshop and the texts in the Literature Anthology are pretty solid. The Reading-Writing Workshop texts are written to be accessible to most readers and used to introduce key concepts, and as a whole they are well-written and interesting. As with the Literature Anthology, the RWW texts are beautifully illustrated and formatted.

The Weekly Assessments are reasonably good as well, and give teachers far more than enough materials for ongoing assessment. The online testing system works well and makes grading much easier!

Vocabulary words are well-chosen. Last year, I had a classroom economy running, and "paid" students $50 to find vocabulary words in the context of their independent reading books. The incidence of the program vocabulary words in grade-level literature was astounding! This showed me that the words taught in the program are words that readers are likely to encounter and totally worth the time spent teaching them.

The Questionable
My biggest issue with the Wonders series is the issue of time. It is absolutely impossible to finish the program as described. For example, a 15-page story excerpt called "Roman Diary" is meant to be taught, read, and discussed in a single day of instruction. This is the norm, rather than the exception. Each of the amazing Literature Anthology texts is blocked for one day of instruction. My readers have varying reading rates, of course, and even with an incredibly generous reading block of 2 hours we can't make this work. I don't think I'd want to do it this way, either. Strong works of literature require time for the reader to consider and think about the author's choices; racing through them does no one any good. This is especially true for the upper grades, in which the goal of reading becomes slowing down and considering the author's choices.

Of course the facilitators at the workshops are quick to say, "Make it work for you!" at the same time that they talk about keeping pace and moving quickly through the program. It's telling that the online planning program will not allow you to make a lesson block longer than 6 days. Instead, to make your days line up correctly, you have to add "Non-teaching days"...even if those days are definitely going to be spent teaching! This sends a message to teachers, especially newer teachers who don't have as much confidence in their choices. It's easy for me to say, "I'm teaching this amazing text about the Great Chicago Fire, and we will work on it for four days because there is so much to explore here!" A first year teacher, however, might feel pressure to race through and miss those great connections.

Another small quibble has to do with the Benchmark tests. There are three Benchmarks to be given at intervals through the year. Like the Weekly Assessments, these are uncredited texts written for the program. I would like to see stronger texts for these tests, especially as there are so few of them!

The spelling and grammar segments are weak, with an emphasis on really dull worksheets. Given the strength of the other components, I'd have loved to see stronger lessons with more sentences and examples pulled from the included texts.

As students move through the series, I also notice that the program's emphasis on text-based essential questions--"What was life like for people in ancient civilizations?"--leads to a lack of knowledge about literature terms. Even though text structure is taught throughout each year, my students had trouble generating a list of text structures this year. Now that I'm aware of this issue, I can easily work to fix it.

Next Steps
In my next post I'll talk about what I've done to add to the program this year.

Have you adopted a basal series in the past few years? What was your experience like?

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