The curricular portion of the Seminars system, a carefully engineered progression of thinking and content understanding, spans Kindergarten through sixth grade. The curriculum was created using Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s backwards design model, so that its interim goals for each of the grade-levels are carefully derived from two distinct sources: the expectations the California state standards for of middle-school and high school and the definitions of elite literacy offered by renowned scholars in the field, like Isabel Beck, Sheridan Blau, Seymour Sarason, Ken Robinson, and Louise Rosenblatt. The study and synthesis of these two distinct sources results in a highly ambitious set of expectations and thinking objectives—one that meets and even exceeds Common Core Standards. The interim goals, as they are carefully engineered from Kindergarten to fifth grade, ensure that students make constant and measurable progress toward an overarching objective: the ability and inclination to agilely use both content expertise and productive thinking-dispositions to interpret fiction and masterfully manage informational text in the abstract and conceptual manner that characterizes the highly literate citizen. The curriculum enables children to begin making substantial progress towards this goal in kindergarten through a rational and realistic set of gradual progressions: Young children move naturally from the solid-ground of understandings that they, regardless of socioeconomic status, invariably bring to their first day of school toward abstract and complex understanding. Right from the beginning of Kindergarten goals appear extremely ambitious, but the carefully mapped progress of the curriculum from one strategically constructed understanding to the next places all young children on a trajectory towards truly advanced literacy.
These “strategically constructed understandings” are a hallmark of the system. Besides being grounded in the principles of backwards design, the curriculum accords with the modern insights into learning that have redefined our professional knowledge of the nature and acquisition-paths of real understanding. Truly understanding the nature and processes of understanding requires that we advance from the dominant instructional model, which is founded upon the delivery of information and interpretation to passive students who are expected to “learn” and recite it, toward a model based on engaging students in the very active process of moving their natural thinking toward increasingly sophisticated thinking and expression of ideas. This move, toward constructing understandings, interpretations and insights instead of learning and repeating them represents a dramatic shift in the teaching of reading. In a fashion very similar to elevating student-thinking from their most solid literary foundations, the curriculum focuses primarily on the familiar Read Aloud and Shared Reading instructional models, in order to situate teachers in a comfortable context from with they can proceed.
The curriculum strategically supports this important and transformational instructional shift. Besides laying out and explicating target understandings, the curriculum features classroom examples of students and teachers discussing and deliberating the suggested texts. The descriptive annotation of the transcripts of classroom conversations allows teachers clear insight into two functions of the approach that are subtle and potentially elusive, but absolutely crucial. The first is the rich opportunity inherent in the natural responses of students who have been invited to freely share their thinking about thought-provoking stories and texts. The curriculum illuminates the brilliant thinking that often lies right below student responses though it may be obscured by immature language or expression. The first function both inspires and necessitates the second—the manner in which masterful teachers draw from a repertoire of prompts to engage students in examining and refining their responses to drive towards clearer and deeper thinking.
THE PROFFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Because of the significance of the instructional revision and the complexity of the content knowledge required for implementation, the Seminar curriculum is intended to be complemented with regular professional development. In expertly guided professional development sessions, teachers study and co-construct understandings of key Seminar elements: the curriculum and other professional sources of literary content, the nature of real understanding and the instructional modes that nurture it, as well as various evidence-sources of student-thinking. Within this on-going structure, teachers apply their newly forming professional knowledge in authentic discussions of the compelling literature and non-fiction texts they will read with their classes. Engaging them in the processes of real interpretation, these sessions immerse them in first-hand experiences with the power of discussion and the constructivist approach to interpretation.