Tiffany Vargas ’24

Pittsfield Public Schools, Pittsfield, MA

This summer, I worked as an ELA and social studies curriculum equity intern at Pittsfield Public Schools. Along with three other Williams interns, I was able to create “text sets” that served as supplementary materials for the existing elementary schools’ curriculums.

In order to fully understand the purpose and value of our work, we learned about the components of reading and the process of learning to read. This also helped educate us on how to approach the text sets in a way that would be most effective for students. I learned that there are five components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Comprehension is the most essential for learning how to read, and that is the component our text sets aimed to build.

Comprehension relies heavily on a student’s vocabulary and background knowledge. Building up their background knowledge means that students will better understand texts they read, increasing their ability to read and retain knowledge. Unlike with learning phonics in a classroom, comprehension is built in a variety of ways. It can be impacted beyond the classroom in a student’s home environment, and it depends on the exposure to different information the student has on a regular basis.

Our goal was to provide students with background knowledge on the different units of their curriculums through our text sets. We read through the modules and units, created vocabulary lists, wrote discussion questions and compiled a variety of learning resources for students to supplement their curriculum. In many cases, we identified some shortcomings in the existing curriculums around diverse narratives and representations. For example, the fifth grade module on “The Wild West” focused almost entirely on pioneers, the Gold Rush, and the Transcontinental Railroad. We collectively decided to include learning resources on the people who lived in the West before white settlers, the impact of their displacement, and asked students to think about how different perspectives impact narratives. My favorite unit to work on was fifth grade’s module on sustainability and green living. I enjoyed their readings on green gardening practices and other valuable information on reducing waste. Its major shortcoming was that it neglected to express just how important sustainability is to humans and our Earth. I gathered many resources to educate students on climate change, what exactly sustainability means, how human activities affect other species, and why current practices and lifestyles are incompatible with a healthy, livable, biodiverse planet in the future.

A few times, our team questioned whether or not some topics were too intense for elementary school students, but more often than not we opted for exposing them to difficult topics in order to increase their awareness and understanding of those topics and prompt them to think critically about different perspectives. After all, our main goal was to provide these students with an abundance of background information so that they may grow as readers, learners and independent thinkers. I am extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to work locally in such a meaningful way, and I hope to continue exploring the field of education.