Pittsfield Public Schools, Pittsfield, MA
This summer, I had the opportunity to work as a curriculum equity intern for Pittsfield Public Schools to improve their elementary-level reading curricula. Before the internship started, we were asked to read The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler, a book that exposes the root of the reading crisis in elementary schools across the country. One of the major issues that children face when learning to read is that they lack the appropriate context and background knowledge to fully comprehend the meaning of what they are reading. Current curricula assume that kids have more context than they do, favoring the “reading strategies” method instead. This is the more traditional approach to reading instruction, where children sound out words or “decode” a text.
My job as an intern was to help fill these gaps by building “text sets,” which are collections of resources (videos, podcasts, articles, etc.) that cover a given topic. We started with a unit for fifth graders called “The Wild West,” combing through their reading textbook to see where we could provide students with more information. We noticed that the textbook glossed over the fact that there were Indigenous people living in the West before settlers came, so we included resources on the idea of manifest destiny and forced displacement.
Another text set we worked on was entitled “Global Warming and Climate Change”—again for the fifth grade. Because Pittsfield students do not take science classes until middle school, we decided to incorporate resources that broke down concepts like the carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect. Because the textbook authors assumed that readers had previously encountered these themes, they did not thoroughly explain concepts that were crucial to understanding the rest of the chapter. We put together our text set with the hope that students would feel more comfortable with the subject matter despite not having taken any science classes. We also included resources about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the fast-fashion industry to highlight topics that students might have heard about outside of the classroom.
In addition to building text sets, we had the opportunity to meet with teachers and administrators who worked in the district. My favorite meeting was with a teacher from the English as a second language (ESL) program. She walked us through what her day-to-day looked like and explained some of the challenges the ESL program faced at an underserved school district like Pittsfield. She talked about staffing difficulties and the district’s efforts to keep ESL classes relatively small. Despite these issues, it was heartwarming to hear that students who grew up speaking English tend to be extremely patient and understanding of their peers in the program.
Working for Pittsfield Public Schools has been incredibly fulfilling. Though I had minimal interactions with the students, it was rewarding to hear that teachers were excited to implement our text sets in the classroom. I am immensely grateful to the ’68 Center for this wonderful opportunity.