Balanced Literacy is just that: a balanced approach to literacy instruction. Students work through the five domains of reading in a balanced literacy program. These are phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Students spend portions of their day in small groups working on word study, guided reading, independent reading, interactive read-alouds, and shared reading. This allows time for the students to work with the teacher one-on-one, work in the whole group, and work independently. Students also engage in writer’s workshop, which is a model of writing instruction. The teacher presents a mini-lesson on a writing skill, and then students work independently to hone that skill in a piece of writing. Teachers conference with students throughout the writing process focusing on students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Math is taught free from a textbook. Teachers spend time mapping out the sequence of math concepts to be taught. The teachers have a library of manipulatives to offer the students hands-on experiences. With these manipulatives, they begin building concepts at a basic level. As students progress, the use of manipulatives is limited and then becomes unnecessary as the students develop deeper understanding of concepts. Application of math concepts is often woven into project-based learning.
Science and Social Studies serve as the basis for project-based learning and are woven throughout the curriculum. Students explore science and social studies through hands-on learning and through Guided Reading and Read-Alouds. The content is integrated throughout the day.
Project-Based Learning is an instructional method that begins with the teacher posing a driving question about a topic. These topics correlate with the science and social studies curriculum. The project begins with a launch activity in which the students are engaged in the topic. The teacher then poses the driving question. Students then meet experts, engage in hands-on activities, and create a presentation to a relevant audience. This offers students the opportunity to engage in higher-level thinking and create something to teach about a topic.
Another piece of the curriculum that develops critical thinking is Design Thinking. Design Thinking is actually the process of thinking about and creating a solution to a problem. Students identify a problem, and then they develop empathy toward the problem. Acting on that empathy, they brainstorm solutions and find the most viable solution to solve the problem. When they have chosen a solution, they prototype it, and then they test that prototype. As they test the prototype, they look for areas on which to improve. The end product can have many iterations. This process teaches students how to empathize with problems and take action toward solving problems they face.
All of these components together form the basis of the Westside Atlanta Charter School Curriculum. The curriculum reflects our core value of imagination by allowing students to explore topics and express thoughts and learn in various ways. It demonstrates rigor by requiring that students move into critical thinking to solve problems rather than follow rote procedures. It demonstrates service by allowing students to make contributions to the surrounding community through projects and Design Thinking tasks. The well-rounded approach to the curriculum and the focus on student-centered learning has allowed the students at Westside Atlanta Charter School to become engaged in their learning and the community around them.