A Common Language

Jan 01, 2024 | Posted by IEW

by Andrea Pewthers

Lower Yukon School District in Alaska implements IEW’s Structure and Style method districtwide to improve students’ language arts knowledge. 

Who are we? 
We are a people of the salmon, of the whitefish, and pike. Of the moose, bear, fox, beaver, and lynx. Of the berries, plants, and the land. Of family. Lower Yukon School District consists of ten villages across 22,000 square miles along the Yukon River in southeastern Alaska. Of the district’s 2,100 students, 98% are Yup’ik Alaska Native people. As a native learning community, the district works to ensure tradition, culture, and quality education for all its students. In the 2022 -23 school year, ten schools adopted IEW curriculum in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Kindergarten through third grade use Primary Writing Lesson Plans. Grades four through twelve use Structure and Style for Students and Fix It! Grammar. IEW Educational Consultant Andrea Pewthers sat down with Shanna Johnson, LYSD Director of Curriculum and Instruction, to discuss the district’s experience training teachers and implementing IEW curriculum.

Why were you looking for a new writing and grammar curriculum for Lower Yukon School District? 
When I was first hired as LYSD’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction in early 2022, I reviewed the language arts data for the district. Most of our students are in the twentieth percentile in language arts. While our Yup’ik culture has a rich history of oral storytelling, our students struggle with writing. I knew that finding a writing program to implement for kindergarten through twelfth grade in every content area would help improve our students’ language arts knowledge and writing abilities. 

Why did you contact IEW when you were looking for a new writing curriculum? 
I was looking at IEW and one other company. IEW’s website provided all the information I needed to research the program. I watched videos like “Learning to Write and THINK with IEW,” “From Imitation to Innovation,” and sample instructional videos from Structure and Style for Students. I found the scope and sequence for each grade level and sample lessons for Primary Writing Lesson Plans, Structure and Style for Students, and Fix It! Grammar. I could also order review copies of all the teacher manuals to preview.

Why did you choose IEW? 
The key word outline and the structures! They are so specific. Assignments are broken down sentence by sentence. That is what our students need. Lower Yukon School District is unique. While 98% of our student body is Yup’ik, 80% of our teachers are from the Philippines. The two cultures have very different expectations. In addition, the reading curriculum we use has a writing component. In unit one students are asked to write a personal narrative. Students are instructed, “Write a personal narrative. Here is a topic sentence. Write three description sentences. Now write a conclusion sentence.” However, the students are not given any direction how to write those sentences. That is where IEW’s materials are different from other writing programs. Structure and Style for Students curriculum provides step-by-step instructions with common structures and terminology across all grade levels, subjects, and schools. Expectations for each assignment are clearly outlined on the checklist. Everyone is speaking the same language. The key word outline helps students pick the important information. The structural models help them organize the information while stylistic techniques give them strategies to write strong sentences. With Fix It! Grammar our students receive review and reinforcement of the grammar concepts they are learning in the Structure and Style for Students materials.

With ten campuses spread throughout 22,000 square miles, what was it like to communicate with and train all the teachers and administrators? 
The remote location and the vast size of the district make it difficult for us to offer live, in-person training. Therefore, we rely on Zoom to connect all our schools for professional development. IEW’s solutions to these challenges were stellar. Most of our teachers participated in a virtual summer workshop during the summer of 2022. In addition, we looped paraprofessionals into our IEW training so they were familiar with terminology and the process. IEW Implementation Coaches worked with us to schedule two full-day sessions before school started and four half-day sessions during the school year. Teachers gathered at each school site and watched sessions from the Teaching Writing: Structure and Style teacher training course, familiarized themselves with curriculum materials, and worked on practicum exercises. At the end of each session, all the schools joined via Zoom so IEW Implementation Coaches could provide additional insight and answer questions. Our Educational Consultant ensured that each teacher had an IEW account and access to their training and instructional materials. She was available to teachers throughout the school year by phone and email to answer questions.

What successes have you found after one school year? 
One year after implementation, each school site improved over 5% in the language arts sections of our state test. More importantly, teachers report that students confidently use the strategies to take information from source texts and their brains to write thoughtful sentences, paragraphs, stories, and reports. Since our teachers and students across all grade levels and disciplines speak the same language regarding writing, I expect continued improvement in the coming years.


This article first appeared in the 2024 Arts of Language Magalog for Schools

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