Looking to the Fall, Part 1: Welcoming and Supporting K–5 Students

By Kristin Gray, Director K–5 Curriculum and Professional Learning
and Kevin Liner, IM K–5 Professional Learning Lead

It is overwhelming to think about how teaching and learning will look in the fall. The uncertainty of the impact of students missing so many days of school, and the educational inequities that have been magnified as a result of the COVID-19 virus, leave us all with so many unknowns. 

With so much uncertainty, we imagine there may be some knee-jerk reactions to unfinished learning this fall. There may be a temptation to frontload the school year with the prior grade-level content students may have missed or assess each student immediately on arrival back to school and then “fill in” the unfinished learning. As well-intentioned as these ideas may be, we can’t help but think about the impact they could have on students mentally, emotionally, and mathematically as they reenter school. 

We have to ask ourselves three important questions as we consider options for the fall: 

  • How do we invite students back into our class in a way that is welcoming, supportive, and centered around community?
  • How do we formatively assess student thinking and make decisions in ways that don’t perpetuate the problems often caused by grouping students, such as we see in some workshop models and RTI?
  • How do we create a coherent learning experience for students so each day’s learning does not feel disconnected, even more than it already is after the missed months of school?

As we consider these questions, we recognize that there are important decisions to make about which content to emphasize and how to support students in accessing that content. Finding the right balance with all of the variables is challenging but critical. 

 In order to strike this balance, we must consider ways in which to: 

  1. Incorporate prior grade-level knowledge and skills, when necessary, to support access to current grade-level content.
  2. Use assessments meaningfully yet sparingly to make strategic instructional decisions.
  3. Integrate ongoing practice and review into the teaching of current grade-level content, instead of disrupting it.

Because teachers will not have added days for added lessons, there must be decisions made around lessons to combine or skip within a unit and ways to prioritize the major work of the grade.  We want to share our current thinking on how these three ideas might support students and teachers next school year in order to start the community conversation. 

1. Incorporate prior grade-level knowledge and skills when necessary to support access to current grade-level content

Integrating prior grade-level content effectively into the current grade-level is challenging work—work that includes prioritizing students’ well-being and emotional needs while also trying to maintain the delicate balance of adding more things to teach and minding the number of days in the school year. For this reason, we can rely heavily on the coherence of the standards to first identify prior grade-level dependencies for each curriculum unit. Those dependencies can help us determine where to add lessons in a coherent and “just in time” manner across the year. If we add lessons, we are forced to make other choices to keep the days of the school year intact. Because it is not an “add one lesson, take one lesson out” process, teachers must analyze each unit to identify lessons that can be adjusted and combined or skipped. 

2. Use assessments meaningfully, yet sparingly, to make strategic instructional decisions.

Assessment is important, but deciding how and how much to assess is a struggle, even in a typical year. We know it is good practice to make informed instructional decisions based on student thinking. We also know that if you spend too much time administering formal assessments, you not only lose valuable instructional time, but can also be left with more questions than answers about what to do next. 

Although it may seem logical to assess students prior to, or instead of, teaching prior-grade level content, a strategic selection of prior grade lessons makes formal assessments unnecessary. We understand this may feel counterintuitive to what we imagine should happen after missing school last year, but giving students ‘just in time’ content with small formative assessments along the way offers teachers the opportunity to build on what students know while moving forward with grade level material. 

3. Integrate ongoing practice into the teaching of current grade level content, instead of disrupting it.

Integrating ongoing practice into a current grade-level unit is simple in theory, but challenging in practice. This becomes slightly easier when a curriculum develops concepts and representations coherently along a mathematical progression, like telling a story. This comes in handy because, as we know, after the formative assessments, there may be students that need extra practice with the knowledge and skills that were covered in the previous grade level. We also know that stopping to reteach all of the prior grade-level content will never get students through their current grade-level material. To keep the learning going, we can leverage the coherence of the standards to align ongoing practice, in the form of centers and routines, that can be integrated into the current grade-level unit. 

While so much is still unknown, one thing we are certain of is that nothing will be seamless or easy about school in the fall. Our hope is that we can work together to best support students in feeling safe and successful after they have experienced so much recent change and uncertainty. To this end, we want to take special care to ensure students are building on their current understandings as they progress through grade level content in a way that is inviting and safe and prioritizes the community building that happens particularly in the fall. 

We share this thinking as a start to conversation. Because, while identifying the content to support unfinished learning is a first step in planning for next year, there are many other considerations we need to think about moving forward. We look forward to thinking through detailed approaches to this work and hosting community chats with anyone in our K–5 math community interested in learning and brainstorming with us. Thank you all for everything you do. We appreciate you so incredibly much. 


This “part 1” blog post details principles that will guide our thinking about teaching and learning in the 2020-2021 school year. To read about what this might look like, in practice, check out Looking to the Fall, Part 2: Creating a Supportive Resource for K–5 Teachers.