Haverhill Students Demonstrate ‘Wit & Wisdom’ Literacy Program

Bonnie Antkowiak, chief of Teaching, Learning and Leading. (WHAV News file photograph.)

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Haverhill Public Schools representatives pitched a new, pre-high school literacy program to the School Committee last Thursday.

They presented on classrooms piloting Wit & Wisdom since November 2022 at the Dr. Albert B. Consentino, Golden Hill, Dr. Paul C. Nettle and John C. Tilton Schools. A teacher and literacy coach brought students who shared projects.

Chief of Teaching, Learning and Leading Bonnie Antkowiak told committee members Wit & Wisdom draws on the science of learning in using high quality texts, ordering topics so they build on one another, asking questions to build comprehension, engaging all the students in the class and having them write more frequently. She said data collected at some pilot classrooms from November 2022 to December 2023 showed promising results.

Samantha Ovalle, a fourth-grade teacher at Golden Hill, said she has already seen improvement since starting the program.

“While it’s been difficult adjusting to the new rigorous program, the rewards have been tremendous,” she told the school committee. “The assignment my students will be sharing with you tonight is the end of module task, so it’s the end of module one, where they finished learning about what a great heart means. Students, in a four-paragraph informative essay, explained what a great heart means both literally and figuratively.”

Ovalle’s students drew on two stories, one on the circulatory system and the other “Love That Dog,” an award-winning narrative written as a series of poems. After two of them each read a paragraph, one on the literal importance of a heart and the other using the heart as a metaphor, a third combined both ideas.

“It is important to have a great heart because you can realize the beauty of life. A literal great heart will give you lots of time to take it in and realize the beauty of everything around you. A figurative heart makes life more beautiful using your actions,” the fourth grader read to committee members, who applauded.

Tilton Literacy Coach Jessica Todd also brought students, these in the third and fourth grades. She emphasized the success of Wit & Wisdom lies in its focus on one topic for a long time, the expectation that students use evidence from texts, and explicit instruction on how to approach their writing assignments. The fourth graders from Tilton had been working on the question, “what makes a mountainous environment extreme?” and answered it using PowerPoint, posters or booklets. The third graders learned about shark attacks.

These fourth graders were asked “to implement different writing techniques such as illustrations, comparisons, precise word choice, helpful information from a text, explanation for something readers might wonder about, and some definitions,” Todd said.

After the children finished, administrators explained it would cost $443,427 to implement Wit & Wisdom across the district. Just kindergarten through second grade would cost $260,588, plus an unidentified amount for professional development. If they expanded the program across all third through fifth grade classes, where they’re currently testing it, it would cost $138,218, with some on top for professional development.

“There’s a cost to children not reading,” Committee member Gail M. Sullivan said. “It’s a huge, huge, gigantic, life-changing cost. So, when we think about cost, I’d really like to keep that in mind. What happens to kids who can’t read when they go to the third grade, fourth, fifth, sixth and high school, where they’re required to read all the time. I want to keep that in mind as another cost at the other end.”

Pointing to a potential funding source, Committee member Richard J. Rosa raised Literacy Launch, a $30 million, five-year grant program that may end up in the state budget. He added he found it promising that teachers had expressed enthusiasm about the new curriculum.

The school department is expected to release a draft budget in the spring for the year that begins July 1. The state budget follows a similar timeline.

Following questioning from Committee member Yonnie Collins on data collected so far, district representatives reported initial observations with help from outside eyes as positive, but pointed out it takes time to see the full picture. They added that students whose second language is English had also benefited from Wit & Wisdom, with coaches helping them digest greater quantities of new vocabulary.

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