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First Author Effect — Writing Beyond Expectations in New York City

Folder organizer with First Author writing Curriculum in it
A few weeks ago, I visited New York City schools to see first-hand the excitement they were generating with First Author Curriculum.

New York City has a writing initiative made famous by Staten Island’s school turnaround article featured in The Atlantic. Like many other districts, they see how writing cements learning across subjects. Writing is in focus across the district. First Author Writing Curriculum was a natural fit to drive instruction in their self-contained autism classrooms. They wanted to grow students from forming letters to writing with letters. The curriculum’s scripted lessons give educators the resources they need to implement best practices with fidelity. In a matter of months after rolling out the curriculum, classroom teachers were up and running and took ownership to train other teachers.

The excitement showed everywhere!

Poster board in a school with text that reads Everyone is an author at with the name of the school blurred out

Cork boards in hallways pin up proud students under the question, “Who is an Author”? Banners at each school prominently display student writings under the statement “Everyone is an Author!” They completely envelop writing across their environment—clearly communicating the importance of writing. Student writings vary from scribbling to early paragraphs. The topics range from family to pets to pop culture. It’s truly authentic writing.

Student made authors chair with gold garland and student made red authors crown

Classrooms show their creativity as they create a special spot to honor the author during the Author’s Chair presentation. This gives students the opportunity to present their writings. One class created a special Author’s Chair and another class created an Author’s Crown. The kiddos are sad when writing ends.

Three handmade poster boards depicting instructions for using First Author with headlines that read Author time Author Time Schedule The Authors Chair

The “Author Time” poster sets the schedule of expectations: Mini Lessons (every day), Author Conference, Writing Time (every day), Author’s Chair (once a week). The leadership is excited at all levels because students are reaching far beyond expectations and teachers are teaching with fidelity. But ultimately, what struck everyone most, myself included, was that First Author helped change the belief about what the students could do. It’s a culture shift. Prior to First Author, many students didn’t even see themselves as being able to write, now they consider themselves Authors!

How it’s going

Mike tells us that his primary goal when he’s hard at work on Readtopia’s video content is to create an experience that evokes student curiosity. “My hope is that students who watch the videos want to learn more. Even better: that they are excited to learn more,” he says.

And according to educators and specialists who use the curriculum, Mike and Don’s work more than exceeds that goal. “Just like a movie preview, these videos give students a great introduction to the story. They get to meet the characters, see the period clothes that the actors are wearing, and see the setting where the characters live. It really just sparks all of our students’ interest into reading the text.” says Sarah Wakabayashi, a speech-language pathologist at the William E. Carter School in Boston.

For example, the video introduction to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” takes learners to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, where they experience the landscape and the characters. The narrative tension builds in this five-minute video: A mysterious gold bug found on the island! A man crazed from its bite! A secret treasure map! The watcher is left longing to discover more about the story, sparking student attention and motivation.
Screenshot from video lesson about William E Carter depicting William walking outdoors holding a walking stick
The Carter School’s staff and students also deeply appreciate how Readtopia’s video content takes advantage of the story’s context to weave in academic and social/emotional skills across various subject matters.
“We get to introduce math concepts with the videos, and we ask our students, ‘These are characters from the story and they’re talking about shapes as well, where are the shapes in the story?’ And they’re no longer abstract concepts. With Readtopia, we’re really making the learning come to life with them.” says Kim Kulasekaran, lead teacher at the Carter School.
In the unit based on “The Gold Bug”, for example, the supposed treasure map is drafted on an old piece of parchment. We learn in the video lesson about geometry that the man with the map doesn’t want to fold the parchment, so he measures it with a ruler to determine if it will fit inside his backpack. Teaching concepts like perimeter within the story shows us just how useful math can be in real-life situations.

Bringing adventure into the classroom

Each of Readtopia’s videos is like a virtual field trip. And learners are able to experience these field trips from the comfort and safety of their classrooms or their Chromebooks. Which is probably a good thing, because what is adventure without a dose of calculated risk? As we learn from the classic stories that shape Readtopia’s content: an adventure isn’t an adventure if there’s nothing at stake.

As Mike tells us, filming the video content for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was particularly risky, though he and Don didn’t know it at the time:

I invited Don to join me in Roatan for a filming project that would see us descend 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface in a tiny, homemade submarine that had never been inspected by anyone who knew anything about submarines (except the builder). The sub was so tiny Don could barely fit down the hatch. Then I had to go in and squeeze beside him.

The trip down was fantastic and incident-free. That night, when I was reviewing our footage, I saw a trail of bubbles escaping from the sub. I asked the sub builder about the bubbles and his answer was chilling. ‘Oh, that’s the silicone sealant I use… it never perfectly seals the sub!’ I went down for a second voyage the next day and lived to tell the tale.

Erlind Lacy holds up a physical map of the US while a student points to a digital map of the world on a screen in a classroom

When you watch the introduction video for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, you can see the underwater view of the submarine while Don narrates in the background, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a tale of adventure.” The trail of bubbles rising from the submarine will assure you that this adventure is an authentic one!


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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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