Middle School: A Whole New Animal, or is it?!

For all the years I have been teaching and working as a literacy coach, my work has been focused on K-5, until this year.  As I started here in Erin, a small 4k-8 school of a little over 400 students, I took on a new challenge: navigating the waters of supporting middle school.  I have discovered a few things that have really supported me along the journey and have reached out to a few veterans for tips on the best reading to support the implementation of Readers/Writers Workshop at grades 6-8.

1.  While the kids are bigger, and the thinking is more complex, the heart of the work is the same:  We want to foster meaningful experiences with text that help each person grow a little more each day.  The continuum is vast, but they are all on a continuum just like their littler counterparts.  And they are still kids, regardless of how big they seem, which means their knowledge is still varied and colored by inexperience.

2.  Teaching with a middle school content area team presents new challenges and opportunities.  Foremost, the work of literacy development is now a shared endeavor.  The Common Core Standards purposely directs literacy to be taught across not all content areas, particularly in grades 6-12.  My reading of Pathways to the Common Core by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman provided a number of ah-ha moments and I thought about how I would support literacy development across middle school settings.  Unlike how we traditionally teach literacy in K-5 (although I am rethinking those ideas as I learn about how to make it work in middle school), the work of teaching literacy skills in multiple genres is spread across the content areas.  Since ELA is one 80 minute block, versus 2+ hours for reading and writing in the lower grades, the idea that ELA will address all of the genres is not feasible.  Instead, a heavy emphasis on narrative might be placed in ELA, while informational reading and writing might be spread across the other content areas.  This changes the game for those teachers a bit, as we used to expect that they teach content and kids should know how to read and write about the material.  Instead, collaboration is key to making it seamless.  Now we must ensure that we not only use the same terminology, but we must also collaborate to ensure the standards for ELA and content areas is addressed across the day, instead of an 80 minute block.  Imagine the power if we thought that way in elementary grades…

3.  Reading and writing happen simultaneously, although the focus for whole group minilessons shifts based on the work of the group.  In that 80 minute block, reading and writing instruction must occur.  Considering that in K-5 we typically allocate 60-90 minutes to each subject, that seems like a daunting task.  But is a big improvement from the days when they were two 40 minute blocks!  It seems almost crazy to think that as we ask kids to deal with more complex text, that we actually decrease the time they get to spend actually practicing the work with the help of an expert.  So we cycle reading and writing lessons, thinking instead of the reading/writing work as a whole set of standards versus isolated subjects.  Again, it pushes me to think harder about the work at elementary.  Why have we spent so much time teaching writing and reading separately when they are so obviously interconnected? The structure in middle school is helping us to think from backward design approach to teaching:  What do we want the kids to know and be able to do, how will we know, and how will we get them there?  Looking to the standards and the Units of Study across reading and writing has helped us to think how we balance across the cycle of reading and writing instruction to support the end result…improved thinking and communication of ideas.

So I have turned to several texts to help guide my way

Shades of Meaning:  Comprehension and Interpretation in Middle Schoolby Donna Santman

Energize Research Reading and Writing: Fresh Strategies to Spark Interest, Develop Independence, and Meet Key Common Core Standards, Grades 4-8 by Christopher Lehman

Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Text-and Life by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts

The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook, Grades 3-6 by Jennifer Serravallo

Independent Reading Assessment, Grade 5 by Jennifer Serravallo

Igniting a Passion for Readingby Steven L. Layne

I would love to know the tips and tricks you have for working with middle school.  We are currently following an 80 minute block where we cycle reading and writing lessons across a unit of study.  We are also using the TCRWP recommended 7 day cycle, in which we spend the first three days in heavy teaching through shared reading, minilesson, and writing about reading.  This has allowed us to gather work samples from 45 kids in each grade that we can assess on a shared continuum.  Then we use this information to plan for small group instruction, conferences, and teaching points over the next 4 days as kids work independently with support applying what they learned.  We just started this cycle with a nonfiction research unit in which the kids will then develop a claim supported by text evidence to write a Research Based Argument Essay following the TCRWP Units of Study.  I will let  you know how it goes and post our unit and work samples once we are finished!

Happy Thinking,

Amber

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