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,



Pathways to the Common Core

So I just began reading (and finished in a day) Pathways to the Common Core by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman.  It got me thinking about how much literacy work we try to cram into ELA time, while neglecting it in other content areas.  I had some real ah-has as I began to consider how we spread out the meeting of the ELA standards across disciplines, especially in the intermediate and middle school grades.  I just started in my new district about 6 weeks ago and I have been struck about the collaboration between the ELA middle school teacher and our science and social studies teachers.  Currently in 7th grade, they are working on Research-Based Argumentative writing.  Both the science and the ELA teacher are working collaborating to support the reading and writing of text across the two content areas, not only using the same structure and exemplars for essay writing, but also thinking about the kind of reading within research topics they need to do across the two settings.  Similarly, during the historical fiction reading unit, the Social Studies and ELA teachers collaborated, with the ELA teacher focusing on the fiction aspects and reading within the unit, while the Social Studies teacher increased the amount of nonfiction reading within those time periods to help the students gain a greater depth of understanding and background knowledge to support their ELA work.  They have also gone so far on their cross-content area teams to study the same samples of student writing, to discuss the different lenses with which they examine the content and structure of the writing in order to get a better sense of how to assess the overall development of a writer.  I have to say, while I have always thought this kind of work should be done, this is new thinking for me about how we teach literacy skills in content areas.  It is also new thinking for me in how we achieve the demands of the common core.  I am finding many places buying loads of nonfiction purely to satisfy the ELA demand of 70/30 in the upper grades, when in fact, we maybe need to closer scrutinize what we are currently using in our content areas, whether it is just right reading material and whether we are teaching the skills to read and analyze the texts well, as a source for meeting that lofty goal.  I have a better understanding of the possible purpose behind the focus on nonfiction in common core; that we stop trying to cram it all in during our 90-120 minute blocks, and start thinking smarter about how literacy is infused across the day and how we are all teachers of literacy.

  I would love to know more about how others are doing this, particularly at the elementary levels.


Let’s Collaborate-Work Smarter not Harder

As I have embarked on the journey to move back into literacy coaching, supporting new and veteran teachers just beginning to use the Calkins Units of Study, I find myself reaching out to my friends and colleagues who have been part of the newest TCRWP work and thinking around workshop teaching, intervention, and enrichment. I decided we need a place to collaborate together, to share ideas, ask questions, and work together around shared inquiries and staff development. My hope is that eventually we can use this place to develop our own Think Tank to further our work as coaches. More heads are better than one!


Amber Bartlein

Erin School Literacy Coach