“Yeah, but the mentor text is shorter, maybe you could cut out a few words.”
The two boys look again at the lead they’ve been using as a model: “There’s no dignity in poverty.” They compare their writing to the mentor text, discussing what they’ve been learning about meter and rhyme and the need for a catchy phrase to help anchor their audience’s attention. After a moment more of discussion, they return to the speeches they are writing as a part of the Grade 6 Development Unit.
This style of learning will be familiar to parents who have had children come through the Primary School at East Campus. The ‘Workshop’ approach uses a combination of structured ‘mini-lessons’ mixed with sustained periods for students to write and conference with their teacher and student partners. At the heart of Workshop is the belief that children want to write and that writing instruction should be focused and succinct leaving time for students to apply and consolidate skills.
In Primary School, reading instruction similarly focuses on particular skills and emphasises building students’ reading volume and stamina. The teacher’s key objective is to help the students find the right book for their reading ability and interests and to keep them reading.
Learning in High School English classes can look quite different. In High School students will spend sustained periods of time in whole class discussion around one novel and teaching points will often come organically from this discussion. Writing becomes increasingly focused on the essay form and feedback focuses as much on students’ ideas as on the craft of writing. This transition from learning in Primary to High School is sometimes described as the difference between “learning to read and write and reading and writing to learn.”
What should reading and writing instruction look like in the Middle School?
Middle School is, of course, in the middle and we need to do a bit of both. Middle School students have a very particular set of developmental needs and learning instruction needs both to recognise what is unique to early adolescence and also where students are in their journey through the curriculum. Over the past year, Middle School English teachers have been working with our colleagues in Primary and High School to decide how best to build on the success of the Workshop approach in Primary School as we prepare students for High School.
UWCSEA’s English Standards and Benchmarks describe what we should teach; our discussions have centred on articulating how best to deliver this curriculum. What has resulted is a plan to extend the Columbia University Workshop approach through Middle School but with modifications to meet the needs of our particular circumstances at UWCSEA East. We have been trialling many of the teaching strategies from Workshop already and parents will notice many similarities in the way writing is taught between the Primary and Middle Schools.
The big challenge in our planning has been around reading. By Grade 6 or 7 students are classified as ‘independent’ readers, meaning that, whilst they need guidance in their reading choices, they don’t need the same kinds of support in learning how to read.
A lot of our discussion has been about how to encourage good independent reading habits when the demands on students’ time are increasing. The establishment of a dedicated Middle School section in the library has helped, and we have also decided to establish libraries in all Middle School English classrooms. High School is exploring a similar approach. The emphasis is on maintaining stamina and engagement in a wider range of novels to supplement the class texts.
Reading and Writing Workshop supports a rich environment for learning; we believe it provides the best foundation for building skilled, confident and capable readers and writers—ready to face the complex communication challenges ahead of them.
Head of Middle School English