Teachers of middle school reading have their own, unique set of challenges. On the one hand, there is the pressure to get middle schoolers ready for high school. In high school, the demands will be high, to say the least. Students will be expected to wrestle with complex texts with minimal help. They’ll be expected to read and digest information quickly, and to write well about what they read. The inclination for many middle school reading teachers is to prepare students for a high school curriculum by angling their own curriculum toward what will come in high school. On the other hand, most middle schoolers still need plenty of instruction in reading skill work, and many are not quite ready for the high levels of text complexity of whole class novels. So what is a middle school teacher to do?
When we teach students to express themselves well in writing, we are doing so much more than simply helping them to do better on school assignments. We are giving them tools so that they can express themselves to the world in the best ways possible. When we teach students to become better writers, we are teaching them to become better thinkers. We are teaching them to connect ideas, to unpack arguments, to angle details, and to draw conclusions. Perhaps most importantly of all, we are teaching them that what they have to say matters.
Many students feel powerless in their environments. They don’t feel they have a voice, or a place in the world to share it. In writing workshop, we can teach them that they do have power, the power of words, and they do have a voice, a voice they can use for good. Any writing unit in which students are taught to choose and grow their own ideas (every unit in the Units of Study for Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing, that is) will help students to find their voices. But there are some that are more specifically angled toward helping students to identify and express their opinions on topics that matter to them. These are:
In reading workshop classrooms, many goals that teachers have for students and that students have for themselves are tangible and measurable. These include being able to read books at higher levels of text complexity and becoming more skilled in areas such as inferencing, predicting, and thinking critically. There are other goals that workshop teachers keep in mind that are perhaps less tangible and measurable but are nonetheless just as important when helping children to develop thoughtful, rich reading lives. These include working well in partnerships, developing greater independence in managing the reading process, and bravery when tackling the challenges that arise when becoming a better reader.
To move a child to become a lifelong reader and writer takes commitment, passion, resources, and teamwork. The most powerful teams extend beyond the child and her classroom teacher to include other students, other teachers and administrators, and, not least, the child’s parents and caregivers. Certainly, in most cases, everyone on the team wants the child to succeed at reading and writing. But on the best teams, everyone shares an understanding of what success looks like and what it takes to get there.
Earlier this year, Lucy Calkins and colleagues released a new series aimed at supporting upper-grade students who are new to writing workshop. This series, Up the Ladder: Accessing Grades 3-6 Writing Units of Study is a powerful resource that leads to noticeable, rapid improvements in students’ work. The series contains three units, one each in narrative, opinion, and information writing. In each unit, students have the opportunity to experience the writing process repeatedly and to learn essential characteristics of each genre.
If you are new to teaching reading workshop, welcome! You are in for a wonderful experience, where you will watch your students flourish as readers as they read books of their choosing, at optimal reading levels, for long stretches of time, while receiving targeted instruction on specific skills. If you are a reading workshop veteran, you know there is always room to hone your craft, and each new school year brings an opportunity to launch your best reading workshop yet, as you bring the experiences of past years to bear on your teaching.