Writing isn’t easy, and to a middle schooler, it can be downright hard. Let’s face it, the ability to write well — to be clear in your message, to effectively reach your audience — takes practice. In our Middle School, that practice used to happen in English class, in which teachers would split instructional time between writing, reading, and other literacy skills. To be sure, reading and writing are a natural fit; they pair well, like Q and U, but as we began reimagining learning at McGillis for the 2020/2021 school year, we seized the opportunity to offer Middle School students a stand-alone writing course where they could practice skills in a new, focused environment.
Perhaps most important, in a stand-alone Writing class the focus is more squarely on the writing process. While students experience writing in a variety of styles, the curriculum is anchored to the writing process. The more practice they have with it, the more students become aware of how helpful it is to break writing down into its component parts: outlining, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. As a stand-alone class, Writing is also easier to integrate with other subjects. Whether students are writing a lab paper for Science or a speech for Humanities, they can draft, revise, and edit those assignments in Writing class, connecting the content of one class with the skills of another.
Here’s a glimpse into what this new approach looks like in each grade.
In order to be ready to develop the analytical skills required for Seventh and Eighth Grade, Sixth Grade students must build their confidence and their endurance. The beginning of the year is focused on transitioning the Sixth Graders to the policies and procedures of Middle School, in addition to as much practice drafting as possible. The students are introduced to the TBDEC organizational format, and its adaptive qualities.
The highlight of Writing during Sixth Grade is how well it integrates with the other grade level disciplines. Students complete writing projects in Science and Humanities. Although these disciplines are different, the writing process remains the same for each discipline. In addition, learning technical content while also practicing the drafting and revision process is a complex cognitive task. In Writing, we are able to support the distinct steps of the writing process while students are also mastering the interconnectedness of ecosystems or the theory of natural selection. This specialized approach allows students to deepen their understanding of content, while seeing that writing is an integral part of each discipline.
As students are writing across the curriculum, we are exploring new modes of writing. Each student wrote a variety of monologues leading up to their trimester in Drama. For Humanities, we played with themes and sequencing in order to explore the murky definition of memoir writing. The integrated nature of this year in Writing has allowed students an increased amount of practice. This practice will be the foundation for their writing journeys throughout their time at The McGillis School.
Seventh Grade is about developing critical thinking skills about writing, particularly with structure and audience in mind. We ask questions like, “Does my piece say what I think it says?” or “What is the impact of this word versus that word?” The focus turns outward, to the reader, and to how writers can shape communication through craft and elaboration. We sharpen our analytical thinking skills by digging into poetry. We utilize critical thinking by constantly revising and editing our own work, as well as the work of other writers.
We start the year with the simple TBDEC paragraph format. However, it doesn’t take long for us to leave the overarching structure and zero in on the details of sequencing a logical argument, elaborating on an example, analyzing text evidence, and the impact of word choice. The simple paragraph structure opens up and provides opportunities to adapt into speeches, essays, and summaries. By the end of the year, students will be able to expand that one paragraph into five paragraphs and complete a full essay that incorporates text evidence and a deepening analysis, while continuing to build the habits of the whole writing process.
Word choice and structure are concepts we explore even in creative writing, such as novels in verse. We read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds as a class to explore the way structure and word choice combine to create a narrative story in an epic poem format. The students then wrote their own novels in verse to explore how structure impacts the telling of a story, or the transmission of information to the reader.
In Eighth Grade, most of our writing practice is focused on argument writing — making claims and supporting them with evidence. This is the type of writing that students can expect to do most in high school, so it is something we revisit often. In particular we push students not only to refine their own arguments, but anticipate and acknowledge counterarguments in their writing. This year that took the form of an “empathy editorial,” in which students wrote an entire argumentative essay from the opposing side. Students also wrote argumentative essays for Science class in Writing class, and we plan on ending the year with literary analysis essays to prepare them up for their high school English classes.
As an exercise in writing informatively and concisely, Eighth Graders also tried their hands at news writing, developing story ideas and writing news articles relevant to the McGillis community. Their student newspaper goes to press soon and will be made available to the community.
Perhaps the least glamorous aspect of Eighth Grade writing is our study of grammar and punctuation. By all accounts, it is the Writing class equivalent of eating your vegetables, but it is fundamental to writing clearly, and students quickly see the merit of their practice. This year we’ve leveraged the assistance of NoRedInk, a web-based learning platform that allows teachers and students to identify gaps in knowledge and build skills in an easy-to-use, personalized format.
Writing can be a scary prospect for a student of any age - but that can change. Our stand alone Writing course offered throughout Middle School offers authentic practice, a variety of strategies, and cross-discipline exploration. Our greatest hope is that as our Magpies fly out into the world, they can confidently tackle any writing challenge, big or small. Whether it be a letter of interest for their first job, reporting on current events, or documenting their world-changing scientific discoveries, each student will be equipped with the skills and experience needed to communicate effectively through writing.