Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Delivery of Instruction
- How do teachers address different abilities in the English classroom?
- How is pacing affected by mixed ability classes?
- How do teachers ensure that the class is challenging for all students?
- How do the Standards of Learning fit into this model?
Benefits to Students
- How do teachers ensure that the climate is a positive one?
- How is student motivation affected by mixed ability classes?
Communication from school to community
- How do teachers know that all students are learning?
DELIVERY OF INSTRUCTION
Instruction in the eighth grade English classroom is accomplished through a structure known as Reading/ Writing Workshop. This naturally differentiated classroom structure (modeled on the work of Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins) can be compared to a swimming team practice. In a swim team practice, the coach will often start off with a technique or drill that is applicable to all swimmers; next, the swimmers practice the technique at their own level and pace while the coach works one-on-one with swimmers to help them to refine the technique as it applies directly to them. All swimmers are improving, all swimmers are working hard, and all swimmers get direct and individualized instruction from the coach while others are involved in necessary and worthwhile practice.
In Workshop, the teacher starts off with a short lesson (known as a mini-lesson) that addresses a skill that is relevant to the whole class. Students have the opportunity to practice the skill during the lesson, getting peer and teacher feedback, before moving on to independent practice. During independent practice, students work on the skill (as well as those from previous lessons) as they read books at their own level or work on drafting pieces of their own choice. During this independent practice time, the teacher works one-on-one with students through conferences, helping students to refine their craft.
A Reading/ Writing Workshop Class
What the Teacher Does
What the Students Do
(8-15 min.)Delivers instruction on a topic/ skill of significance to all studentsPractice the skill during the lesson with close observation from the teacher
Writing Workshop (25-30 min.)Circulates to confer with individual students or small groups about areas of needWork independently on writing/ confer with teacher
Reading Mini-lesson (8-15 min.)Delivers instruction on a topic/ skill of significance to all studentsPractice the skill during the lesson with close observation from the teacher
Reading Workshop (25-30 min.)Circulates to confer with individual students or small groups about areas of needWork independently on reading/ confer with teacher
(5-10 min.)Activities vary for closure; however, it provides a chance for students to review what they have learned and done and for teachers to check again for understanding.
In addition to the class- or unit-level focus of the daily lesson, students work on long-term goals that they select with the assistance of the teacher. When setting long-term goals, students are asked to consider what they have learned and accomplished so far, and what that means about what they need to do next in order to grow as a reader and a writer. Just as a good swimming coach makes sure that swimmers know what their current times are, what they should aim for next, and what they need to do to get there, workshop teachers help students to set challenging yet appropriate goals, and then they help students to achieve them. And just as all swimmers can work on individual and highly varied goals in one pool, all readers and writers can work on individual and highly varied goals in one classroom. This type of goal-setting is highly motivating for students. Based on these realistic and individualized goals, students make reading choices; decide on group projects; and make decisions about individual writing assignments.
Learning also occurs during group projects during which students share both ideas and methods for accomplishing the tasks. Often called “cooperative learning,” this method takes advantage of the fact that each student brings a different set of life experiences to the task. As a result, students benefit from the rich and diverse experiences of their classmates. They also learn that people use different learning modalities which result in various ways to approach and complete the assignments. Students develop a healthy respect for each other as they learn how to share and then organize their ideas during the group projects. However, at no point are students tasked with teaching their peers the material at hand; rather, students are working together to accomplish tasks and meet goals.
How is pacing affected by mixed ability classes?
- Content pacing is unaffected by student academic level because pacing alters to students’ academic levels during writing workshop time. Because students have multiple projects (tailored to their interests, skills, and knowledge level), independent student pace does not affect overall classroom pace. At set intervals, all students meet curriculum standards at varying levels appropriate to their academic level.
How do teachers ensure that the class is challenging for all students?
- Mixed ability classes offer challenge and rigor at appropriate levels for different student needs through workshop goals, tiered assignments, and choice within assignments.
o Workshop goals. As described above, through reading/ writing workshop, students choose, with teacher assistance and encouragement, personal reading and writing goals that are evaluated to be challenging for that student at that point in his/her academic development.
o Tiered Assignments. In addition to working on self-selected reading and writing projects, students complete assignments designed by the 8th grade English teachers. Most assignments are tiered to offer three levels of rigor: academic, honors, and above and beyond. The honors and above and beyond options are not more work for students, but different and more complex work. This above and beyond option, in particular, helps to address the needs of the gifted and highly able learner in the English classroom.
For example, during the research project, students in the grade level (academic) section researched and compared two careers; students in the honors section did a product comparison; and students interested in the above and beyond option examined the topic of their choice. Above and beyond project choices this year have included –
§ Comparisons of the effectiveness and impact of solar vs. traditional sources of power;
§ An investigation of the impact of real Christmas trees vs. artificial trees on the environment;
§ A look at the ideologies of the two different political parties to see which is more in tune with the intentions of the Founding Fathers;
§ An investigation of the impact of environmental stimuli on mental illness;
§ A look at the health and environmental impact of bottled water vs. tap water;
§ A comparison of the economies of the US and Canada; and
§ An investigation of whether inland or coastal areas need more economic assistance in times of natural disaster.
o Student choice within assignments. Challenge is also offered through student choice within assignments. For example, in the Literary Letter assignment (which is tiered for academic and honors), students analyze a novel of their choice, meaning that students can choose novels at varying levels to meet their academic needs.
How do the Standards of Learning fit into this model?
- The SOLs are a list of standards that tell teachers the objectives or endpoints of instruction, but not how to deliver that instruction. The SOLs themselves are challenging and developmentally appropriate; for example, one 8th grade reading SOL requires students to “compare and contrast the author’s use of word choice, dialogue, rhyme, rhythm, and voice in different texts.” This single standard requires highly developed knowledge and skills from our students. In order to successfully achieve this standard, students must have
o an understanding of what voice is,
o the vocabulary to describe voice,
o the ability to find appropriate evidence to support their description,
o the skills to identify similarities and differences in an author’s use of voice in different texts, and
o the skills to analyze the evidence they have found to support their assertions about similarities and differences.
The county-designed curriculum guide gives teachers information about how to deliver instruction by defining several core experiences for each grade. For example, the SOL says that “the student will write in a variety of forms, including narration, exposition, persuasion, and informational”; the curriculum guide gives county expectations for each of those forms. For example, for persuasive writing in the 8th grade, students are required to raise and address one of the arguments of the opposition. This is not required by the state SOLs, but LCPS believes that eighth graders are developmentally ready to tackle this part of persuasive writing.
How do teachers ensure that the climate is a positive one?
- The eighth grade English teachers focus on a climate of respect in the classroom. This is initiated in the beginning of the school year through ice breaker activities, and moves into authentic academic avenues to build a positive classroom environment, such as classroom activities that promote collaborative literary discussion (inspiring lines board, recommended reading board). Additionally, the nature of the English curriculum promotes unity through shared classroom experiences.
- In class, students are largely unaware of labeling for academic and honors. Seating arrangements and cooperative groups are fluid, changing to meet the needs of the current learning objective, not the class selection.
- Teachers vigilantly maintain a no-tolerance policy for bullying of any kind, including academic bullying. The vanishingly rare instances of academic bullying have been swiftly addressed by classroom teachers, deans, and counselors.
How is student motivation affected by mixed ability classes?
- Mixed ability classes in and of themselves have little impact on motivation; however, the structures and processes of reading and writing workshop are tremendously motivating for students. Because the reading and writing workshop is designed around student choice, on different assessments, students may choose their own topics and genres to meet academic expectations in class. In this way, students are intrinsically motivated to grow as readers and writers by using choice as the vehicle to challenge themselves. Students are actually more motivated to read and write when given the opportunity to choose the topic they will explore and the genre in which they explore it.
- In addition, if students who initially selected the honors class struggle with the rigor of the expectations, they have the opportunity to transition to an academic class in English without the social stigma of changing classes or the stress of altering their entire student schedule.
BENEFITS TO STUDENTS
- All students benefit from the teacher’s attention to differentiation through the reading/ writing workshop model.
- All students benefit from the diverse experiences, interpretations, and viewpoints of their classmates. We reject the idea that students’ class selection somehow determines their ability to contribute to a class.
- Gifted and highly able students benefit from the clear and well-defined goals established by the above and beyond option.
All students benefit from the tiered model of assignments, as it requires them to reflect frequently on their current level of understanding as they select the appropriate level of challenge for their needs at the time of the assignment.
- All students benefit from the way in which the class mirrors the democratic society in which we live and work in as adults: the spectrum of learning abilities in mixed-ability collaborative groupings prepares students for the diverse world in which they will learn, live, and grow as adults following their high school education.
COMMUNICATION FROM THE SCHOOL TO THE COMMUNITY
How do teachers know that all students are achieving?
- Individual Conferences.
o Teachers collect and keep data on student conferences throughout the year to ensure that each individual student is growing as a reader and a writer.
- On-Demand Writing Assessments
o In order to gather data about progress, teachers administered a writing pre-test to all students in September. The prompts were based on the style of prompts used for the writing portion of the SAT, and the rubric was also based on the SAT rubric. This rubric goes above the expectations for the Virginia Department of Education for 8th grade writing (as is to be expected, since the rubric is used to assess the writing of college-bound high school students). This allowed us to gain a sensitive measure of students’ writing abilities at the beginning of the year.
o Teachers administered another on-demand writing test in January. Results indicated that students had made significant improvements in their on-demand writing abilities; the median improvement for students across all classes was .7, or nearly a whole point on a six-point scale.
o The writing SOL, which students took in March 2013, includes an on-demand essay. Results on this short paper were outstanding. For students enrolled in heterogeneous classes:
§ 97.6% of students were at or above standards for Composing/ Written Expression for the short paper;
§ 97.6% of students were at or above standards for Usage/ Mechanics for the short paper;
§ 55.3% of students were above standards for Composing/ Written Expression for the short paper;
§ 65.5% of students were above standards for Usage/ Mechanics for the short paper; and
§ 27.3% of students achieved the highest score possible on the short paper.
- Portfolio Assessments.
o Because on-demand writing can never tell the whole story about student achievement, students also engage in regular reflection on their growth and achievement in literacy. Student work is collected in portfolios and assessed on a regular basis (approximately once every five weeks).
o Throughout the year, all student portfolios are accessible by students, teachers, administrators, and parents so that all interested parties can monitor growth.
o At the end of the year, students completed a final portfolio reflection assessing their own growth as readers and writers. Parents and other interested adults were invited to attend portfolio presentations and ask students about their learning in English 8.