Reading and writing are woven through our curriculum, beginning in preschool. This invites all students into our campus-wide culture of literacy, while also encouraging skill development. To explore what that looks like across grade levels, we sat down with Noam Yaffe (1st grade lead teacher) and Rachel Van Carpels (7th/8th grade literature).
Noam’s 1st graders began their year with a literature assignment: to bring their favorite books to school. “That’s a great way to immediately promote their love of literature,” Noam says, “and it introduces the very first round of reading skills.” Where are the title and author? Is the book fiction, or nonfiction? How do we know? How can you tell if you might be interested?
Noam uses “a mix of whole language and direct phonics instruction in 1st grade,” exploring consonants and vowels, letter sound correspondence, rhyme and syllables, as well as taking up larger projects like writing letters to each other.
During their Food unit, the class created a customized alphabet chart, voting on which food would represent each letter. They illustrated the letters themselves and Noam assembled the chart. “The skills are not in isolation,” he says.
Another example is Person of the Week, for which students interview each other, practicing describing themselves and their peers just as they might a fictional character. “While we do have a certain time of day that is literacy, we have an interdisciplinary approach; it feeds into everything else.”
When Rachel first came to High Meadow, she was an assistant teacher in 1st grade for a year. “I learned so much that year that has helped me teach the Upper School grades,” she says. “Every student learns how to read in different ways. Some are visual processors, some are auditory processors, some make meaning by talking about it with somebody else, they process it verbally.”
In her third year teaching 7th and 8th grade, Rachel has incorporated Literature Circles. Circles of 3-5 students form around interest in a particular book selected from a themed list. During discussion, Circle members take up rotating “jobs” such as making connections between the text and their own life or world events, or identifying symbolic and challenging language.
Students practice these jobs together at the beginning of 7th grade, so they are prepared to work independently, engaging directly with the text and with each other. Because they choose from multiple books – right now, 8th graders are reading sci-fi/fantasy novels – students can select material that offers appropriate challenge and have a sense of ownership of their reading.
Rachel sees literacy as not only as “the ability to identify and use literary tools,” but also as “a tool of informed, contributing members of society.” In their next unit, 7th graders will read books related to immigration in their Literature Circles. These international stories will help students explore questions like, What makes immigration hard? How does it feel to be an immigrant?
“We try to use narrative-style texts in the social studies curriculum, as well,” Rachel says, such as Howard Zinn’s, A Young People’s History of the United States, as stories are powerful tools for learning in any discipline. Along with the reading and writing skills they’ll need in high school, all of our teachers hope that students leave HMS with a personal connection to and love of literature, and a respect for its power to affect both personal and societal change.