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Upper School Writing, BANNER March 2016

Writing has always been a central subject in Brookwood’s Upper School and the division’s English department has boasted many fine teachers over the years. Today the three writing teachers in the division are building on that legacy and creating a particularly dynamic, well-designed curriculum. 

"The Upper School English Department is incredibly cohesive in that all three teachers seamlessly complement each other.  The focus, scope and sequence, and continuum in the writing program from grades six through eight offer students an enriching exposure to the craft of writing," says Upper School Head Evan Diamond. "Department Coordinator Ray Falconer has taken the department in a highly deliberate direction, and all three members of the department are incredibly thoughtful about bringing a high level of consistency to each successive grade level's instruction."

This collaboration sets each teacher up for success in expressing individuality in their classroom work while remaining true to the continuum within the department. Sixth grade teacher Maile Black, seventh grade teacher Adam Kuhlmann, and eighth grade teacher Ray Falconer, each have a distinct style and personality, yet the work in all three grades knits together seamlessly.

“Adam, Maile, and I meet biweekly, and we discuss not only the sorts of writing we teach, but how we teach it, right down to the instructional language we use. For instance, we have detailed discussions about exactly what ought to take place in a writing conference, how we respond to writing when we write comments on drafts, and what are the key elements of the genres we teach (for example: essay, story, poem),” explains Ray. 

Students begin their Upper School study of English with Maile, whose writing assignments Ray says, “encourage her students to express deeply-held beliefs in language crafted to be clear and persuasive. She is passionate about literature and the world, and her classroom, as well as the clubs she sponsors (Hot Topics, Book Club), are venues for developing the spoken and written voice in order to be effective in the real world.”

“My class is best known for getting everyone to write a LOT, and to enjoy (to varying degrees) the process. From fifth grade, I get pretty capable writers – they've spent their time at Brookwood learning about organization, idea development, and so forth. Kids coming in new are motivated and well prepared, too,” Maile says.

Sixth grade work is “kid-driven,” Maile adds, “meaning that they have a lot of freedom around choosing what to write about.” Topics chosen, Maile moves on to very specific instruction about writing effectively. “In my class, kids work on vocabulary and word choice, structuring sentences, paragraphing effectively, building arguments, painting word pictures, developing character/setting/plot, etc.,” Maile explains.

The types of writing assignments Maile gives her students are creative, such as TED Talks, crafted written debates, and “Important Things” pieces. Public speaking and presenting one’s writing is also an important part of a Grade 6 English class.

Maile explains the age group’s developmental stage is ripe for this work in particular. “Sixth graders’ minds are open and trusting, and many of them still want to spill their hearts out on the page. They also are developing an urge to speak their minds, and the developing sense of self we sixth grade teachers get to witness is heartwarming and exciting. Every day some idea is a new epiphany for one of these kids. They seem to be so open to new ideas and information,” Maile says.

In seventh grade, students move to Adam Kuhlmann’s class, which Evan describes as “very analytical.” “In Adam’s class, students learn to write and read in a precise manner. There’s a lot of depth around each of the subjects. He makes them better writers and readers by focusing on the craft and all the dynamics that go into that craft,” Evan says.

Ray adds, “Adam is exact and clear. His writing assignments are progressive and ordered to isolate and teach each of the key elements necessary for strong writing in a given genre. He is very thoughtful about every detail of his instruction.”

For his seventh grade students, Adam continues the stream of having students engage in various types of writing beyond what you’d find in the average middle school classroom. “I'd like my seventh graders to grow more proficient with a range of real-world genres – not just staid academic writing. That's why we produce short stories and newspaper editorials as well as literary essays. I'd also like them to grow more comfortable and independent with each phase of the writing process, from brainstorming through drafting and revision.”  

He continues, adding that reading is also central to his teaching of writing. “I hope they'll learn that their lives as readers and writers are symbiotic. That is, they can use the texts they've admired as readers to coach them in their own writing. Similarly, they can use their experiences as writers to better understand the craft of the literature they read.”

An accomplished writer and a published author, Adam writes some of the material he uses in his class, deliberately employing the things he's working to teach his students.

“Ultimately, writing is a tool that empowers, because it allows kids to exert more control over their internal and external lives.  For instance, a seventh grader might write a memoir to gain a better understanding of that day her best friend moved away – and how that trauma continues to shape her relationships.  Or he might write an editorial in order to convince his community that climate change must be addressed,” he explains. “Helping seventh graders to develop this tool and tap into its power is complicated. Not only does it require a great number of careful pedagogical choices, but also it depends on a fundamental trust between the student and teacher. But when I sense that a student has seized just a bit more control over the chaotic worlds within and without, it's profoundly satisfying.”  

Ray shares in the satisfaction Adam finds in teaching this age student. “It is perfectly appropriate to call them middle-schoolers because they are physically, emotionally, and intellectually straddling the middle ground between childhood and adulthood. I have always found the age group exciting because they possess the particular appeals of children -- they are loving, forgiving, and joyful -- while they are developing the emotional and intellectual subtlety more characteristic of adults, which means we can do pretty deep work together.”

And in-depth work is exactly what Ray does with his students according to Evan. "Ray’s eighth grade English class is like a freshman English course in high school,” Evan says. “He focuses on writing and his students become literary essayists. In his class he may teach more traditional topics – like classic texts and real, in-depth literary analysis – but the ways he teaches is not traditional.”

“I am indeed fortunate that most of my students come having received a strong foundation in the ethos, habits, and genre specifics of the writing life. In eighth grade, it is my hope to extend those lessons in service of more sophisticated expression, and more independent achievement,” he says.

Ray’s students learn that writing is not a solitary pursuit. “As they work, they are trained to seek thoughtful feedback in peer response groups, and for each writing assignment, they write a cover sheet that traces their decisions as writers. Our Writing Partners program exemplifies our belief that middle-schoolers, and eighth graders in particular, are at the right age to engage in writing as a collaborative act. In real life, we imagine and seek readers for our writing, and we craft our writing to suit our purposes and situations,” he says.

Through an innovative program called Writing Partners, Grade 8 students who excel in the subject work with peers who have questions or issues they are grappling with in a particular piece. Mentors are available every Monday through Thursday in study hall, and it is a very student-driven gathering. Students work together to find collaborative solutions to writing challenges, and the experience helps both mentors and mentees become stronger writers. Editing and revision, experienced in action, are seen vividly as valuable parts of the writing process.

“Writing Partners is a great example of a program being introduced into the Upper school focused solely on writing, but it’s not just about writing. It’s about members of the community who have demonstrated aptitude and self-selected that they want to share their understanding,” says Evan. “Ray is training them to do that effectively. He is a great writing coach, and there’s a workshopping philosophy that he is showing them that is allowing them to be more effective with their peers.”