Raising the Bar, Part 2
Levine Academy

Going Deeper with Reading and Writing-the New Normal at Levine

Levine Academy may just go up to 8th grade, but for Joanie Geffen, the school's longtime reigning monarch of middle school language arts, our reading and writing program is about getting our students ready for 11th grade. As Ms. Geffen will say, "I don't teach 7th and 8th grade-I'm actually teaching 7th through 10th grade here at Levine."

Indeed, the experience of reading and writing all the way through 8th grade at Levine is positioning our graduates for confidence and success in the Dallas area's most rigorous high school programs. Our alums frequently come back to tell us how prepared they feel.

Ms. Geffen is not alone at Levine when it comes to high expectations and high standards for her students. Across the K8 instructional landscape, teachers are taking reading and writing to a whole new level of quality with several effective strategies: dynamic levelling; reader's workshop; valuing student voices; creativity (like our 2nd Graders' Character Study Presentations in the gymnasium this week!); passionate teaching; student choice, and vertical instruction, to name just a few strategies. We want to touch on a couple of these approaches: dynamic levelling and vertical instruction.

In dynamic levelling, high challenge instruction is put on autopilot. This is a digital non-fiction reading program that will adjust the reading level upward, for example, when a student is answering a set of questions on the text quickly and accurately. Here's how it works in a 6th grade classroom: let's say a student is given a text to read at an 800 lexile level - which would be slightly above grade level. If the student moves through the assignment swiftly and comprehends fully, the article's continuation might automatically switch to a much higher lexile, such as 1,100 or 1,200, which would be several grade levels above sixth grade. That's the magic of the "Newsela Pro" program being implemented in 2nd through 6th grade, furnishing the language arts classroom, with differentiated, high-interest texts that are organized by content area and aligned with Levine's reading standards. There is no time wasted in delivering appropriately challenging reading content to match a student's needs.

"Newsela Pro" program being implemented in 2nd through 6th grade, furnishing the language arts classroom, with differentiated, high-interest texts that are organized by content area and aligned with Levine's reading standards. There is no time wasted in delivering appropriately challenging reading content to match a student's needs.

 

At Levine, all of our teachers emphasize vertical instruction. Vertical means going into greater depth, or going deeper into the subject, as opposed to horizontal, which is teaching a greater quantity of content though on a more superficial level. This works for both reading and writing. Getting students to go deeper with their writing, for example, such as revising sentences or a paragraph to include more details or stronger support, may be the result of a simple teacher prompt: "Is this your best work?" Or deeper revision can happen with peer review strategies-teachers use peer review in both lower and middle school. Students learn to read their fellow student's work closely and critically by applying the class rubric or after seeing an essay model. Peer student reviews can be very effective in helping the student writer to see his or her opportunities for improvement. Whatever the method, all teachers know that diving deeper into the interpretation of a literary passage, or penetrating one's essay topic on a deeper level, is the norm in what teachers are striving to accomplish with their students.

Our lower school reading and writing program has been retooled over the last couple of years in order to provide a solid and strong foundation of the core skills. To meet the needs of all of our students and to advance our most advanced readers, instruction includes the acclaimed Fountas and Pinell benchmark assessment system and MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) testing. Differentiated spelling lists are designed to challenge our good spellers.

With Collaborative Literacy in K thru 3rd Grade, students aren't just learning to read and write; they are learning to be readers and writers who think critically and learn from and care for one another. They develop a genuine interest in and love of reading, and they are motivated to write purposefully with a real audience in mind. They are part of a classroom community where students feel empowered, are supported in taking risks, and are responsible to themselves and the group.

While the writing standards have been freshly articulated across all grade levels over the past year by our instructional leaders and faculty, pulling from the most stringent national standards available, the real impact on creating better readers and writers comes from genuine care from teachers who are instilling faith and confidence in their students. "Teaching is about getting kids to see the value that they have in this world," says Joanie Geffen. "Kids have to have faith in themselves."