Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Write in the Middle
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Listen to the Experts

Sue Swaim's Reflections

Workshop 1: Creating a Community of Writers

Understanding the physiological and emotional growth during adolescence

Kids that are between the ages of 10 through 14 are going through more change in their life than in any other time during their life except for the first three years, only this time they're really conscious participants of it. They're changing dramatically on how they think about things, their intellectual thought process. They're doing a phenomenal growth spurt during this time, although it happens for each kid very individually and at different rates. There is certainly new interest, and in peer relationships, the emotions that they're going through, the setting of values, that really impacts the rest of their life. And one of the things that all kids in this age group have in common is that they're all going through a phenomenal amount of change—albeit for each one their own unique change pattern—but it is happening within this time frame. And that does impact, then, how we work with these kids, how they learn, the types of instructional strategies that we use, the kind of curriculum we put and make available so that they can become active, engaged participants and that. It does impact that.

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Designing a curriculum with middle level students in mind

We know kids of this age really respond well to a curriculum that's relevant to them, that's challenging, that it is something they can get their hands into, and they learn through doing. And writing certainly can be, and the process of writing can be a very active learning experience if you make it something that is an inquiry-based type of experience, you know, the opportunity to explore, to do research, to interact is very much who they are at this time. Writing can give you an opportunity to work in small peer groups, so it begins to, also in a positive way, use that peer group and bring them together as a community of learners. All of those things really feed into who they are and what they need at this time.

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Importance of active, engaging, relevant curriculum

I can't underscore enough the importance of getting these kids engaged in relevant, meaningful, challenging curriculum, and that you do it in a way that gets them actively engaged. They're not meant to be passive learners. They learn through doing.

So when you use the kinds of teaching, such as in writing, the writing workshop is used a lot and it certainly is one that when used appropriately is very effective with this age group; you know, it allows for individualizing instruction, differentiated learning strategies, small groups—small groups of learners. It gives them choice. They can have personal choice in that all of those things are really teaching to the strength of the age group that you're working with. Writing gives you lots of opportunities for that.

I think that's one of the nice things about in writing, giving kids an opportunity to have choice over what their topic is. Some kids will be at a point where they're writing about themselves, or writing about interests or hobbies that are important to them. Other kids get very into taking stances, endangered species, saving the animals, saving the environment, taking on causes, being able to research it because that's relevant to them like now.

And you can take all of those and very easily tie them into what your required curriculum is, what is meaningful for them. And I think that is one of the benefits of using, for example, a workshop process in writing where kids get to choose those topics that are important to them.

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Adolescents and reflective thinking

I think any adolescents would surprise us about how reflective they are. I think they spend a lot of time thinking about themselves, thinking about their peer group, trying to figure out who they're becoming. They do a lot of reflective thinking. So, I think they're very capable of it. I think the challenge is, how do we take it and guide it productively? How do we do it in a learning environment and a learning community where they can risk that and to share that reflection without a sense of potential putdown or ridicule, especially from peers? So it's building that trust, it's building that process about, this how we respectfully do it, and it's about giving it time.

Some kids, I think, initially will appear that perhaps they aren't being very reflective or it feels like it's shallow. Well, it takes time and it takes practice; and so you don't move away from it, you stay on the course, and you give it time to grow. But I'm convinced that they're very capable of doing that.

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Integrated reading and writing instruction

I think especially at the middle level, looking at this content—reading and writing— because they are really making a terrific change of learning how to read and learning how to write to now—use reading and writing to learn, to communicate, and that really begins to happen for the first time at middle level. And so if we don't look at what that means across the content areas, then I think we're missing out on a critical opportunity to help kids become lifelong learners because that's what's needed in order to really build that foundation for being a lifelong learner. And I think too many times when we look at what we consider a reading and writing program we don't see that part of it there and developed the way it should be.

And the third component is, how do you help kids begin to see reading and writing for the love of it, to have fun with it, for the enjoyment of it? This is an age where they also begin to develop those types of attitudes that serve them well for the rest of their life. And I think you don't hope it happens by accident, you sit down and consciously address it and consciously develop a curriculum and professional development that addresses that. And when it really begins to happen is at the middle school, and I would hope we would be looking at that.

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