MS Language Arts: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

Probably a subtitle more like: “Bravely going where no language arts teacher has gone before” might’ve been more appropriate.

Our middle school language arts teachers have been on quite a journey this year, and we’re capping it off with our second joint meeting tomorrow (ALL 14 teachers from grades 6-8 at both MS buildings, plus an intervention specialist, plus a media specialist).  We’ve tackled BOTH text complexity and curriculum mapping simultaneously this year, and to say that it’s been chaotic is an understatement.  But, it is with absolute appreciation for the hard work of these teachers that I can say we have accomplished something awesome.

Tackling Text Complexity

We started the year by making a decision 6-12 to look at the books we are currently using and figure out if they still fit in the context of the Common Core.  In October’s department meetings (voluntary, after school), MS and HS teachers inventoried their book rooms and text purchases to create one list of all books currently used at each grade level.  They also looked up the Lexiles for each of the texts.

I was operating under the assumption that if it fit the Lexile, there was no need to discuss whether or not the text fit in the grade level, but if it didn’t, then we needed to use a qualitative rubric to debate its appropriateness.  We tried this, and quickly realized we could spend all of our precious department time debating the merits of a book until we talked ourselves into making it fit.  So, using a qualitative rubric to assess books with lower Lexiles did not work for us.

Going back to the drawing board, as a group the MS  teachers decided that no book whose Lexile was lower than the suggested grade band (925 on low end) could be used as a whole-class novel.  We had a LOT of books on our list that weren’t up to the Lexile level, and we moved those to our “differentiating for struggling readers” list (more about this in a minute).  With permission of our department heads, here is the list we finally settled on at the middle schools:  ELA Text List*

We are now working to choose 1-2 texts (1 fiction and 1 informational) that will be the basis for common units at each grade level across the two buildings.  So ALL 6th grade teachers would use the same whole-class novel and the same whole-class informational text, for example.

(*Side note: This list is our list of texts that work for our school district.  Other districts may read the same texts at different grades)

The Parallel Conversation:  Mapping Units

About a year ago on this blog I started talking about Sarah Wessling’s “fulcrum/context/texture” text idea (p. 22-28), which I love.  I wanted to combine this idea with the PARCC Model Content Frameworks whereby a “fulcrum” text (Wessling) becomes the “extended” text (PARCC) and “Context/Texture” texts (Wessling) become the “short texts” (PARCC).

I then wanted to use this combined idea to reconcile the argument between “grade level” texts (those that meet the complexity expectations) and “instructional level” texts (those at student’s reading levels.  (Again, something I discussed here and here).  This Prezi describes how we will be pulling the three efforts together tomorrow to create two shared units at both buildings:


Going back to the ELA List above, books in the right column can only be used as context/texture for students reading below grade level, whereas books in the left column are the choices for whole-class, “extended text” usage.  Planning for writing/research, language, and speaking and listening standards can be done within the context of planning thematic/topical units.

I’ll be spending much of this afternoon creating a visual representation that teachers can use tomorrow as a graphic organizer.  As soon as its available, I’ll share.

UPDATE:  Here are the visuals I created…

My Takeaways:

  • Teachers shared that tackling both text complexity and mapping at the same time was a challenge.
  • On using the qualitative rubric–it was very easy for us to talk ourselves into defending any book at a grade level.  As we all know, any book can be made infinitely more challenging depending on the level of the task, but we had to set a bar of expectation based on something concrete (like a Lexile score).
  • MS teachers (at least in our case) are coming from an instructional structure of constant differentiation.  Our teachers have, rightfully so, taught reading at levels as defined by each students reading level (determined by an assessment).  Asking them to require all students to read a high-Lexiled text is a complete mind shift for them.  We are proceeding cautiously with the understanding that we are experimenting; we are going to scaffold the heck out of grade-level texts, and we are going to pre-plan close readings for struggling students over essential excerpts from the book.  We are going to plan units that will provide appropriate amounts of context through differentiated pieces in preparation for the grade-level text.  This is going to be a huge challenge, but we are moving forward with an expectation of revising.
  • Teachers see value in this kind of unit planning and like the idea of text sets.
  • I see little value in the textbook anthology–if the texts don’t fit our unit sets, why would we need 500+ pages of random stories?  We design our units, not the textbook publishers.  We could venture into iBooks and creating our own unit “text books.”
  • We have to keep a focus on the language strand.  Grammar always tends to be moved to the back burner, but we need to ensure it as a priority.

10 thoughts on “MS Language Arts: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the hard work of you and your colleagues. I completely agree with your misgivings about the qualitative rubric, but worry that without it, some books will not be used at all. I also worry that books that are thematically inappropriate will be used in 4th or 5th grade simply because they’re within the Lexile band. I look forward to reading more about your journey.


    • Thanks. We did have conversations about the qualitative portion, but since we were working from a list of books currently in use, we operated under the assumption that they were appropriate. Now, looking forward, as we consider new texts, I can see the qualitative dimensions becoming more important for reader appropriateness. Thanks for reading!


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  3. Christina,
    My colleague and I read a lot of blogs and information about Common Core. Yours stands out as one of the only that really gets to the heart of how these standards translate to the school and classroom. More specifically, your discussions of how to BUILD Common Core ELA units is particularly helpful. Most sites don’t address this important practical question and, those that do, typically just supply teachers with the units as opposed to offering insights into HOW the units should be built to meet the demands of the standards.

    Two thoughts on your most recent blog entry: (1) We recommend one “featured text” (aka “fulcrum text”) per unit as opposed to two. With the use of additional, complementary texts and digital resources (used for background knowledge and end of unit comparisons, synthesis, research projects, etc.), we think that close reading through two dense, complex texts might be too much in many cases. (2) You mention that you focused your text complexity discussions on books that fell below the recommended Lexile levels for each grade level. While certainly less common, we’ve found that some teachers are teaching texts that may fall above the recommended levels as well. This can be particularly true when teachers are using digital texts, which tend to be Lexiled much higher than one might expect (Lexile’s Analyzer can be great to assess the readability of these digital texts). This isn’t to say that teachers can’t continue to use these high-level Lexile texts (particularly as “context” or “textured texts”), but teachers may want to use read-alouds or excerpted sections when Lexiles suggest the text to be too rigorous for students.

    Just my two cents. Thanks so much for the great blog! Your teachers are lucky to have you leading the charge!



    • First, thank you for your comment! I think you are exactly right about there not being the practical “How to…” piece right now. We have an end result (assessments) and we have the starting point (standards), and we have WHOLE lot of companies professing to be standards-aligned, but nothing truly showing the practical element of doing the work. I am so glad you are finding value in these ideas!

      Next–we’re going with one fulcrum text as well. Sorry if I implied there were two, but we are focused on one. (Side note and separate blog post–we were struggling with how to achieve those higher reading levels with our struggling readers. I kept telling our teachers to “focus on doing a really good, close reading on the most crucial parts of the fulcrum with those kids, and know/accept that they will skim/not get the rest.” One of our SPED teachers had an awesome idea to use an altered version of the fulcrum but to switch and do the close read/guided read/scaffolded read on those crucial parts using the grade-level appropriate text. I think it’s a fantastic way to reconcile the reading ability vs. frustration level conversation for struggling readers!!)

      Your second point–I can certainly see that happening, especially when teachers are aiming higher without tremendous guidance. I could see some going to extremes thinking that if they do something really difficult, they are achieving the standards. I agree with your recommendations!

      Thank you, thank you for your compliments. I love the work I do 🙂


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  7. Christina, you’re doing a fantastic job and I love seeing you as you expand your leadership and do such good things. Would you consider writing a guest post for the ORC language arts blog.


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