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“Exploration and expression”

How a Strategic Approach to Writing Prepares Ravens for Success

By Karen Lewis Taylor | Back to Table of Contents


Middle School: Developing divergent thinkers


“Positive, can-do mind-set”

As students move up to the Middle School, maintaining their growth mind-set around writing is a priority for the division’s Language Arts teachers.

“The Lower School does a beautiful job of giving students this foundation, and our job is to build on it,” Morrisa Nagel, who chairs the department, said. “One of the most important things for us is to support that positive, can-do mind-set — because writing is challenging, even for professional writers. We often have published authors talk to our students, and they always emphasize the importance of revision and rewriting as part of the process.”

“Starting is often the most challenging part of writing for students. One technique we use for brainstorming is the 1 Topic=18 Topics brainstorming chart, which helps students consider a single topic from multiple perspectives and better define their writing purpose,” eighth-grade Language Arts teacher Christina Frazier said. “For revising, we often have the student read their work out loud to a peer, which allows them to catch grammatical errors and listen to how their writing sounds. We also have them assess their own work using a rubric.”

Students often kick-start the writing process with graphic organizers, such as this sample from Christina Frazier’s eighth-graders’ work on “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

While the Middle School doesn’t use the workshop model, there are nevertheless important similarities to the Lower School’s approach to writing instruction. Students often have a choice in what they write about — albeit on somewhat more prescribed topics — and grammar instruction and vocabulary development are typically integrated into the writing process.

“We try to make sure they understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ we’re studying,” Nagel said. “If we’re talking about phrases and clauses, for example, I want you to know why that information matters.”

Middle School teachers continue to emphasize the building blocks of solid writing — what Nagel describes as “good, clear sentences and paragraphs” — as they begin teaching students how to craft more complex arguments.


Expanding their repertoire

That process begins in sixth grade with Humanities 6, a course introduced in 2018 that integrates reading, writing, oral presentation and critical thinking in an interdisciplinary curriculum built around the exploration of identity and community. Students synthesize what they learn from research, discussions about literature and class experiences in both formal and informal writing.

In this Fall 2019 photo, Henry Baker ’26 and Taylor McMichael ’26 discuss a novel they’re reading in Humanities 6.

“Our goal is for students to be able to express themselves with a solid paragraph or two by the end of sixth grade,” said Amy Tomblinson, who co-teaches the course with Kim Martin and Owen Asplundh. “We differentiate for those who are already able to do this well by expanding requirements for thesis statements and lengthier writing assignments.”

As they move into seventh- and eighth-grade Language Arts courses, which are differentiated by class section, students continue to focus on organization and clarity of expression while expanding their repertoire. They practice different models of expository writing, often in the context of their study of literature, and begin to develop an understanding of audience and tone.

Above: Delaney Jeff ’26 keeps up with her reading during a Middle School Battle of the Books meeting.

Left: Humanities 6 teacher Amy Tomblinson displays common terms the class uses while reading and writing.

“In eighth grade specifically, we start to home in on particular elements of the five-paragraph essay to clean them up: thesis statements for clarity, focus and stance; transitions, to move away from standard phrases like ‘in conclusion’; and the incorporation, analysis and synthesis of quotations,” Advanced Language Arts 8 teacher Sarah Baker explained. “I have found that my students are curious, motivated and resilient when it comes to their writing.”

It’s also important, teachers say, to empower students to make their writing their own.

“We want them to become divergent thinkers, to not just follow a pattern but go beyond the theme to provide some variation,” Nagel explained. “We hope that by the end of eighth grade they’re recognizing the different voices in what they’re reading and thinking about developing their own style.”

Sarah Baker’s Advanced English 8 students gather in a circle to talk about approaches to analyzing their novels in this photo from Fall 2019.


Collaboration across disciplines

Language Arts teachers are bolstered in these efforts by their colleagues in other disciplines, who incorporate rigorous writing assignments into their curricula and frequently collaborate with them on major projects. As a result, Ravens understand that writing well is critical to their growth and success across all subjects.

Above: Students in Doris Matal’s Language Arts 7 class use an online discussion board to respond to a question about utopian societies.

Left: Seventh-graders learn to create infographics as part of their work on a social studies research project in Spring 2020.

“We do a lot of research-based writing in our classes, and we follow the writing guidelines that have been set forth by the Language Arts Department,” Josh Gallagher, who chairs the Middle School Social Studies Department, said. “We do a lot of work with analyzing and dissecting primary-source documents. Students learn to make historical claims backed by documentary evidence.”

As seventh-grade science teacher Michelle Nunalee pointed out, there’s also room for creativity.

“One of our goals in seventh-grade science is for students to learn to pick out important identifying characteristics of a living thing. In their wetland journals, students often write ‘sandwich poems’ that are filled with creative language to describe an organism they are investigating — anything from moss to pine cones to birds,” she said. “It’s fun to let the students be creative, and the figurative language helps them have a sense of wonder and appreciation when viewing the natural world.”

At top, Xaden Wilson ’26 inspects an item found during a Science 7 Forest School lesson in the outdoor nature center on campus. Students record their observations in journals and often use creative forms of writing, such as in this example from Henry Zhang ’25.

As in the Lower School, students often publish their work for an audience. Recognizing the myriad ways digital media has empowered writers to share their work, faculty have added online discussion boards, digital slide presentations and video essays to their curricula, helping students make the connection between solid written communication skills and the different platforms they are likely to encounter and use in real-world situations.

This video essay by Aayan Nathani ’27 explores essential questions from the Humanities 6 research project on The American Dream, done in conjunction with the novel “Dead End in Norvelt” by Jack Gantos.

“If you can’t communicate, you can’t lead with others,” Nagel concluded. “It’s a way of reaching out and connecting with other people. I always tell my students, ‘No matter what you end up doing in life, it’s certain that good written communication is going to be a part of it.’

“Our graduates always come back and tell us how well-prepared they were for the writing demands of college,” she added. “I know I’m biased, but I believe that is truly one of the most valuable things they’re going to take with them from their Ravenscroft experience.”

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From the Archives

At top, Teddy Hauck concentrates on his writing, an emerging skill for four- and five-year olds, in this photo from Laura Coffey’s 2019-20 kindergarten classroom.