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Reading & Writing Workshop for the Middle Years: Lessons of an IB Examiner

By Chris McCarthy

IB examining is a challenging, rewarding endeavor. IB examiners must think deeply about what constitutes good work and they must make marking decisions in a short amount of time while keeping within the grading tolerances set by the chief examiner. I became an IB Middle Years Program (MYP) eAssessment examiner in Language and Literature (L&L) this year. In the span of a few weeks, I would mark 850 discrete pieces of writing. I viewed it as an opportunity to test my abilities as an evaluator of student work; I like challenges and wanted to see if I could judge student writing in compliance with IB standards. While these reasons are probably quite similar to those of many other MYP and Diploma Program (DP) examiners, there was something else prodding me to mark IB exams. I had spent the last two years working towards implementing a reading and writing workshop approach in my MYP classes, in particular, the Teachers College Reading Writing Project (TCRWP) program. The TCRWP program is a hot commodity now being used in dozens, if not hundreds of international schools around the world. It is student-centered in its insistence on lean teaching, so that students are able to spend most of their class time reading and writing, as well as in its focus on student choice when it comes to selecting topics. I had been using the TCRWP model for a number of years and had championed its school-wide use at my current IB continuum school. My students had seemingly responded well to it; I had seen measurable progress in the quality of their writing and their ability to read both fiction and non-fiction with incisiveness. But is a workshop model compatible with the inevitable high-stakes exams students must take in high school? Following my MYP examiner experience, some lessons for workshop teachers became clear: 1. Overall, the TCRWP program builds strong writing and reading skills that transfer to high-stakes, on-demand tests. While the IB and TCRWP may use different labels (for example, “organization” for the IB vs. “structure” in TCRWP) the two frameworks share similar standards for assessing student work, with some important caveats (see Point #5 below). While the TCRWP assessment rubrics (called “Learning Progressions”) only go to the end of Grade 9 and the MYP eAssessment occurs at the end of Grade 10, I have found that these criteria are so rigorous that they are excellent markers for Grade 10 students as well. 2. The eAssessment writing tasks are similar to TCRWP on-demand tasks. Because students will have undertaken many on-demand reading and writing assessments throughout the course of a school year, they will know how to successfully plan, draft, and edit a piece of writing in a condensed timeframe. The fact that students do this at the beginning and the end of a unit of study means they also understand what quality on-demand work looks like. 3. While the TCRWP builds strong reading and writing skills, the L&L eAssessment suggests more practice can be given on specific text types. For example, students on this year’s eAssessment were asked to write a screenplay; nowhere in the TCRWP program are students taught the particular formatting conventions of this text type. While students were not marked down if they did not follow these conventions, it makes sense for students in the middle grades to become familiar with specific text types such as screenplays or political advertisements. 4. Workshop teachers can give students practice with on-demands that have specific prompts. The TCRWP model invites students to choose their own topics before writing say, an on-demand argumentative essay. On the eAssessment, a prompt is given that has a specific audience, purpose, and occasion. A logical extension of the TCRWP model would be to give prompts that ask them to focus their writing on a particular topic. 5. Giving students opportunities to compare and contrast texts is another natural extension of traditional TCRWP work. Comparative thinking is an expectation in MYP (and DP) L&L classes. In the TCRWP, while students are often invited to compare and contrast discrete aspects of texts or ideas within genres, students on the eAssessment are asked to do this work between genres as well as between printed and digital (video) texts. Overall, my work as an IB MYP examiner helped me understand both the strength of the TCRWP program and the ways it can be modified to support the aims of the MYP, or any middle years program. The TCRWP is not a monolithic approach to choosing content or teaching skills: it is the thoughtful workshop teacher who reflects on his or her practice to create units of study that meet the needs of the school community. Chris McCarthy is a Literacy Coach and TOK teacher at Qingdao Amerasia International School.

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