West Marin School adopts workshop model


As part of its renewed focus on literacy, West Marin School this fall changed its approach to teaching middle school history, reading, and writing: each of those subjects is now taught to combined classes of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, who will cycle through the curriculum every three years. The change was made to pilot a new workshop model for teaching reading and writing. Combining grade levels for certain subjects allows teachers to better utilize their specialized credentials, teacher Julie Cassel said. Workshops consist of short lessons followed by student-teacher one-on-one conferences based on need. “Workshop does not teach a single grade standard, but allows us to differentiate specifically to each student as we work with them one-on-one or in small groups of students who need similar instruction,” Ms. Cassel said. “This is why we feel it is so beneficial to students—because they will spend the majority of their time working at their personal level rather than an arbitrary grade level that may or may not match their actual learning level, and in getting individual or small-group coaching, which is the most effective form of teaching.” In the new format, reading, writing and history are taught in separate periods instead of in one core period. Peggy Reina, who has a master’s degree concentrated on reading intervention, will teach the reading workshop  periods, while all three primary classroom teachers—Ms. Reina, Ms. Cassel and Vanessa Staples—will individually teach multiple periods of writing   workshops. Ms. Cassel, who has a single-subject credential in social science, will teach the history classes. In previous years, sixth graders studied ancient civilizations, seventh graders studied medieval times and world cultures, and eight graders studied early United States history. Now, the entire middle school will learn from Ms. Cassel about one of those time periods in one school year, then rotate to the next subject the following year. (It doesn’t matter if the historical periods are taught chronologically, Ms. Cassel said, because they are separated by great lengths in time.) The only developmental aspect of history is literacy, and she’ll weigh writing expectations accordingly. Science has been taught to mixed-grade classes for the past three years by Ms. Staples, who said she is confident that this year’s schedule is serving student needs better than any time in her 20-year career at West Marin School. The approach to science works because students only complete standardized testing once at the end of eight grade, so, like history, the order doesn’t matter. Spanish and math will still be taught by grade level, because those lessons build on one another. Another impact to the schedule created by the new workshop model is that elective periods now fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays instead of two periods on Friday.   At back-to-school night on Aug. 22, parents had questions about what these changes would mean for their students; some were worried that eighth graders would be held back, and sixth graders would be pushed too hard, Ms. Cassel said. Teachers and Principal Beth Nolan acknowledged that they should have spent more time communicating the change at the back-to-school night but said they will address any concerns with individual parents.