Wednesday, February 4, 2015

English Language Arts at BVP

Today is day three of our blog series all about academics, and we're covering English Language Arts.


Colleges and universities have long bemoaned the amount of remediation required by students. They frequently point to the struggles in the range and volume of reading inherent in collegiate coursework, and the apparent inability of students to write unless it's reflecting on their personal opinions or experiences.

College and career readiness demands that scholars read more, read many different types of text (multiple literary genres, informational texts from multiple domains, film, speeches, etc), write about those texts, defend positions using textual evidence, and speak fluently about their reading and writing.  

We at BVP have recognized, and are embracing, several critical shifts in the national approach to reading instruction:

  • Rich, rigorous text is the centerpiece[1]. Our scholars can and should be presented with meaningful texts, and we must build our instructional time around scholars engaging with those texts in sophisticated, analytical manners. We spend the majority of the time modeling advanced analysis and allowing scholars to interact with text. To this end, the emphasis is around depth of text rather than breadth. It is not uncommon for scholars to read the same text (or passage from a text) multiple times and for varied purposes. 
  • Instructional texts must be highly demanding. Research does not support the widely-held belief that scholars can only achieve when presented with texts at their levels; in fact, the research suggests quite the opposite. This focuses us to break away from our long-standing desires to match scholars with texts perfectly aligned to their instructional and independent levels, as well as reimagining the texts we select at each grade.
  • Questioning is critical. Rather than asking scholars general questions to gauge comprehension, our questions focus on analysis. At every grade level, our thinking shifts to important text-dependent and evidence-based questions that drive at the central messages, evaluate key ideas and details, examine the craft and structure, and integrate knowledge and meaning. In essence, these are questions worth asking, not simply those that provide basic evidence of comprehension.
  • Language analysis and instruction is embedded. Outstanding pieces of literary and informational texts shine because authors manipulate language in creative ways, and pushing scholars to explore those manipulations is key to analyzing text. In keeping the text the centerpiece, we must allow scholars to uncover meaning and defend that analysis through close reading rather than teacher-directed definition. Explicit instruction around Greek and Latin roots and affixes, and other meaningful academic vocabulary, still has a home in English Language Arts instruction, although it is separate from the text-specific analyses of language.

We believe that all scholars must be equipped with world-class composition skills in order to graduate from BVP. To that end, writing instruction at BVP centers on several principles:

  • Rich, rigorous texts as guides. As scholars deeply engage with texts, they are doing so for multiple purposes. First, scholars are analyzing and grappling with text-dependent and evidence-based questions to glean meaning, and writing from those sources. Second, they are evaluating the author’s craft and assessing the methodologies the author uses. Through our writing instruction, scholars will utilize these rich, rigorous texts to guide their craft. This shift does not encourage replication; in fact, scholars are pushed to develop their own writing style based on their thorough consideration of author’s craft.
  • Prompts must be highly demanding. In many grades, scholars are no longer writing solely from the perspective of “I,” where they are repeatedly asked to recount their experiences, preferences, or imaginative stories. Through intensive encounters with text and topics, writing is increasingly sophisticated and wholly evidence-based. Free-writing and journaling still have a home in English Language Arts instruction, although it is not the core and should be used sparingly.
  • The writer’s craft is a muscle that requires regular exercise. Writing is not a mechanical process existing of an equation of thesis statements, supporting statements, and conclusion statements. Writing requires protected time where scholars develop comfort with struggling to find the right words and ideas. Certain writing applications will require extensive drafting and revision, although many require on-demand generation.
  • The writer’s craft is the sum of its parts, though some parts are more important than others. The heart of effective writing is getting smart ideas on paper in a compelling way, and that is the heart of BVP’s approach to writing. This does not exclude effective use of conventions--spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.--but it does elevate the ideas, organization, and development. Through this lens, writing instruction prioritizes the practice of writing over explicit grammar rules, instead opting to foster those skills through targeted mini-lessons and small group conferences during the editing and revision processes.

The next segment of this series focuses on time at BVP. We hope you will continue following! Engage with us through comments, questions, and shares, and please take this opportunity to shout out topics you’d like to see highlighted in future blog series.

[1]Letting the Text Take Center Stage” by Timothy Shanahan. American Educator, Fall 2013.

By Kate Crowe and Drew Madden


  1. This seems to be very much in conformance with the Common Core State Standards and the "teach to the test" (PARCC) methodology--which is a good thing considering Rhode Island bought into this to garner a small monetary incentive. My question is which curriculum do you use for ELA instruction at BVP, or do you develop your own CC-aligned curriculum? Thank you for your anticipated response, since my general queries on social media have thusfar gone unanswered.

  2. Jeanne - thanks for the great question here and on the other thread. Drew and/or Kate can get back to you with a more detailed answer if you need it, but the short answer is that for the most part we build our our assessments and long-term plans and teachers, often collaboratively, build lesson plans. All of these plans are informed by backwards-mapping from standards and their related tasks along with released items. We pull resources and materials from all over the place (much of what we use is borrowed). Some favorite sources include and of course

  3. Thanks again, Jeremy, for the information. The over-emphasis on "close reading", especially in the primary grades, disturbs me. Obviously this is an important skill that scholars from all types of schools need to develop in order to be successful in many of their chosen pursuits. Personally, however, the technique itself robs me of most of the joy of reading. When I was in elementary school (1950s), we used the "SRA" reading kits to supplement our curriculum; this was my least favorite part of the school day because it consisted largely of material taken out of context (mostly non-fiction, as I recall) and felt disjointed, tedious and contrived. Fortunately it didn't constitute more than perhaps three-to-five percent of our instructional program. Even now, as I explore the PARCC sample test items I find myself bored and even irritated by the topics and the often ridiculous questions. I realize that your school has little control over the tyranny of standardized testing, but I was hoping to find more joyful reading and less reliance on "close" reading at your school. I was disappointed to learn otherwise, but I know that it isn't your fault. Rhode Island chose conformity, after all, and soon enough all of the charters will likely have to follow suit.

  4. These are fantastic questions, Jeanne. Thank you for reaching out.

    To us, close reading is an opportunity to examine beautiful writing at a deep, thoughtful level. We carefully select all texts—both literary and informational—so that scholars are gradually weaving together extensive background knowledge on a particular topic or theme, and teachers ask questions that drive at the craft of writing as well as the enduring meaning behind the writing.

    When we engage in close reading, we often read the text multiple times. First, the teacher reads the text aloud while scholars follow along. The purpose of this reading is simply hearing the text unfold with fluency and expression. Rather than pausing every few words and losing the flow of the story, we wait until there is a natural stopping point and ask a handful of questions. For instance:

    - Let’s write tweet-length retellings of this story.
    - Why is this character thinking/doing this?
    - What do you predict will happen next?
    - What can you infer from these illustrations?
    - I’ve noticed the author uses this word frequently. Why do you think that is?

    After this initial reading, scholars typically write a brief synopsis, draft questions they’d like to explore in small group discussion, or summarize the central message of the text. We use this writing as a jumping off point for later analysis of the text.

    The second reading allows scholars to stretch their analytic legs and get inside the mind of the writer. Now that they’ve heard the text read with sophistication and engaged in basic comprehension questions, they’re able to notice the finer details. When scholars encounter the text for a second time, the teacher sets a more precise purpose. Some examples from recent instruction:

    - Today we’re focusing on the way the author describes Edward in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. We’ll note the words she uses, like “jaunty” and “expressive ears” and formulate a deeper understanding of this character.
    - Today we’re focusing on the structure of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We’re going to listen to an original audio recording and read the transcript. What is the impact of repeating words and/or phrases? Does it make the speech more powerful? How? Why?
    - Today we’re focusing on the illustrations and words in Henry’s Freedom Box. How do the illustrations change our reading of the story? What do we get from the illustrations that we don’t get from the text? Why does that matter?

    From there, scholars continue working with the same text, often for several days. They dig through comparative textual analysis, even in the earliest grades. For example, our second graders recently engaged in a close reading of The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles alongside Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story by Ruby Bridges. Specifically, they analyzed the differences and similarities between Coles’ retelling of Bridges’ story with Bridges’ retelling of her own story, and attacked the following prompt:
    - Which text and accompanying illustrations tell us more about Bridges’ character? Why? Use evidence from the texts to support your response.

  5. After analyzing the Bridges’ texts, the same scholars engaged in a close reading of the Langston Hughes poem “Merry-Go Round” and Rita Dove’s “Rosa,” both focused on drawing out the author’s message and analyzing the ways in which specific words impact the tone of the poem. According to the teachers, scholars loved these poems and had impressive, text-rich conversations in their small groups.
    To us, close reading is not simply annotating texts and interrupting the flow of reading. It’s a depth of joyful analysis predicated on the belief that certain texts are worth reading and certain questions are worth asking. This anchors our English Language Arts instructional block.

    Additionally, we believe in fostering a love of reading. We are proud of our rich independent reading libraries that offer diverse texts on a range of topics, genres, and voices (I’m dying to get my hands on Harry Potter Should Have Died from our middle school library). In fact, we start every day at our Middle School campus with twenty minutes of silent reading, and though it may seem mind-boggling, our scholars love diving into their self-selected texts.

  6. Kate, thank you for the detailed response. I definitely see value in this methodology, particularly in the upper elementary, middle, and high school grades. Whereas the PARCC ELA tests appear to include multiple-choice questions having more than one correct answer, or no correct answer, or ambiguous answers, I am inclined to believe that there must be some strategy to decoding what (if anything) was in the test-maker's mind when forced to select from among equally poor choices. Does your curriculum embed such a strategy in preparation for the standardized tests? Also I'm curious as to how constructed responses and essays are evaluated (i.e., on the quality of the writing and the reasoning behind the answers, or is there a single interpretation that is considered as being "correct"?). So I suppose my follow-up question is whether BVP encourages multiple interpretations (supported by evidence from the text), or must all scholars arrive at the same (presumed correct) conclusion? Do small-group discussions allow for "minority opinions", or must the group achieve consensus? Again, thank you for your prompt and generous explanation of the BVP reading program. It was very helpful to me in my struggle with some of today's issues in education.

  7. From what I have seen on Facebook in recent months, it seems that BVP doesn't engage in much dedicated "test prep" -- other than some keyboarding practice (I think). That is fantastic! However, I still eagerly await a response on the follow-up questions I posed on February 17th. Thank you, and have a great '15-'16 School Year!