Reading more than classics. Writing more than essays.
English at Moorestown Friends has never been a “typical” reading and writing program, and the curriculum today may even surprise alumni who graduated from the school just a few years ago.
Why? Students across all divisions are reading more than the classic literature and writing more than the standard scholarly essays. Of course, the English program is still rich with lessons on the fundamental pillars that all great writers rely upon — high-caliber storytelling, solid mechanics, and intellectual thinking.Students are also pushed to explore beyond the traditional canon by reading contemporary authors, thematic literature, texts set in geographic locations around the world, and books written about non-Western cultures. Young minds at MFS are challenged to experiment with all types of writing styles and forms, including screenwriting, poetry, short stories, flash fiction, memoirs, journalism, and more.
The faculty are also striving to ignite the individual passions of each of their students through personalization of the curriculum. This year, the Upper School revised its junior and senior syllabi to provide semester-long seminars modeled after liberal arts college courses, such as “The Supernatural and the Suppressed,” “Pride and Prejudice: LGBTQ American Literature,” “Caribbean Literature,” and “Literature and Sports.” The Lower School has continued to follow Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop program to support children at their proficiency levels, and the Middle School has carefully enhanced its book list each year to include more contemporary books with accessible themes relevant to young adults.
Throughout the 15-year English program at Moorestown Friends the overarching mission is clear: build a foundation of critical reading and analytical logic skills to enable students to develop the tools to become sophisticated thinkers. The results are clear: MFS students typically average scores well over 600 in the Critical Reading and Writing sections of the SAT, always the highest in South Jersey by a significant margin.
Establishing and Enhancing the Building Blocks
The Beginnings at MFS early childhood program first explores literacy with teachers reading stories to preschool children and introducing to them the letters of the alphabet. As the youngest three- and four-year old learners engage with books, they learn to ask predictive and analytic questions to build their vocabulary and comprehension of stories.
“It is the talk that surrounds the reading that gives it power, helping children to bridge what is in the story with their own lives and helping to foster their love of literature,” said Lower School Director Kelly Banik.
Next, Lower School students begin a personalized learning program developed by Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop. Kindergarten through Fourth Grade faculty approach reading and writing instruction by individually conferencing with students, while guiding the entire class with mini lessons and targeted strategies. Partner reading and small focus groups are integral to the program so classmates can assist each other with vocabulary and comprehension. Teachers still read books aloud but they make these readings interactive by frequently pausing to ask the class to retell part of the story or identify an important message. Faculty model reading strategies such as how to use context clues to infer what unfamiliar words mean. Lower School students also have the benefit of further support from the full-time Reading Specialist Paula Cunningham.
“Every summer, a few Lower School teachers travel to Columbia University to receive training at Columbia’s Teachers College to constantly refresh their skills,” said Mrs. Banik. “The school and the teachers believe in a culture of learning and ongoing professional development to ensure our students are receiving top-quality instruction.”
Another engaging activity in which K-4 classes participate are author-sharing sessions. Students meet by grade level and in multi-age groupings throughout the year to read each other’s writing and give constructive feedback. Through author-sharing, students begin to identify the attributes of strong writing in each other’s work, together growing as a supportive community of young writers.
Middle School returns to and expands upon the mechanics introduced in Lower School (vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure) but the faculty push their students further by presenting their English lessons through themed literature. Attention is also paid to supplying Middle Schoolers with strategies to help them comprehend more complex reading and write more refined papers.
“We select books for our Middle School curriculum that have interesting characters and meaningful themes that are accessible for the age of our students, and which are examples of great literature,” said Middle School English Teacher Steve Shaffer. “We want our kids to read stories they can connect to because they become so enthusiastic when it’s personal.”
Fifth Grade Teacher Monica Burrows begins the school year by reading the novel Wonder, which tells the story of a boy with a severe facial malformation and his journey navigating fifth grade. Wonder is a vehicle that allows her to organically teach lessons about descriptive language, punctuation, parts of speech, annotations, and essay preparation, while offering lessons on character and struggle.
“I teach Wonder because it possesses a beautiful message of tolerance and friendship that is an opportunity for community building, especially in fifth grade which is a transitional stage,” said Mrs. Burrows. “This book asks students to think about the type of citizen they want to be in fifth grade and our Middle School community, and this all relates to our goal of teaching the whole child and the school’s twin pillars of rigorous academics and an ethical education.”
Ninth grade exponentially widens the framework of scholarly study by investigating the origins of English literature and its diffusion across the globe (Beowulf, Romeo and Juliet, Things Fall Apart, Haroun and the Sea of Stories). In tenth grade, students examine what it means to be American through the perspective of women, social class, race, and war (The Scarlet Letter, A Streetcar Named Desire, Black Boy, The Things They Carried). Literary analysis, the writing process, developing arguments, and writing clear and concise prose are the skills stressed in Upper School to prepare MFS graduates to read and write at an advanced collegiate level.
“Teaching writing is unique because every English teacher is continuously revisiting the same skill set that students learn from an early age and adding sophistication,” said English Department Chair Debra Galler. “Developing the abilities to read something, break it down for understanding, find intellectual ways to challenge it, and craft an argument about your own interpretation…those skills are universal and applicable for all grade levels.”
Owned and Operated by the Student Voice
Upper School students have opportunities to expand their writing skills through three elective courses linked to student publications: the newspaper WordsWorth, the arts and literary magazine IMAGES, and the Cupola yearbook. They all are fully written, edited, and produced by students, giving them an insider’s look at the exhaustive process to create a publication from start to finish, including writing, editing, design, and composition. Highlights from each publication’s recent history:
- In 2016, WordsWorth began film broadcast productions in a new studio in the Greenleaf Building, as young journalists are often required to know how to create visual components to complement their written work in this digital age.
- IMAGES has been recognized for its striking original work. In 2015, the magazine won two awards – a Silver Medalist Certificate from the highly prestigious Columbia Scholastic Press Association and a second place honor from the American Scholastic Press Association.
- The 2016 Cupola won a Second Place Silver Award from the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, the authority on scholastic publications in New Jersey, improving upon its bronze award in 2015. The yearbook was also acknowledged with a second place honor from the American Scholastic Press Association and a third place distinction from Herff Jones, the leading yearbook publishing company, in 2015.
Diversity of Voices
The Lower, Middle, and Upper School divisions value sharing the stories of as many voices in as many contexts as possible to add depth to students’ cultural literacy. In Lower School, fourth graders discuss gender expectations during the American Revolutionary War era in Toliver’s Secret. Middle Schoolers experience the racism that was prevalent in the Deep South during the Great Depression through Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as well as the struggle to escape an undesirable future on the Spokane Indian Reservation in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. But the revision of the junior and senior curriculum this past school year is the most recent concerted effort to cover a wide range of literature and interests.
“The shift to mixed grade seminars for juniors and seniors was a result of discussions on how to best engage young readers and how we could make English classes the best student experience,” said Mrs. Galler. “Through offering classes like ‘Fiction into Film,’ ‘African-American Literature,’ ‘Wilderness Literature,’ ‘Science Fiction,’ or ‘Romanticism,’ we can teach the same skills MFS has always taught but in a broader arena of text. The English department wants every student to have found challenging, thought-provoking readings that they are passionate about and that they could write thoughtfully about with purpose. Rather than making book lists for every student to read, we want to expand our students’ minds to different ideas about how other people see the world.”
In considering what courses to offer to the 11th and 12th grade students, the department particularly focused on regions of the world not typically highlighted by high school courses, distribution of genres, including contemporary books to emphasize that literature is still thriving, and choosing ambitious texts.
“Having students remember every detail about every text is not the point,” said Mrs. Galler. “Designing a challenging experience that students are able to make sense of is our objective.”
Growing Into Great Thinkers
As Head of School Larry Van Meter alluded to in his message here, students have self-reported positively benefiting from the strength of the English program and Director of College Counseling Meredith Hanamirian shared her sense of what recent graduates have affirmed.
“MFS alumni often visit our office to share their college experiences, and one theme we repeatedly hear is that the MFS curriculum, building from Lower School through high school, prepares them well for the rigors of college writing. Our graduates often comment that unlike many of their peers in college, they find the research and writing assignments to be comparable to those they had in high school and they feel well-equipped for the challenges of writing in college.”
As the English program at Moorestown Friends continually evolves in its quest to educate its students to be adept readers and writers, the dedicated faculty will, as Mrs. Galler stated, “retain its faith in the students to rise to the challenge of an interesting and atypical curriculum that allows them to grow into great thinkers.”
Kendall Carty ’17 illustrated the beautiful featured sketches from Love That Dog, The Giver, and White Noise — texts from the Lower, Middle, and Upper School curriculum. Kendall enjoys anything creative, but spends most of her time writing and drawing. She is the poetry editor for IMAGES, the student arts and literary magazine, and she is an Original, beginning at MFS in preschool. Her favorite classes are AP Art, AP English, and Creative Writing. Next year in college and in her future career, she plans to incorporate both her creative abilities and writing talents.