Students launch the year in English by reading poems by Billy Collins and Walt Whitman as an introduction to poetry and to reinforce literary criticism techniques begun last year. Reader response criticism is a new approach for students, but they still have opportunities to perform other methods, including formalism (based on literary devices employed by writers), gender studies, economics, and historical criticism. In addition to this writing, students also choose among original, creative pieces inspired by our readings. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” provides an ideal source for interdisciplinary work with Social Studies, and a catalyst for various writing experiences. Here, and with other selected texts, themes revolve around our year-long exploration of social justice, and tie in closely with students’ study of government and society. Likewise, our first long work, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” introduces students to the American canon and spurs discussion of important topics.
We begin work on grammar with an eye towards editing for usage errors. The students’ own essays provide the “text” for this ongoing unit. Ultimately, students may be able to use increasingly sophisticated structures intentionally, but can meet with success simply by incorporating them intuitively as they have more frequent contact with ever more challenging source material. Finally, during the first months of school students begin a vigorous independent reading program, allowing them to read at individualized levels, according to personal tastes, and to broaden their reading range and strengthen the reading skills acquired through the study of class texts. They read both in school and at home, and track and review their reading on their online reading logs. They share reading suggestions with each other and make recommendations for adding to the school’s growing library.
After winter break, students delve into the difference between a topic and a thesis, practice strategies for going back into the text with a specific focus, study different models for structuring their essays, and craft essays where form follows function in a cogent manner. Students continue to practice writing skills honed during a short story unit earlier in the year, including clarity, specificity, fluidity, and richness of writing. To these, students add lessons on supporting contentions, and on integrating evidence and quotations into a piece of writing. The goal of this writing project is less a “perfect” essay than an authentic one. Using memoir excerpts for inspiration, students follow the formal literary essay with an examination of personal essays and anecdotal storytelling. Students explore techniques for brainstorming, and develop, write, and share their own personal essays. During Spring Break, eighth-graders choose one of five books to read on their own, and discuss them online with classmates. Online conversations are moved into the classroom immediately after break, and students do small final book projects of their own choosing.
A poetry unit straddles Spring Break; students read a wide range of poetry, and write numerous different kinds of poems, drawing on a rich variety of poetic tools and devices.
The vigorous independent reading program continues throughout the year. A final unit revolves around the reading of Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic narrative “Maus,” and creation of a piece of graphic storytelling. This is an interdisciplinary unit with Visual Arts and Social Studies on World War II and the Holocaust, and graphic storytelling. In English, students focus on visual literacy, symbols, and story structure as they read, and on the tools of storytelling as they make their graphic storytelling pieces.