The following question was recently emailed to me:
"I ran across your blog last year when my teaching neighbor and I were starting to use Reading Workshop. We teach in a public Montessori upper elementary in Omaha, NE. We also have just 4th and 5th grade, like you had when you were teaching. We did joint lessons last year since we were just implementing it. We were thrilled with our results and the kids loved reading!!!! Since this was our first year, and no one else in the school does it (yet), we assigned the same follow-up work for all the kids. We have been discussing how we will progress for this year. We thought since you did this for years, you might be able to give us some advice. Did you give one lesson for both groups? If so, did you make sure there were different lessons so the 5th graders didn't get repetition? Did you do separate lessons? I read how you had the 5th graders go farther with their projects. We liked that idea. We have thrown around 3 ideas: 1) Continue doing lessons together. 2) One of us does 4th grade and the other does 5th grade. 3) We each teach our own, just differentiate for advancement of 5th graders.
Let me address each question:
Did you give one lesson for both groups?
Yes, I did continue to give one lesson even though 1/2 my class were returning students. I figured they needed more than one practice and run-thru with the strategy and I specifically focused on different methods to teach the same strategy. Most kids don't really have a deep metacognitive understanding of the strategy until they have used it extensively. Returning to the strategy a year later allowed them to spend more time in practice. With regard to genre, I only taught some genre each year so that in a two year span all the genres were covered. (With the exception of non-fiction; I covered NF for 6-8 weeks as its own unit each year.) Finally, my students did spend time studying literacy devices every other year. Their final project was a "Literary Devices Booklet." My own daughter (Now going into 8th grade) kept her booklet for use in middle school!
If so, did you make sure there were different lessons so the 5th graders didn't get repetition?
Yes, I have notes with references to books and online sites that have many different lessons to teacher specific topics or strategies. Plus, my last few years my reading and writing workshop lesson were often studying the topic (i.e., character motivation) from different lenses--a reading lens and a writing lens. Therefore, it was never really the same.
Did you do separate lessons?
I did not do separate lessons but there were times we used study groups; the 5th graders joined the group as a mentor. For example, 4th graders picked from several study groups--with topics ranging from developing better fluency to picking newer and more challenging books. I didn't think the 5th graders needed to do this again, but many of them actually needed more time with the task to deepen their understanding. Therefore, they became mentors and developed lessons (in a separate group) to help "teach" the 4th graders. To teach, they all had to go back and review their understanding! This was a great idea but clunky to manage. I needed to better build these study groups into my lesson plans. When I do this again, I will plan better to make sure groups are meeting right after my mini-lesson or even in place of the lesson.
I don't generally recommend splitting the class up for several reasons. 1) Although reading is an individual task we learn the most when we have to share and discuss our reactions--thoughts, ideas, and opinions--with others. 2) Just because a student has learned about a topic or strategy doesn't mean they really understand it or use correctly. Redoing the strategy will ensure that those 5th graders who kinda/sorta "get it" get another crack to deepen their understanding. 3) You're going to use different mentor texts each year. Therefore, how you approach and discuss the book will be different from the books you used last year! Finally, 4) I tied more and more of my reader's workshop nonfiction focus to our cultural topics. For example, after the Great River lesson our students often begin researching the human body. In reader's workshop students brought their own nonfiction reading materials or I provided articles pertaining to body systems and we learned how to read these effectively using the strategies discussed in mini-lessons.
Thanks to Robyn and her teaching partner for these great questions. I strongly believe that the Reader's Workshop structure is a wonderful complement to a Montessori classroom.