Tiffany Delhagen returned to MS 8 this fall after taking a year off to be with her young son. She had taught English Language Arts (“ELA”) to New York City middle and high school students for a decade, and when she decided she was ready to return to MS 8 this fall, she and Principal Seth Phillips shaped a new role for her: MS 8’s “ELA Mentor.”
Ms. Delhagen’s new role is twofold. First, she mentors and supports MS 8’s ELA team; as a new – and fast-growing – middle school, MS 8 brings in new teachers every year. Ms. Delhagen is working to ensure that new ELA teachers are well-supported as they become part of the MS 8’s community. Second, in a role akin to that held by our lower school staff developers, Ms. Delhagen takes a step back from the day-to-day experience of single classrooms to look across classrooms and grades to develop a cohesive curricular trajectory across students’ experience at MS 8. This year, she is focused on thinking through and honing the experience for students starting with 6th grade Humanities through 8th grade ELA. She is also looking at the Exploration curriculum, and how students’ Exploration experiences develop over their time at MS 8. She has a special focus on 8th grade Explorations and what students are asked to do as part of those culminating experiences.
Where do you start when thinking about the student experience, or trajectory, from 6th through 8th grade at MS 8?
In order to consider the trajectory of a student’s ELA experience at MS 8, we have to start by considering our end goal: What do we want a student to leave MS 8 knowing, understanding, and believing about reading and writing? Once we have a clear vision, we will be able to determine what needs to happen from year to year in order to get students to this point. This allows us to be strategic about what we teach and how we teach it. We believe it is important that students are exposed to a myriad of reading experiences and writing tasks, but we want to make sure we are purposeful in our curriculum design so that we are building new skills and deepening previously learned skills. Much of this work involves refining our curriculum and articulating specific goals for each grade.
I understand you have a particular focus on writing in your work on ELA this year. Why?
One important thing about writing is that it is inclusive across all content areas, so it connects teachers across content and grades. It’s important to have a common language as teachers – especially when we’re talking about student growth. How are we connected as a community when we talk about our students?
This can be especially hard in middle school because teachers are divided into content areas. It’s been great to have time to work with all ELA teachers about why we teach reading and writing, and then to think back towards how we do it, how we achieve our mission effectively. More broadly, it’s helping us think about a coherent vision for the MS 8 curriculum, and empowers all teachers to weigh in on our mission.
What about your work on Explorations?
Exploration is a staple at MS 8. It is a time when we can think about the process of learning in a non-traditional way, and also see how we as teachers work together to create a collective learning experience that is not divided into traditional content areas. The level of collaboration that happens in Exploration is really eye-opening because teachers in all subjects are working together. What’s happening in science that’s connected to ELA? This connectedness – both among teachers and content areas – carries over into the more traditional school day. I, myself, after going through Exploration, return to my content refreshed and with new ideas and strategies for approaching content in my class.
A couple of years ago we had an “Exploration Team” – 3 teachers focused on developing what Explorations students would do, and I was one of those teachers. Towards the end of the year, we realized that the same way we’re asking kids to collaborate, we weren’t asking teachers to do the same. So we wanted to bring the Exploration development process back to the grade teams somewhat. Now our grade teams are looking at the Explorations we have done so far and are thinking about how and whether to tweak them. It’s a process that demands a lot of teachers, but is also really instructive in terms of seeing how they can work together and grow as a team.
That said, having someone thinking big picture – in the same way I’m doing for the ELA curriculum, asking what student experience or growth we want to see over 3 years – is helpful. My focus is on the 8th grade Explorations, and how they move beyond what students do in 6th and 7th grades (where we’ve already done a fair amount of work honing units). Again, even in this very non-traditional and (I think) progressive approach to learning, we are asking the question “how do we push and empower kids as they grow and move through grades?” I’m looking at how to get students doing even more in-depth research and engage in the community in more meaningful ways.
Do you see a need for this role to continue in future years?
Having someone who is able to support teachers in this way is really important. Part of it is where we are on MS 8’s timeline. We’ve been around for 4 years, and now we can take stock of not just what we are doing in each year and each class, but also look holistically and see what the experience is and how kids grow over their time here. It can be difficult for teachers to find the time or mental energy to do this when they are thinking about the day to day of their classrooms and the needs of their students, especially when they are divided into content areas. In my decade of teaching, I have not been at a school that’s had a really cohesive 6th to 8th grade experience. Hopefully, that’s part of what I can help build at MS 8 – alleviating part of the big-picture planning burden, but also having teachers’ voices heard as part of the process.