Brooklyn private independent school

Reading & Writing

Building a foundation for success in reading

Reading is not a one-size-fits-all program at Berkeley Carroll.

Every Lower School student, starting in Kindergarten, meets one-on-one with a teacher at multiple times throughout the year to evaluate their reading levels. These assessments help everyone, including teachers and parents, better evaluate progress and understand specific reading strengths and areas of growth for each student.

“Berkeley Carroll has always produced great readers and writers because of this kind of dedicated analysis,” says Amanda Pike, Director of the Lower School. “In all grades, students are going to get challenged and grow, solidifying their skills and becoming confident readers.”

All educators, from head teachers to associates, are trained in the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment system, considered the gold standard of early education reading evaluations. Teachers use the assessments to customize lessons for individual students, small groups, and the whole class. The approach is two pronged, ensuring that students have a varied toolkit that helps them decode challenging words while also building their comprehension skills.

“For those kids who are ready to move quickly, we do that, and for those who would benefit from support in a specific area we do that as well,” says Ellen Arana, Assistant Director of the Lower School. “Every child can grow and become the best reader they can be.”

To help oversee the entire scope and sequence of the reading program, Heather McKay became Language Arts Coordinator and Coach in 2018, a brand new position. Previously, McKay spent 12 years as a second grade head teacher. She says that the reading assessments provide a crucial roadmap for students, as well as parents and teachers.

“Kids are in a range of reading bands, always moving forward. This helps teachers know how to make reading groups. It also helps students pick out ‘just right’ books, and helps parents talk with their child about what makes a book ‘just right,’” says McKay.

The levels are not restrictive for students but rather help them choose books that are neither too challenging nor too easy. For instance, a child reading at “Level J” might be starting to read chapter books with more complex sentences while a child reading at “Level K” is working on decoding multisyllabic words and starting to make predictions about characters.

McKay also meets with teachers in the Lower School to review best practices, coordinate professional development, and help devise individualized support for students, all while guiding classrooms across grade levels towards shared goals.

In the library, a book for everyone

Reading happens in a variety of settings in the classroom, including small book groups to whole class read alouds, ensuring students get the skills they need, but the Lower School library makes sure students get the kind of reading experience that they want.

From graphic novels to the latest best sellers, the shelves of the library are stocked with something for fans of every genre.

“The library is very much in the camp of read whatever you want, and our librarians are fantastic at helping students find books they are excited about,” says Arana. “We want students to revel in the reading experience and not feel like they are only striving to get to the next level.”

“It’s about enjoyment,” says Briar Sauro, Director of Libraries and Research. “We take tons of student recommendations so they know their opinions are valued.”

Sauro has been at Berkeley Carroll for 15 years having first started as the librarian for grades two through four. Today, she oversees the entire research scope and sequence from preK-12th grade, maintaining the same standards in the Middle and Upper Schools as those that are established in the Lower School.

Sauro says that library studies are purposefully designed to build year upon year. From learning how to cite sources in second grade to building online research skills in fourth grade, students are well prepared to tackle research by the time they reach the Middle School.

While the library is a fun space for students, it is also designed to support the curriculum across the Lower School. Teachers frequent the library, where the librarians help them discover resources for units of study, seek out recommendations for book clubs, and learn about new books for classroom read alouds.

A focus on developing student writing skills

Berkeley Carroll has a long and celebrated tradition for producing brilliant writers, from the hundreds of students honored by the prestigious New York City Scholastic Awards over the years to the published poet who is only in fourth grade.

Helping students develop strong writing skills is a priority at BC, so it’s not a mystery where these great essayists, poets, and creative writers come from.

“Berkeley Carroll produces award winning writers, and building that foundation of strong writing skills starts in preK,” says Pike. “Our students see themselves as authors, and teachers work intensively with each student to help them improve their craft and communicate clearly and engagingly with their audience.”

Lower School writing units are shaped by Columbia University’s Teachers College Writers Workshop curriculum. Thematic units introduce new genres like persuasive writing and stretch students to incorporate more advanced techniques like dialogue in their writing, while reinforcing core skills like proper spelling and capitalization. Writing isn’t relegated to just one block of the day, either. Students write across disciplines, crafting a hypothesis in science class or detailing their strategies for solving a problem in math.

In preK, students share their ideas aloud while a teacher records their stories verbatim. By kindergarten, students are writing stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and in first grade they learn how to stretch a small moment to create personal narratives. In second grade, they practice their editing skills while also honing their typing in the STEAM Hub in preparation for third and fourth grades, where students are turning to research, writing essays based on their work in Social Studies.

“Just like we have a scope and sequence in math, we’re developing that for writing,” says McKay. “A first grade writer is expected to go back and add more details to their writing. In fourth grade, we introduce peer editing. Students learn and understand that they’re not just writing for themselves but for an audience.”

The hard work that goes into good writing is made clear to students through a serious editing process, as evidenced by the second grade publishing party, where students share with peers and parents the drafts of their work, not just a clean finished copy.

“They celebrate the revised, edited piece of writing,” McKay says. “That’s powerful. I tell students, this is what you should be proud of, this is what professional writers do: improve, improve, improve.”

“We want the kids to think more about the content of their work and how they got there rather than focusing on a perfect end product,” says Arana. “We want students to see behind the scenes of the writing process.”

That same mindset is shared by faculty. Teachers and administrators are always looking for ways to fine-tune curriculum. From grade level meetings to share and discuss sample lessons to internal professional development with McKay to design and implement new writing units, adapting best practices is an ongoing process.

“We think about writing every day. We always think about how to make it better,” Pike says. “We revisit what we do, going at it every single year. Teachers can bring new ideas to the table, but there’s a plan in place, a BC way of doing things.”

Learning the value of poetry with the third grade poet-in-residence

Professional writers aren’t just models for students. They work side by side with them. In third grade, students take part in an 8-week poetry unit, working with Lower School poet-in-residence, Susan Karwoska.

For decades, Ms. Karwoska has worked with Teachers and Writers Collaborative, a non-profit that brings professional artists and writers into the classroom. She says it’s a joy to come to Berkeley Carroll where learning about poetry is valued.

Each year the focus of the poetry changes based on what the students are studying and Karwoska says that is intentional because she likes to introduce poetry through topics students are familiar with and then explore those subjects in a new way.

Karwoska also uses complicated poems, from the likes of Wallace Stevens to Gwendolyn Brooks, to read and discuss with students. Rather than looking for one right answer, she asks students to share what they notice, which leads to some insightful discussions.

“I try to tell them everyone brings their own uncertainty to a poem, even poets, and that doesn’t have to be a scary thing,” Karwoska says. “One of my main goals is that poetry becomes something that is available to all students.”

Cultivating great readers and writers

From the library to the classroom, writing poetry to honing research skills, the Lower School’s Language Arts program helps students become confident in their skills and excited about reading and writing, and it’s no accident why.

“Our goal in the Lower School is to cultivate great readers and writers,” Pike says. “This is not a cookie cutter curriculum. Every student gets what they need so they may reach their full potential.”

(The next article in this series on the Lower School’s Math and Science curriculum will be published in January 2019)