Reading and Language Arts are of the utmost importance. Fluency, comprehension and analysis are the focus of reading instruction. More emphasis is placed on vocabulary and story comprehension. The strides the children make in their vocabulary and reading compression during this year are truly remarkable. This translates into enhanced writing skills. We will focus a great deal on organization and editing. The students will also be asked to provide descriptive details and use logical sequence structure when telling stories and in their written compositions. We also memorize poetry, which is both delightful and formative.
Good listening and speaking skills are also very important in for success in school and in life. The children are given increased responsibility for comprehending larger amounts of information that is presented orally, as well as for communicating ideas with more attention to detail. This is all clearly a work in progress, and it takes children years to acquire these skills with proficiency, but the progress that they make in this regard is very rewarding.
These novels also form the basis for a number of our essay assignments. Students begin with simple summaries wherein they draw out the salient parts of a chapter. We expand these to longer and longer works, where the students are expected to analyze theme, character development and plot, and to determine the intent and motivation of an author. Each step builds upon the other, and the students find that their skills and capabilities quickly flourish.
Aside from literary analysis, students learn to write a number of other types of essays and narratives. Creative writing assignments encourage the students to draw upon their personal experience and use their imagination. Non-fiction assignments prepare students for the social studies and science essays they will be writing in high school. Incorporated into all these assignments are lessons on grammar, punctuation, word-choice and sentence structure. St. Mary’s graduates who have come back to visit tell me that they are much better prepared for the rigors of high school than many of their peers.
One of the unique features of our curriculum is our focus on the Greek and Latin elements of English. This is an invaluable vocabulary tool, for by knowing these elements students are able to decipher the meaning of many English words they do not yet know, as well as giving them additional insight into the meaning of words they have already encountered. For example, one such word is “calligraphy” or “beautiful writing,” which comes from the Greek kalli (calli) meaning “beauty” and graphos (graph) meaning “something written.” Not only do the students learn the meaning and etymological roots of this term, but we practice the art as well. Manuscript, cursive and italic are taught, and students take great pride in producing work that is not only well written, but beautiful to see.
The poetry aspect of our literature program is particularly impressive. The memorization of poetry is an ideal means to form the mind of the learner according to sophisticated and correct patterns of English usage. This is to say nothing of the cultural effect of memorizing a great or beautiful poem. Throughout the year, each student learns between ten and twelve poems by heart. We practice these as a class for a few minutes each day. We also discuss various literary terms (allusion, metaphor, synecdoche, etc) as they arise in the poems. After we finish learning a poem, students come to the front of the class and recite them from memory. This public speaking can bring even the shyest student out of their shell. By the end of the year, students can stand before the class and recite a dozen poems entirely from memory. In Middle School alone, many students will have learned over 30 poems by heart. The poems we learn include ‘O Captain, My Captain!’ by Walt Whitman, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost, ‘Invictus’ by William Henley, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Tennyson, ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ by Byron, ‘The Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll, and ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Shelley.
Additionally, each class learns a number of songs as poems. We incorporate these into our music class and perform them for the school when opportunity presents itself. Some of these songs are ‘The Irish Rover’, ‘Pat-a-Pan’, ‘Good King Wenceslas’, ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming’, ‘The Minstrel Boy’, and ‘Avenging and Bright’.
As you can see, this is a very full program. Throughout their Middle School years our students make great progress in the appreciation and understanding of Literature and in their ability to express themselves clearly and coherently both in writing and through the spoken word. These are skills that will serve them well for the remainder of their lives.