This past November, The New Century School embarked on a new approach to English Language Arts instruction. Welcoming Ilia Madrazo to the faculty, TNCS now features dedicated ELA teaching for 3rd-grade through middle-school students, which allows intensive focus in the all-important skills of enhanced reading comprehension and effective writing.
Although the elementary and middle school teaching staff had already been established for the 2017–2018 academic year, when Ms. Madrazo became available, new opportunities that were too good to pass up likewise opened for TNCS’s academic offerings. Ms. Madrazo is a passionate educator with over 20 years’ experience teaching ELA, English as a Second Language, and Reading to school-aged students of all levels as well as at the university level. She earned her master’s degree in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Houston and pursued doctoral level studies in English Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico. She is a published researcher and has presented at various conferences. In addition to scoring such a credentialed instructor, bringing Ms. Madrazo on as “Writer in Residence” also allowed the other elementary and middle school teachers at TNCS to specialize in their preferred subjects, such as Jon Wallace now being science guru full time.
About Ilia Madrazo
Ms. Madrazo came to Baltimore last March via Houston, Texas but is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where much of her family including her son still resides. (Her son is currently studying Physics at the University of Puerto Rico with the goal of becoming a radiologist.) She decided to move from Houston (just in time to avoid Hurricane Harvey, she added) because, after 10 years there, she needed a change. Having a brother, sister-in-law, and a nephew here made Baltimore the logical choice. One day in the future, she hopes to move to Spain.
Once here, though, she jumped in with both feet, establishing clear rules and expectations from the outset. She jokes: “So far it’s going very well. I think the kids and I are in the honeymoon period because they are working really well for me.” She immediately implemented “literature circles,” which got students engaged in reading in new and deeper ways—a primary goal of Ms. Madrazo’s. She describes the literature circle as akin to a book club, with a facilitator (her) and a group of students discussing the book theme and associated topics. She also incorporates writing instruction in an innovative way here: “We approach the book not only as the reader, but also as the writer. Good books teach you how to write well. I’m big on non-fiction because it allows students to see the form of the writing, and that can be helpful. Writing is very hard to teach and learn, so starting from another perspective can reduce students’ anxiety about it.”
Despite being Spanish/English bilingual and having experience teaching ESOL, Ms. Madrazo’s preferred medium is definitely ELA. She discovered this while teaching adults during her doctoral studies in Puerto Rico. “Honing in and concentrating on English learners came naturally to me, and I just fell in love with it,” she explained. This came as somewhat of a surprise to her because she did not set out to pursue literature and writing in college. “My bachelor’s is in Psychology,” she explained. “I entered college as a premed, but I wanted to have a life outside of studying, so I thought I would be a child psychologist. I always knew I wanted to work with children, older children.” On graduating, she began pursuing a master’s in Education on her mother’s advice, as something to always be able to fall back on, but marriage and starting a family temporarily interrupted those plans. As mentioned above, however, she did get that master’s and has been a teacher ever since. Her whole family, in fact, even though they study very different disciplines, are all teachers.
Developing her writing skills is another story: “I was never trained to write. So when I got to college, I had to learn how to write a perfect story. I found that I had to do an outline to organize my thoughts and then add the meat to it.” She still uses this formula today to ensure that each piece of writing is coherent, measured, and makes a clear argument.
Writing Program at TNCS
With abundant expertise and experience, Ms. Madrazo has lots of ideas for expanding the writing program at TNCS. Writing is communication, and good communication is an absolutely essential 21st-century skill. She says: “I want to move writing forward, not only writing a good story but writing a solid essay or opinion piece in which students must give me evidence to support what they’re saying. So, if they’re reading a book, I want them to be able to tell me not only that a character went through a change but also to be able to cite in what paragraph and on what page that change occurred. This practice will be very good preparation for high school and college.”
So far, she is using some of the same materials already in play in ELA, such as Wordly Wise for vocabulary expansion and the Lucy Calkins curriculum for elementary writers, and is also incorporating new ones, like the Just Write series and Words Their Way for 3rd and 4th grades. Middle school students will have an entirely separate curriculum using, for example, Empowering Writers. She will be refining the curricula throughout Quarters 3 and 4.
She is also finding ways to manage the different levels within each group by utilizing the Daily 5 classroom management rotation. This includes “Word Work” in the Wordly Wise website, or SuccessMaker, or Raz kids; a small group that works with her; writing or reading alone, and doing “Word Sorts”—a method of classifying words based on their spelling pattern and phonetics; among other writing and reading-related activities.
“I’m excited to be able to dedicate myself to ELA and really focus here,” said Ms. Madrazo.. “I fell in love when I came to TNCS the first time. Having a greenhouse, chickens, I loved it. The cafeteria is focused on healthy food. I like that the classes are small. I love Fells Point. I also want to thank the parents and administration for embracing me. It’s been lovely so far and I hope to have a great partnership with them.”
If you have not done so already, make time to meet Ms. Madrazo, such as during second-semester Parent–Teacher conferences. Besides being an excellent teacher and writer, in her free time, she enjoys traveling, listening to podcasts, playing board games, and hanging out with her Puggle, Jupiter.