(1) What do you feel is "best practice" for middle school ELA instruction?
Our district has a 6/7 middle school, and the subjects of reading and language arts are taught separately. The middle school principal will speak to how this is "best practice".
With the reciprocity of reading and writing, and the expectations of the CCSS, the current schedule seems counterintuitive to me. Shouldn't students be grouped for, say, a 90 minute ELA block that encompasses reading and language arts? Or am I off base on this?
How schools are organized in terms of this kind of scheduling does not matter very much in student achievement. There are lots of different ways of organizing a school and they all can be successful (or unsuccessful). The idea that teaching with reading and language arts separated (or combined) is a "best practice" is wishful at best.
However, I definitely agree that the common core does emphasizes strongly the idea of writing about reading. It makes little sense to organize a school day so that such programming is inefficient, though you can make it work either way. In the model you are using, in which two teachers work with the students at different points in the day -- one teacher emphasizing reading and the other writing -- there is a great need for coordination to get the full benefit of these education goals. That way the kids can spend a substantial amounts of reading time digging in on the meaning of texts with one teacher, and then they would engage in meaningful writing about that same text through the work of the second teacher. Thus, they need to plan together, agree on who does what, coordinate times. (Otherwise they will both need to do a lot of reading in their class -- which means relatively less writing and the need for a lot more text than you are currently using).
Or, you could organize it so that one teacher does both of these things (which can be tricky, too, because some teachers prefer teaching one or the other and they may blow off the writing or not spend as much time on the reading). That, of course, is why this kind of organization does not matter very much. The focus needs to be on the students' experience. Which approach (separate teachers planning together, or a single teacher with sufficient supervision) will work best in your situation? That is the one that I would go for.