By Tamra Taylor, Superintendent Live Oak School District
Live Oak School District (LOSD) is committed to supporting students in becoming strong communicators. Two years ago, we restructured our approach to writing for both elementary and middle school students. We recognized that for our students’ writing to improve we needed to find the best practices for teaching writing and dedicate more time to its development.
In our elementary schools we adopted a highly regarded writing program, “Writer’s Workshop,” created by Lucy Calkins of Columbia University. We were excited to get started on this method of teaching writing. In this model, students learn to draw from their experiences and develop their voices as writers. They receive a “mini” lesson from their teacher targeted to a small and useful piece of information about the craft and discipline of writing. Students then practice that skill, or skills from previous writing lessons.
These skills are taught within the larger framework of a genre, or type of writing. Students learn how to write in three genres of writing: narrative, opinion, and information. One major message in this workshop model is that, aside from the mini-lesson, students are constantly engaged with their own writing, only taking time out for conferences with peers or the teacher. Writer’s Workshop is given a block of time each day, and students are assessed throughout the year in each of the genres. Teachers come together to score the writing pieces with the help of a rubric, which outlines the criteria for grading each piece. Teachers use the outcomes of the scoring to plan upcoming lessons.
Learning a new writing program took dedication from our teachers and instructional staff. Elementary teachers participated in a year-long learning program of twice-monthly training sessions that involved reading the new curriculum. They discussed and reported on their practice in the classroom as they used the new lessons. LOSD also wrote and received a grant that paid for expert trainers in this model to come and teach many of the teachers at our sites. Teachers collaborated to understand and develop new lessons, built flip-charts for their smart boards, and gathered items needed for the lessons. Although it was challenging and intensive work, teachers reported that they saw growth in their students’ skills as writers, stronger, interesting writing “voices,” and more stamina for writing.
Two years later, we see that not only have students grown in their stamina for writing for a whole period, they have also developed as writers with something to say. Narrative stories have changed from writing pattern books like “I like my teacher” in Kindergarten to writing stories about a “big event” in their lives. Students write about their feelings of joy and excitement during a day at the beach, or describe a game played with family members in warm and interesting detail.
As students move through the grades, they have opportunities to experiment with different writing forms. For instance, as they grow older and more sophisticated, they make arguments about ideas they really care about; for example, convincing peers that it is very important to conserve water or wear a helmet when riding a bike. All students are learning how to research a topic before writing and what steps are needed to complete a writing task. They are also able to write about history, a literary essay, poetry, fairy tales, and create realistic fiction, memoirs, and persuasive speeches. Live Oak students are being exposed to an amazing catalog of writing experiences!
Since one of the goals of middle school writing is to prepare the students for the rigorous academic writing of high school and beyond, Shoreline Middle School teachers share responsibility for the development of student writers. To do this, they focus on the craft and structure of the three Common Core State Standards in writing: narrative, informative/explanatory, and argumentative.
In language arts, students work on their narrative writing skills, culminating in a school-wide writing assessment. These stories are shared in class and then read and scored by groups of teachers. In science, teachers reinforce the craft and structure of informative/explanatory writing, that is so often the style scientists use. The writing prompt for the final assessment is a text-based scientific question. After reading science articles and materials, students explain the science behind an everyday occurrence.
Social studies teachers focus their lessons on the craft and structure of argumentative writing that is often used in historical thinking and writing. The final written assessment for this subject is text-based, in which students read a text and respond in writing. All of these genres are scored by teachers, using Smarter Balanced Writing Rubrics.
The students of LOSD are able to use writing as a tool for communicating ideas, and are given the time to present their writing and arguments to their classes, strengthening their verbal skills as well. We are very proud of our teachers and students as they have worked and learned together, increasing their knowledge and abilities as effective communicators and thinkers.