New Writing Curriculum Emphasizes the Writer

October 15, 2015 Rita Sanders

New Writing Curriculum Emphasizes the Writer

October 14, 2015

Kristie Glock's pencil glided across the page, leaving a stream of graphite where the tip met the paper. "This is kind of messy," she told her third graders. "But I'm not worried about spelling, I just keep getting my ideas out." Glock, a teacher at Pleasant Valley Primary School, kept writing. She demonstrated for her students a strategy that they could use to write their own personal narratives.

During a 10-minute mini lesson, Glock modeled for her students and talked about what she wants them to do. Next, students would either write independently or discuss their writing with Glock in a small group before getting back together to reflect on what they did.

Glock's lesson is based on Battle Ground Public Schools' new K-8 writing curriculum called Units of Study in Opinion/Argument, Information and Narrative Writing. Battle Ground is implementing the writing curriculum across the district. Designed to teach the Washington State Learning Standards for writing, the curriculum helps students develop and refine strategies for writing and supports independence and fluency through regular, intensive writing sessions. "It teaches the writer, not the writing," Glock said. "It gives writers strategies, such as how to make a lead, how to put details in your story, how to make an ending."

The curriculum uses a workshop model of teaching that minimizes lectures and maximizes learning by putting more emphasis on student work. Each lesson begins with an explanation of the goals or learning targets and then dives into a mini lesson, followed by independent or group work and finally a whole-group debriefing.

Battle Ground began looking a few years ago for a writing curriculum to adopt district-wide after a survey showed teachers desired a common approach to teaching writing that builds on consistent lessons learned at each grade level. A committee of teachers and administrators researched writing curricula, and it didn't take long for Units of Study to filter to the top and earn a nearly unanimous vote for adoption. Last year, the district brought in experts to provide training on the curriculum materials to teachers at each grade level who would be available to answer questions from their peers. This year, as all English language arts teachers implement the writing curriculum in their classrooms, the district is offering professional development and the assistance of an instructional support specialist.

Besides its employment of the workshop model of teaching, the curriculum engages students in regular writing sessions that focus on the types of writing described in the Washington State Learning Standards and that students are expected to employ the most after graduation: narrative, opinion and information writing. A fourth, optional unit for each grade level explores a fictional or creative writing topic, including poetry, fairy tales and literary essays. "Anyone who has used this curriculum has nothing but good things to say about their kids becoming writers," said Sandy Grim, a Battle Ground Public Schools instructional support specialist for English language arts. "It's amazing to see that change."

Because Units of Study only covers writing through the eighth grade, the Battle Ground district adopted another writing curriculum at the high school level. Called Come to Class, it complements the K-8 materials and continues where they end in that Come to Class provides the writing practice and application that high school students need to be prepared for college and careers.

In her Pleasant Valley Primary classroom, Glock projects her writing onto the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. Her students watch her write. "Fast and furious," she said. "Get all your ideas on the paper." After the demonstration, Glock asks the students to tell a partner what they plan to write about. "How did you feel, what did you see, what did you think?" Glock asks. "You are rehearsing for your story."

Amid the third graders sitting criss cross on the floor, Monzerrat Garcia-Rico looked down as she spoke, her soft voice barely audible above the conversation of other students. "We went on a ride that looked like a big mountain," she told her partner. "It was my brother's first ride. There were monsters, and he was scared. I felt excited. There was a waterfall. It was really dark."

This telling helps students gather their thoughts and focus on the upcoming task so that when they put pencil to paper, choosing an idea will not necessarily be the obstacle. It's another writer's strategy. "If you're ready, I want you to go back to the heart of your story and get more details out," Glock said.

As the students returned to their desks, quiet descended on the classroom. They picked up pencils and translated the thoughts in their heads into words on their papers. The Pleasant Valley third graders spend one hour each day on writing, broken into two lessons.

Writing used to be strictly about the write-edit-revise process, Glock said. Students would take a whole piece through the writing process, from writing and editing to revising and final publication. But the Units of Study curriculum emphasizes how to be a writer. Students might focus on writing a lead or they might work on expanding the details in their pieces. "It's less about the mechanics," Glock said, "and more about the craft."

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