A Culture of Writing: Writing Instruction at Washington Elementary

One of the most difficult challenges I have had in my career was to instill a culture of writing at my school. It’s not that we weren’t doing writing at our school, but the question was, “Were we doing the writing effectively across the grades to make our children better writers?” This has been challenge that needed to be met head on during the past years. My quest was to find a writing program where my school could create a culture of writing and utilize this program to improve writing and writing scores across the grade levels.

By Emil Carafa (Pictured on the left of the Cat in the Hat), Principal of Washington Elementary School, past President of the New Jersey Principals Association, and Educator’s Leader Cadre Representative of New Jersey for PARCC National Conference

Collaboration is the key to any successful program or initiative that needs to be implemented in a school. To change the perception of writing in our school, I met with a committee of teachers to discuss writing and what we were looking for. We had been utilizing a grammar and writing program that was part of our reading series, but it wasn’t meeting our needs.

During the meeting we discovered:

  • We needed more time for writing.
  • We needed professional development in writing.
  • We needed a writing program that was teacher-friendly and was aligned to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.
Now that we knew what our struggles were, it was time to start utilizing tools geared towards helping my teachers tackle the problems we were facing. What I did to improve writing instruction at my school.

There’s a resource called Crunch the Numbers, which shows three different teachers’ lesson plans for the week. Teachers calculate up how much time each teacher is spending teaching the different subject areas. Teachers then judge the lesson plans according to ASCD’s recommended minutes of instruction in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies.

It was a great start for my teachers who were apprehensive to look at their own use of instruction time. They were less defensive looking at someone else’s schedule and got an idea of how they could rearrange their own based on ASCD’s recommendations.

If your teachers aren’t sure how to improve their writing instruction, I suggest using a document called Questions Teachers Have When Teaching Writing. This is a really powerful tool I used during a staff meeting and everyone raved about how helpful it was. Teachers loved learning from each other, and it’s a great professional development tool.

Using Crunch the Numbers helped with time awareness, and Questions Teachers Have When Teaching Writing helped with knowledge awareness.  But, I knew I still needed to tackle the lack of materials. This led me to start looking into some writing programs that could assist my teachers with their writing instruction while teaching them the craft of writing.

WriteSteps caught my eye while I was attending a conference in New Jersey. This program was different. It made sense. The classroom teacher did not have to be a content area specialist to use this program. There was professional development attached to the program and there was a time schedule attached to each unit. BINGO! I believe I hit the jackpot! I knew I had discovered a program that fit the needs at my school.

After piloting WriteSteps, teachers in grade four could not contain their enthusiasm toward the program. They invited other teachers into their classes and shared what they had been doing with their students. The word spread like wildfire throughout the school. Grade five was chomping at the bit to try Crunch the NumbersWriteSteps. We saw an improvement in our writing scores after that year. After piloting for fourth grade, WriteSteps was purchased for all of my K-5 teachers.

Crunch the Numbers helped with time awareness, and Questions Teachers Have When Teaching Writing helped with knowledge awareness. WriteSteps provided us the quality materials we needed.  Teachers finally realized that writing deserves its own block of instructional time, not combined with reading instruction.

As the instructional leader at my school, I had to show my commitment to the importance of writing.
At my “Back to School” PTA meeting I had the opportunity to share with my school community our commitment to writing at Washington Elementary. Writing was taking center stage at our school. It was going to be the lead-in for all subject areas. We discussed the new Common Core State Standards and how our writing program,WriteSteps, was linked to them.

Throughout the year, students are asked to share their writing with the school community. They share their writing in their classroom and they share it in what we call, “Writers’ Workshop.” We have a school wide assembly and select students’ writings that were interesting and well written. The assembly lasts about thirty minutes and students love to read their work to the entire school community.  

I’m so proud when I visit classrooms and observe effective writing instruction happening with my teachers across the grade levels. They love how everything they need is at their finger tips. With WriteSteps, my teachers don’t have to do any extra planning or resource gathering. As we wrapped up our third year with WriteSteps, my staff was amazed at the progress their students had made and love sharing their stories with other staff.  Student writing is displayed in our hallways throughout the year.

During the past year I’ve had other school districts come and visit my school to see the program. They are astounded at the progression of writing displayed in the school. They see the connection and the importance of all grades talking the same language when it comes to writing. The Common Core State Standards and the PARCC and SMARTER BALANCE tests only reaffirm the need for all of us to commit to a culture of writing in our schools. Our school district now has all of its elementary schools using WriteSteps from kindergarten to grade five.

Our students and teachers are excited about writing every day! WriteSteps solved our challenge and I am extremely pleased with the outcome at my school!