K-5 writing instruction has taken some baby steps forward since I first began offering WriteSteps lessons outside my own school in 2007. Because the many state standards elevate the teaching of writing at all grade levels, I see more districts starting to take writing seriously.
But we have such a long way to go! As I travel the country to address school leaders about writing, I still find teachers everywhere who are completely lacking the support they need to give their students the gift of clear written expression. I just feel so disheartened when I hear their stories.
Who Are These Failing Teachers?
They are bright and dedicated educators. They love their students and want them to succeed. They are often standouts in other subject areas.
So why are they failing when it comes to teaching writing? It’s pretty simple. Their instructional leaders, whether principals or district curriculum coordinators, haven’t prioritized it. They haven’t got the tools they need.
Armed with a hodgepodge of lessons and often just 15-20 minutes a day for writing instruction, these admirable teachers do what they can, but see little measurable progress to inspire their efforts. Their students who are already natural writers may produce page upon page, but don’t necessarily learn to use words powerfully or clearly. Those who are struggling writers convey neither passion nor detail. Neither group learns to analyze their strengths and weaknesses in ways that help them better tackle the next assignment.
It’s Not Rocket Science! 5 Keys to Success
What do their teachers need? Helping K-5 students hone their writing skills without killing their creativity is hard work. It’s not like teaching math or phonics; we don’t have textbooks for this. But it’s not rocket science either. There is a well-established body of best practices in writing instruction that works beautifully for children. What’s missing is:
- A common set of practices & vocabulary about writing.
Good writing really comes from developing a whole tool kit of abilities, including organizational and analytic skills. First graders who learn to analyze anonymous student writing by finding “glows” and “grows” (strengths and weaknesses) need second grade teachers who will use the same techniques and language to build their capacities. Consistency across the grades rewards both students and teachers.When teachers across the grades share a common language and techniques, students can take pride in achieving writing excellence.
- Common assessment methods students can count on across the grades.
Assessing writing isn’t easy, but it makes a huge difference when students and teachers have a consistent approach that empowers them to think clearly about what makes “good writing” convincing and easy to read. WriteSteps uses the 6 Traits rubrics.
- Principals who hold teachers accountable.
This doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It’s as simple as asking each teacher to share 3 student writing samples per month: from a low, medium, and high-performing student. Principals might also pop into classrooms and browse students’ writing notebooks on a monthly basis, just to see how often they’re writing. These simple acts convey a clear message to teachers and students: writing matters.
K-5 teachers need permission to spend 50 minutes a day, 3-5 times a week, modeling, inspiring, coaching, cheerleading, and celebrating students’ written work.
- Professional development that is practical and solution-oriented.
Overstretched teachers need PD that translates into immediate student learning, not lofty ideals and resources that require hours of additional study to create usable lessons. PD can also serve as a funding source for purchasing a comprehensive program like WriteSteps, because we offer PD in the form of grade-level coaching that really works!Arlynn King, WriteSteps Coaching Director, is a veteran teacher with a gift for guiding grade-level teacher groups to classroom solutions that work.
Turning Failure Around — My Personal Story
Years ago, I was one of those frustrated elementary writing teachers. The seed for WriteSteps came from a comprehensive study of writing pedagogy I undertook because my school had such poor writing scores. I was lucky enough to have a principal who “got it.” Because of the support I received, I was inspired to do the time-consuming research necessary to uncover teaching strategies that work.
The problem? I found a tremendous wealth of time-tested instructional practices, but nothing I could put to immediate use. All these great resources still required endless hours of additional study and planning to translate into lessons! Thus, WriteSteps was born, and I’m so gratified that other schools are now turning their students’ writing around with our help. But you already know that, right?
Frustration into Fuel:
Coming Soon to a Conference Near You!
My only remaining frustration is that more districts don’t know about us. So this year, I’m turning my frustration into fuel by spreading the word about our teacher-friendly Common Core approach from coast to coast. I’ll be speaking at conferences nationwide this winter and spring about Common Core writing strategies that work for all kinds of learners and teachers.
Come and see me when I’m in your area; I would love to connect with you. In the meantime, we’d like to hear how you turn your frustrations into fuel! Please share your comments!
2012 Conferences Scheduled to Date:
National Title I Conference (Seattle, WA)
Colorado Council International Reading Association (Denver, CO)
Wisconsin State Reading Association (WSRA) (Milwaukee)
Michigan Reading Association (MRA) (Kalamazoo)
Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals (MAESP-MO) (Osage Beach)
National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) (Seattle, WA)
Massachusetts Reading Association (MRA-Mass) (Sturbridge)