Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

From the Ground Up: Improving Student Writing through Teacher Collaboration

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

From the Ground Up: Improving Student Writing through Teacher Collaboration

Article excerpt

School have demonstrated time and again that it is much easier to initiate change than to sustain it to fruition. Until changes become so entrenched that they represent part of "the way we do things around here," they are extremely fragile and subject to regression.

-Dufour and Eaker, 1999, p. 105-

Few school reforms are initiated by teachers. Most change is made top down and not fully understood and/or embraced by the teachers, making the reform "fragile and subject to regression." However, when teachers initiate the change and are in charge of sustaining the practice, it is more likely to become "part of the way things are done around here."

Listen to the voices of teachers at the William Allen School in Rochester, New Hampshire, when they initiated a study group that led to sustained changes in their teaching of writing. These teachers faced a long list of scripted programs, state mandates, and the district's required six writing prompts a year. It's a dilemma many writing teachers can relate to: how to fit it all in and yet, not compromise what they believe is important in teaching authentic writing and building habits of lifelong literacy. With the support of their principal, they decided to form a study group to tackle this dilemma together.

The Allen School has participated in the University of New Hampshire's Learning Through Teaching (LTT) program, an in-service course offered through the English Department. For several years, university consultants have worked with the teachers in their classrooms to plan and implement a writers workshop. A goal of the LTT program is to empower teachers to tackle issues in teaching English and language arts by forming collégial groups. Even after the university partnership concluded, this group continued the conversation. It is a group that includes novice teachers as well as some with as many as 35 years of experience. They are special education and classroom teachers spanning grades K-5. Inspired by the reading and discussion of Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom by Katie Wood Ray (1999) and Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph J. Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi (2001), they set out to discover ways to help their students read like writers and to bring choice and voice back into their writers workshop. To do this the teachers made lists of titles of both professional and children's literature; they set up a schedule to meet after school twice a month to share findings; they each chose picture books and YA books to determine how to use them as a mentor text; and they each kept a log on goals and what happened in their classrooms.

In this article, Louise Wrobleski, a consultant from the University of New Hampshire narrates the conversations between teachers during after school meetings. She invites the readers to eavesdrop on the teachers' thoughts as well as read the reflective emails they sent her to learn how they made sustained changes in their teaching of writing.

Melissa - first and second grade looping teacher Melissa reads Byrd Baylor's (1995) I'm in Charge of Celebrations and she notices how the author talks to the reader - "Friend, I will tell you...." She thought: "This is a strategy my students might want to try in their writing. The author-reader conversations act like thought-shots for the writer. The placement of the words on page, made to look like a poem, is an example of just one of the decisions a writer can make." Melissa wants her young writers to know that:

* Writers make decisions.

* Author/reader conversations act like thought shots.

* Placement of words on the page can enhance the writing.

Melissa writes:

When I introduced writers workshop to my first grade classroom, I asked my students who thought of themselves as writers. Only a few students raised their hands. Throughout the remainder ofthat day, we discussed what a writer is and what a writer does. When the rest of my students learned that a writer is someone who writes down their thoughts and ideas, they quickly changed their minds to identify themselves as writers. …

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