Spencer writing education enhanced with Units of Study

Thursday, February 16, 2017
Debra Wittrock led her kindergarten class in practicing their writing skills while each student worked at their individual pace. Each student focused on building off of subjects they already had a passion for with subtle assistance provided by fellow students and their teacher. (Photos by James Tillison)

A recent shift in the writing education format at Spencer elementary schools have yielded success in student comprehension and passion for the subject. The school district began using the Lucy Calkins Units of Study writing education method in all classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade at the start of the 2015-16 school year. As of the end of the first semester, teachers reported students demonstrating an unprecedented widespread passion for writing.

In the years before utilizing the new system, many of the teachers said they felt unsure on where to go with writing education and alone in navigating the subject.

"A lot of teachers didn't really know where to go. I was kind of on my own and the other teachers were off on their own," Brian Sand, second grade teacher, said.

As the room is filled with the sound of pencil on paper, Charlie Busch sits on his own to focus on writing his latest story.

According to teachers and administrators, the issue began when state standards were updated. From the teachers point of view, many of the writing standards were pushed to the side as other subjects, predominantly science, took the forefront of the standards updates.

In an attempt to strengthen the writing education, and build the staff cohesiveness that the teachers found with the other subjects, the district began to utilize the Units of Study program.

The new writing program began with a writing assessment. For the higher grades, that meant a 45-minute writing period. Many of the teachers from kindergarten to fifth grade reported that their students were unable to write for the full period. Following the initial assessment, each grade began the new teaching methods.

"For us, a lot of times our writing was like, let's teach them a content area, like weather or being in the community, with a little writing built into it. Now it is pretty much flipped on its head," Debra Wittrock, kindergarten teacher, explained about getting started in the program. "Let's write and become really good writers then, when they get comfy with that, we will put in some weather and other topics. So it is really just an emphasis on how to be a writer."

The classes focus on building their understanding of the subject on what the student already comprehend, as opposed to explaining the rules first. Wittrock split her class into groups to show them how to use what they know to build their confidence. As they become more aware of their own abilities, the students began operating on their own.

"This is way more effective, in the sense that they are taking ownership. In the past, I would tell them what to do and they would perform for me. Now, they are totally in charge. All I do is support them and they just keep on using the skills they know," Wittrock explained.

After emphasizing the ability to be a writer, Wittrock said the next step was utilizing cross subject integration. She said the class does a large amount of writing with each subject and demonstrates good writing practices in each topic.

Many of the concepts stay the same in the higher grades, only adjusting for more advanced comprehension. Sand and the second-grade students have built a tailored system around this same curriculum. However, the second-grade classes are at a disadvantage in the sense that they have prior instruction outside of the Units of Measure system.

Despite being behind in the curriculum, Sand said his students are rapidly accelerating in their writing abilities.

"In the second grade level, we can write for 45 minutes if we need to. Not every child can write that long but, when you are talking about 90 percent of the class maintaining that stamina, it's huge," Sand said.

He went on to say that he feels the students are not the only ones feeling more secure in the subject through collaboration.

"This Unit of Study and writing has done a great job of bringing the grade levels together. Just the conversations we have during our professional development time is huge. Our teachers are excited to go back into the classroom and start teaching writing," Sand said.

The fifth-grade level is the final group of students to use the Units of Study system, according to fifth-grade teacher Abbey Skalla. Traditionally, this grade level operates on a six traits writing system, however, Skalla said the new system focuses more on incorporating content, much as the lower grades are doing with cross subject integration.

"I have seen tremendous growth from our students as they have been learning and taking in this writing. We have been focusing most recently on writing strong introductions and conclusions and they get so excited," Skalla said.

She went on to say that the students have demonstrated an overall passion for writing that she has not seen before.

"They love writing. They want to write. ... Two weeks ago I gave them one (writing assessment) and the timer goes off after 45 minutes and they are like 'no, I need more time. I want to keep writing,'" Skalla explained.

Following the end of the first semester, all three teachers agreed that student comprehension and passion for the subject has drastically improved. They also agreed that the passion of the educators to teach the subject has been reinvigorated, which reflects in the students.

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