Spencer teachers note vast improvements with new writing program

Thursday, February 15, 2018
Lincoln Elementary fifth-grade students Millie Hemann, Shayla Sanderson and Hannah Blume practice their writing skills. The Units in Study Writing program has been implemented at all Spencer Elementary schools this year.
Photo by Colin Van Westen

Fifth-grade teacher Amy Blau has noticed a change in her students attitude toward writing this school year.

"I would say before this for a lot of kids writing was a painful part of the day," Blau said. "Now, it will be a majority of the class when the time is up that are still writing. There are guidelines and we are working toward certain standards, but the kids still have a lot of choice. Even what goals they are working on. I think when kids have choice, they are more invested."

The Units in Study of Writing, also known as Lucy Calkin's writing, is a research-based program which Spencer Elementary schools have implemented this year. The program allows teachers 10 minutes to introduce writing lessons and then allows the students 40 minutes to practice the skills they learned.

Blau and another fifth-grade teacher, Abbey Faust, first experienced the writing system last school year. Kindergarten through fifth grade teachers received instruction on how to teach the program earlier this year. Tuesday night the five teachers from different grades at the elementary-level presented about the program to the Spencer School Board and parents in attendance at a lighthouse session.

"The students love it," Faust said. "They love to write and don't want to stop writing. Anytime they have a story to share, they want to put that into writing. They think about, 'Oh, I can write about this when it comes to writing time.' They love the whole workshop part of it, getting help when they need help, seeking each other for help and sharing with each other."

The program completely aligns with the Iowa Core standards and focuses on three genres of writing; opinion, narrative and informative.

"Writing is so important to their future and I think we are realizing more and more how important it is," Blau said. "They are going to have to communicate through writing no matter what they do in the future. I know that technology makes communication easier, but it doesn't take away the importance of learning to write properly."

Previously, the fifth-grade teachers taught writing through guidelines called the "Six Traits of Writing."

Blau explained the different between the programs is the new program is a curriculum that has been implemented across elementary schools allowing for vertical alignment. This helps students build their writing abilities throughout their elementary careers.

"We did a unit on research-based argument and you think how much the students are going to need those skills when it comes to middle school, high school, college and even some professions," Faust said. "It is nice to see that we are starting to implement some of those skills already at the K-5 level."

Both teachers agreed that improving writing is a key to overall student success.

"There are huge connections between other subjects and the ability to write clearly," Blau said. "We are doing more and more writing in science and social studies so that the connection transfers. Even in math there is a lot of expectations for communicating such as problem solving strategies."

The teachers emphasized that students receive the opportunity to write what they are passionate about.

"When we first taught about research-based arguments, they all wrote about if chocolate milk should be allowed in school or not," Blau said. "We did that together because it was a new type of writing and we were doing the same research and the same writing. After they understood how to do that, they got to pick their own topics. Some of the topics were things they had studied in reading. For example, they wrote about if plastic water bottles should be banned and if extreme sports are worth the risk."

Faust said feedback from the administrators and parents who attended Tuesday's Lighthouse session was positive. She pointed out that it is important to make sure parents, administrators and teachers are all on the same page to better educate Spencer's children.

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