Collaboration is the key to success of the new writing curriculum introduced to all three Mahopac elementary schools this year. “That, and more time spent on writing units,” according to Austin Road Assistant Principal Bryan Gilligan, who headed up the committee charged with changing the writing program last summer. “We used to spend a few days on each writing unit, and now we spend about a month,” said Gilligan. “You can really see the difference in the students’ participation, because they get much more of a sense of the material.”
The committee consists of teachers from each grade of each of the district’s three elementary schools: Austin Road, Fulmar Road and Lakeview. “We meet once a month, and the collaboration has been awesome,” said committee member Michelle Seymour, who teaches first grade at Austin Road. “Every teacher has always had great ideas, but now we all get to share with each other.”
The writing committee came together over the summer to plan the units and provide support materials, according to Gilligan. “It’s great because everyone is on the same page now, working on the same units at the same time,” he said. “But within those units each teacher has the freedom to be creative.” Teachers can share ideas for lesson plans on Google Drive, which makes collaboration easy.
Seymour’s class is working on the Opinion unit of the curriculum, with a recent class lesson devoted to students’ opinions on the fairytale “Goldilocks.”
With words such as I feel, I believe, and I think on a board in front of students during writing time, Seymour prompts them for their opinion on the story. “Do you think Goldilocks made good decisions?” she asks. Students excitedly raise their hands in unison, competing to respond first.
“The students are much more excited about writing now,” said Danielle Fearns, who teaches first grade at Austin Road. Fearns credits the extra time and the fact that students are encouraged to make “imperfect” rough drafts, which gives them more independence. “They know that they can have mistakes in their first draft and that there will be time to correct everything later,” she said, “so they are more confident. They know there is no stigma to having a misspelling in a draft, so they are more comfortable taking risks and being creative in their drafts.”
Lakeview teacher Michelle Savino said that the writing program promotes student independence and metacognition. “The students take ownership of their ideas and work collaboratively to edit/revise their pieces using the skills they have been taught during our mini-lessons,” she said. “These skills have transferred to their work in other content areas, and they have become stronger writers overall.”
Fellow Lakeview teacher Kathy Hursak also thinks the program has resulted in stronger writers. “The writing program enables the students to engage in text for optimal comprehension, resulting in better writing,” she said.
One of the benefits of the writing program is the use of mentor texts that are used to model and explain different aspects of writing, according to Fulmar Road fifth grade teacher Liza Kertelits. “This allows the students to analyze the writer’s craft, and it provides them with great examples of the different writing genres,” she said.
The workshop approach encourages students to take risks with their writing and be more independent, according to Fulmar Road teacher Carol Stefunek. “The children truly believe and know that they, too, are authors, and they can't wait to share their published pieces with their classmates.”
Students in Maryanne LaRue’s second grade class at Austin Road are working on writing “how to” books in writer’s workshop. “As part of the non-fiction unit, students wrote out things that they know how to do well and can teach someone else. Some examples are: how to do a cartwheel, or how to make pizza,” she said. Before that, students created “all about” books, where they went into depth about a topic of interest to them.
“I love the new program,” LaRue said. “It has improved students’ writing so much. It is much more hands on and provides them with research skills that they can really use later on. They are learning how to write in sequential steps, which is so important.”
Fulmar Road teacher Andrea Jones said that students love the program so much that they want to keep writing even when the period is over. “The new program brings an excitement for writing,” she said. “When students are complaining when it is over, you know the program is working.”