Los Altos School District teachers and principals gathered last week for a writing workshop run by Columbia University’s Teachers College.
The workshop’s aim was to encourage teachers to pursue a new model of teaching writing that encourages instructors to set aside nearly an hour per day for students to write and to give students a great deal of freedom in their topics.
“We really want the kids to be lifelong writers and to see themselves that way,” said Greg Drummond, district curriculum coordinator. “No matter their profession, writing is so much a part of our world.”
Drummond said a traditional writing exercise often looks like a teacher assigned a specific topic and genre, like “Why schools need dress codes.” In the new model of writing, teachers present one or more examples of a certain genre of writing, and the students and teacher work together to figure out what the writer did successfully and how to apply that technique to their own writing. And the students’ own writing should be about something relevant and interesting to them, whether that’s “My First Baseball Game” or “The Time I Broke My Arm.”
An hour a day
The model the Teachers College promotes is evidence-based, and it’s continually tweaking its recommendations, said Laura Wiley, one of the district’s literacy instructional support teachers. The college has found that kids need a lot of time to write, approximately 45 minutes to an hour every day. But not all of that time is spent actually writing: The entire process of writing, from generating ideas to celebrating finished work, is honored.
In the 45 minutes to an hour a class devotes to writing, the first eight to 12 minutes are spent together as a class on a lesson, which might be a demonstration or guided inquiry. Then students practice “writing out loud” by talking through their ideas with a partner. The students subsequently break off for 20-30 minutes of writing time, which is supposed to teach them how to work independently. During this time, the teachers can meet with students individually about their writing projects. When they’re done, there’s five minutes for students to share in small groups or as a class what they’ve completed, are working on, struggling with or planning for next time.
For kindergartners, the independent writing time might be more like two minutes rather than 20, but the technique is the same.
Just like how the model attempts to give students freedom in their writing, the training wants to give teachers freedom in their teaching. For example, the writing instructors stressed the importance of record-keeping, enabling teachers to keep track of which students are working on which topics and where they need help. The training provided teachers with several options for how to do that record-keeping, from binders to apps.
Several teachers from the district have already attended Teachers College workshops and have implemented the model in their classrooms. Wiley said one student, who had to miss his afternoon writing time for a dentist appointment, complained to his mom that she was making him miss the best part of the day.
The rest of the teachers will attend workshops in August or throughout the school year, for an expected full rollout of the program by next year. Drummond noted that fitting an hour into the school day for writing is difficult but worthwhile.
Wiley attended a workshop on the writing model last year, in New York.
“When I walked away from it, I felt like a writer again,” she said. “It’s empowering our teachers to take the time to write, to be that peer-learner along with your students.”