Fostering a love of reading and writing in young children can be a difficult task. But thanks to the work of Dr. Doug Kaufman, associate professor at the Neag School of Education, students at Dorothy C. Goodwin Elementary School in Storrs are learning to appreciate the creative writing process.
“We have kindergartners who can write for 45 minutes at a time,” explains Kaufman.
Each day, kindergartners, first- and second-graders spend time in “Writing Workshop.” The 45-minute sessions begin with a 15-minute mini-lesson on a topic that relates to the class’ current writing needs. Rather than a more formulaic curriculum, teachers are able to tailor lesson plans to areas most needing improvement. This flexibility means students are learning things relevant to, and challenging them at, that time.
After this lesson, students write for 15 minutes. Teachers walk around the room, encouraging and pushing students to go further with their writing. In the final 15 minutes, students talk about and share their work. Most are eager for their turn, as well as proud and excited about what they have written.
These Writing Workshops have become an essential part of students’ class time, with students recognizing the value of work they produce. Equally important is the fact that they’re having a good time doing it. “If you go into one of these classrooms to see what is happening, you will see kids working very independently with a lot of diligence and extreme enthusiasm. You will see kids getting upset when the workshop is over because they want to keep writing,” says Kaufman, who started the project five years ago after talking with Goodwin staff about the writing challenges they were facing.
Designed to help students understand how writers get their ideas, write and then work with others to improve their writing, the workshops include regular presentations and “mini-lessons” given by Neag graduate school interns. This past year, that was MA students Annie Ramos and Christy Attanasio, who also shared their own writing and worked one-on-one with Goodwin students who needed extra help.
Kaufman, who has a Ph.D. in Reading and Writing Instruction from the University of New Hampshire, believes these Neag interns often impact students most, as their focus is nothing but “pure,” and on writing only. “They are not worried about test scores or other peripheral aspects of teaching,” Kaufman said. “Their focus is to help the Goodwin students write as effectively as possible, and to believe in what they can do.”
The interns also bring a fresh eye, says first grade teacher Angela Mann: “When you’ve been teaching for a while, students often remind you of past students, but these intern have a fresh perspective. They look at each student as an individual case.”
Though Kaufman and his team have not yet formally tested the program’s success, a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence shows its benefits, including the improvement of students’ writing test scores.
“I could really see the difference in the first grade students who had been part of the program the previous year,” explains teacher Janet Pagoni. “When you ask them, they will willingly tell you that they love writing. They look forward to the workshops and are proud to share their work.”
They also look forward to learning what their teachers have written, as teachers take part in the writing and sharing process, too. This gives students the opportunity to learn from the writing choices their teachers make. “When teachers explain why they wrote something a certain way, they’re showing their students how to make writing choices and how to decide what is important,” says Kaufman.
The “Fearless Speller” aspect of the program encourages students to experiment with word choices and use big words that they might not yet be able to correctly spell.
“Since we have a responsive environment, children feel safe and open to trying new things,” says Pagoni. “They also learn that the more they use new words, the more quickly they become familiar with these words and learn how to correctly spell them.”
The success of the program has led to Kaufman, Neag interns and Goodwin teachers being invited to present information about the program at the National Council of Teachers of English Convention for each the past five years. In 2012, Kaufman attended with three of the teachers, Mary Lee Geary, Mann and Pagoni. “It’s a great opportunity for teachers at the school to show their work and innovation, and to share what the kids are doing,” says Kaufman.
Kaufman’s hope for the program is that it will expand not just throughout all grades at Goodwin School, but throughout the Mansfield School District. He’s also considering pursing grants or other external funding as a way to share the benefits of this unique program with an even wider range of students.