U.Va. Project Helps Teachers Get Kids Excited about Writing

October 26, 2010 — Instead of the typical groans and grimaces she has received in past years, Lisa Harman is now seeing smiles on the faces of her second-graders when she announces a writing assignment. Some students even ask for more time to write or request a second writing session in a day, said Harman, who teaches at Baker-Butler Elementary School in Albemarle County.

"I think part of the reason is that I am enjoying teaching writing more than in past years. It's great to have so many more writing tools to share," Harman said.

Harman is among 19 teachers from public and private schools in Central Virginia who recently returned to the University of Virginia as a follow-up to the Central Virginia Writing Project's one-week summer writing institute held in July. The project is housed at the Curry School of Education and directed by Jane Hansen, a professor of reading education.

"Children typically do not write daily," Hansen said. "They are not engaged as writers; they are not enthused about writing, and therefore, they don't become very proficient."

The project's goal is to help students become excited about writing, she said, and by giving them explicit writing strategies, help them become better writers.

During the summer institute, Hansen and associate director Motana Gaffney showed teachers from both elementary and secondary classrooms how to engage their students in more authentic writing, how to encourage creativity and how to avoid formulaic writing, such as the traditional five-paragraph essay.

Not only did teachers bone up on the basics of teaching writing, but they engaged in writing themselves and developed classroom plans for increasing the prominence of student writing during the school year.

At the Oct. 9 follow-up session, teachers discussed their writing experiences with students so far this fall, both their successes and their strategies for troubleshooting activities that seemed less effective, Hansen said. They also shared some of their students' work and spent time writing about recent events in and out of the classroom.

"It is important for the teachers to see themselves as writers," Hansen said. "It keeps their enthusiasm high and keeps them grounded in the processes and strategies they need to use in order for their writing to resound with their own voices."     

Harman, an 18-year veteran of the classroom, has been teaching second-graders for the nine years since Baker-Butler opened. "In the past, I don't feel like I was as strategic and focused with writing," she said. "Last summer at the institute, I wrote more than I have in years, and I rediscovered my own enjoyment of writing. I think my excitement is transferring to the students."

She also credits new strategies she learned at the institute – such as providing exemplars of writing styles the children can then try to emulate, and suggesting specific ways to edit out passive phrasing – with making student writing more effective.

The one-week summer institute was a new feature this year, as are a number of other Central Virginia Writing Project offerings in the coming months. Although the Curry School has housed the project for three decades, the past year has seen a significant restructuring of its staff and programs. It is approaching its mandate to improve student writing with a fresh outlook and renewed vigor, Hansen said.

The project also sponsored a two-week leadership team institute over the summer to discuss ways to strengthen its programs and increase its influence in the region. Staff members are providing professional development in all five Harrisonburg elementary schools during this academic year and are offering a writing workshop on Nov. 10 for secondary administrators in the region.

Next summer, the Central Virginia Writing Project will offer a four-week writing institute on Grounds for 20 teachers. Participants will receive five months of coaching from members of the project's leadership team beginning in November in preparation for the institute. Also next summer, the project will sponsor two one-week, off-Grounds institutes, one in Lynchburg and one in Hanover County. 

The Central Virginia Writing Project is one of six Virginia Writing Project sites funded by the National Writing Project, which sponsors 200 sites nationwide.

— By Lynn Bell