In quest of a standard
Staff from 5 Westside schools meet to review essays, discuss ways to improve kids’ writing

       Scores of teachers and staff from five Westside elementaries spent about two hours Feb. 17 on the schools' first-ever joint “grading” of student literary assignments.
       While a hoped-for common standard proved elusive - many teachers were just meeting their peers from the other schools for the first time - Washington Principal Terry Martinez said the effort was a good first step toward a standard-setting goal.
       “Almost across the board, people thought it was worthwhile,” he said. “There was a good sharing of ideas and collaboration.”
       No actual grading was done, but it's arguable that student papers on the Westside have never received such scrutiny. Based on Martinez' estimate, about 110 staffers opted to use their afternoon “in-service” time on the 17th to read selected essays from each of the schools.
       Based on the grade levels they instruct, teachers met at different schools (Buena Vista, K; Pike, 1; Bristol, 2; Whittier, 3; and Washing-ton, 4-5). Students in all the grades had written papers, based on the prompt of “when someone was kind to you.” At each grade level, staff looked at four entries from each school - including those considered best and worst - but not those from their own students.
       Stacy Sorensen, the second-grade teacher at Pike, said afterward she liked the experience because “in a lot of the smaller schools (such as hers), you don't have a big pool of people to compare and share with.”
       Martinez said the hope is to plan future such activities, possibly in other academic areas.
       The writing exercise stemmed from meetings of principals at the Westside schools this year. On the Westside, as in much of District 11, writing is an area where students often score low on the annual Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests.
       Based on this alone, Sorensen believes a common standard to improve writing would be useful. “It would help our scores and set the students up for success,” she said.
       Lacking such a standard, the Westside principals decided to take the initiative to come up with one of their own. It was better than waiting for District 11, Martinez believes. Even if the district were to develop a standard, Martinez doubts how effective it would be over here. “In a system where there are 39 different elementary schools, if the district tries to do something like this, it will be one size fits all, and that wouldn't necessarily work for us smaller schools,” he said.
       It makes sense for Westside schools to work together on the issue not only because of their smallness, but their commonalities in income levels (some poor and some not-so poor students), history (older buildings) and unique area (the Westside), he explained.
       Another participant in the exercise was Buena Vista teacher Marilyn George, whose fifth-grade class scored a perfect 100 in last year's CSAPs - the only such writing achievement in District 11 for 2004-2005. George, who is retiring after this year, lauded the principals for “really trying,” but added that she noticed confusion in some teachers between narrative and expository writing and how to use different writing-development programs.
       Although insisting that “I don't have all the answers,” she is a believer in “graphic organizers” to help students get on track with writing. Confidence is also key. “The more things you do that are competent, the more competent you feel,” she said.
       In the second-grade session at Bristol, one of the debates was about the value of using models to teach writing. “You can teach till you're blue in the face,” said Maria Gutierrez of Washington, “but if you don't model, model, model, you don't get anywhere.”
       This drew a response from Val Rudy, also of Washington, that modeling could have the undesirable side effect of stifling creativity. “They may change what they're writing to be like yours,” she said.
       Bristol literary resource teacher Jan Berry, who coordinated the discussion, offered the belief that enthusiasm should not be underestimated. “We need to teach so that our students come out of their primary years wanting to write,” she said.

Westside Pioneer article