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Rockwood School District
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Rockwood Teachers Engage Students Through Writers Workshop

Fairway Elementary School teacher Natalie Kane's kindergarteners pose with their first published works after a parade for them.


The newest published authors at Fairway Elementary School marched through the hallways last Tuesday, beaming from ear to ear as they proudly held their finished stories and received applause and high-fives from the rest of the school.

The Fairway kindergarteners were parading to celebrate their first major writing accomplishments, with their classmates helping them mark the occasion.

"They were so excited," said kindergarten teacher Natalie Kane. "I don’t think I was prepared for how amazingly supportive the other kids in the school would be. It was genuine pride from a lot of those older kids, which is so important.”​

Kane is one of 120 Rockwood School District elementary teachers who took part in Writers Workshop training facilitated by the Columbia University Teachers College this summer. The plan, according to Rockwood Coordinator Literacy K-5 and Title Programs Dr. Stefanie Steffan, is to train the rest of the district's elementary school teachers over the next two summers.​

The goal of the Writers Workshop is to allow students more autonomy in their writing. Teachers give them short lessons to provide a framework, but the topic and content are left largely up to the students.

Ava, one of Kane's students, wrote her first published work about her older sister's upcoming birthday party. She's getting her a present. But only one.

"The kids have so much freedom to write about what they’re interested in," Kane said. "Tapping into that in the summer workshop was really important in reminding the kids that writing is fun. And being in this cohort, i​t’s the professional development that never ends. When you get stuck on something, you can look around the district and everybody can do the same thing so differently."

Allyson Jeffries, fifth grade, Ballwin Elementary​
​​Ballwin Elementary's Allyson Jeffries works with one of her fifth-grade students during writing time.In Jeffries' classroom, writing sessions begin with mini-lessons and "anchor charts." Jeffries uses the lessons to introduce the theme through her own writing. The anchor charts provide some suggestions to get the students going.

Then, the students are left to write individually and compare with their partners, with Jeffries serving a supporting role.

"It’s taking ownership of their writing, and they’re able to develop their own ideas because they’re picking what they want to write," Jeffries said. "I always say there is one of me and many of you, which is why having trust in their partnership can help​."

All of the Ballwin fifth-grade teachers took part in the Writers Workshop training, so Jeffries also has ​partners with which to discuss ideas and create effective lesson plans. Kristen Forth and Stacey Taylor, the district's elementary language arts coaches, also encouraged all 120 teachers in the cohort to share suggestions, pictures and questions on Twitter using the #RSDWriting and #RockwoodWrites hashtags.

"We’re all here for all the kids in Rockwood," Forth said. "Instead of working in silos, it gives them the opportunity to reach out and work together.”​

John Hartmann, fourth grade, Ellisville Elementary​Ellisville's John Hartmann works with his fourth-grade students during writing time.
This is Hartmann's fourth year teaching the Writers Workshop model to his students but the first year he was able to undergo formal training through the district. The first three, he tried to teach himself.

His biggest takeaway from the summer? Keep the mini-lessons short. He used to go more than 20 minutes. Now, he puts a timer on himself to keep it at 10 to 12.

"The students are more interested in writing because they have that time, and it’s also freeing me up to actually sit with them and confer," Hartmann said. "It’s almost like each student has a differentiated writing curriculum, where they’re able to talk with me about what they’re doing. I’d done this program ​before but not as well as I’m doing it now​."

Hartmann taught almost all of his current students last year because he moved up a grade with them. He can see marked improvement in their writing -- and their enthusiasm for it -- in their second year in the program.

Steffan said the goal is to see a cumulative effect across the district: teachers at all six elementary grade levels stressing the same instructional​ strategies to build on their students' writing skills year after year.

"We're building a common language. Kids have background knowledge of what is expected," Taylor said. "We're all standing on each other's shoulders, which will increase growth."

Fairway kindergarteners show off a banner after the school's writing parade.A Ballwin fifh-grader enjoys some individual writing time.Ellisville fourth-graders enjoy some individual writing time.