Ava worked on writing with the rest of her classmates in a multi-age first- and second-grade class at Bradford Elementary School this week. She jotted down her favorite phrases from a book she had just read, “Fall Mixed Up.”
The exercise is part of a new writing program, Being a Writer, that Bradford Elementary is piloting this year. School officials hope that it will help increase the percentage of their students who score proficient and higher in the annual New England Common Assessment Program, which is being administered this month.
Being a Writer also is an action step that Bradford is taking in its plan for improvement after the school received a “warning” classification when the Rhode Island Department of Education released its 2013 classifications over the summer.
Bradford, the smallest of Westerly’s elementary schools, was downgraded after receiving a “typical” or average classification in 2012. State education department officials call the classification structure an “accountability system.”
“It’s in direct response to the classification,” Principal Debra Pendola said. “It’s also a response to the question, ‘What can we do to increase the academic achievement of every single student in this school?’ These kids love to learn. They love coming to school here. How can we get them to a higher level?”
Pendola said the writing program focuses on two goals for students: creativity and writing skills, and social and ethical values.
Social and ethical training is imparted as the students work in pairs, groups and as a class to listen and discuss their writing, brainstorm ideas and share their prose.
“Writing is a social activity, and it can teach our children how to be respectful within the classroom and to their classmates,” Pendola said. “Before they write, they sit and have to concur with a classmate and talk about what they’re doing. This teaches them a social value.”
Students from kindergarten through grade four are participating in Being a Writer, with the youngest students concentrating on their letters while the oldest work on writing paragraphs and essays.
In the first grade, students discuss good writing, use capital letters at the beginning of sentences and periods at the end, and relate their illustrations to their writing.
In Felicia Connelly’s third- and fourth-grade multi-age classroom, students are working on writing nonfiction stories for 20- to 30-minute intervals.
“They love to write now, and we’re only in October,” Connelly said. “Writing used to be something students didn’t necessarily want to do.”
Before they started their writing exercise Thursday, first-graders Rosaria Gencarelli and Atillio Mogavero talked about what they were going to write about.
Rosaria, 6, decided to write about a friend, and Atillio about soccer. Students were given the assignment to write about whatever they wanted.
“We can write what we want,” Rosaria said. “I’m writing about my friend and how we play Barbies.”
Added Atillio: “I like writing now. You get to write about what you do. I like playing soccer. I’m writing about soccer.”
Kelsey DeJesus, a first-grade teacher, said Being a Writer, which aligns with the Common Core State Standards, not only teaches the basics of writing, but allows students to get to know their classmates better.
“They have peer conferences and they talk to each other,” DeJesus said. “They get motivated by their peers; those talks drive them.”
While all of Westerly’s public schools have formed specific plans to improve their state classification and presented a portion of those plans to School Committee members at their meeting this week, Bradford’s teachers and staff are particularly motivated because the school’s “warning” classificaiton was the lowest in the district.
Schools with that classificaiton are expected to implement a plan for improvement, “but on a limited scale and without intensive RIDE oversight,” according to the department of education.
Bradford’s plan also includes action steps in reading and mathematics.
“We’re already seeing the differences” in what the students are presenting, said Lisa Connelly, Bradford’s elementary curriculum leader. “Their writing is including well-developed thoughts, sentences and ideas.”
Laurie Schroeder’s first-grade class has collaborated on a book, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be….”
Rosaria’s entry reads: “I want to be a hairdresser. I will use scissors. I will wash people’s hair.”
“We didn’t have a formal writing program before,” Connelly said.
“We’re testing this to see if it meets the social and emotional needs of the students. So far, we like what we’re seeing.”