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Students step up to new reading program

by: ellen spitaleri, Joellen Deverell and Alysia Warner, third grade teachers at John McLoughlin Elementary School, look over material from

Teachers in four schools in the Oregon City School District are asking their students to 'Step Up' - as in 'Step Up to Writing,' a writing program recently adopted by the school district.

Beavercreek, John McLoughlin, Mt. Pleasant and Park Place Elementary Schools are fully implementing the program this year.

Carol Sanders, the principal at McLoughlin for the last six years, said she began looking around for a program that would 'give students tools in writing,' that would give them 'explicit lessons' that would not 'kill the passion of writing.'

She said that the district has 'historically tried to implement strong writing programs, where kids talk about their writing.

'But with classes so large, teachers don't get to spend enough time sharing and celebrating writing - we don't spend enough time on the publishing part. Students get bogged down in revision-the writing was not meaningful, not purposeful.'

She added that bigger class sizes mean that there is a higher number of diverse skill levels in the classroom, and it is harder to meet the individual needs of students.

'We were lacking tried-and-true strategies that would inspire young writers and help them get through the writing process. We wanted a program that would deal with the different purposes of writing, along with thinking skills and organizational skills,' Sanders said.

She added that she had been keeping an eye on the State of Washington, and found a workshop about a new writing program called 'Step Up to Writing.'

So three years ago, a group of teachers 'donated a weekend day,' Sanders noted, and went with her to a workshop in Washington.

There they found a program that they were 'very pleased' with - a program that dealt with a 'broad range of skills,' that also contained 'support material needed to teach the lessons,' Sanders said.

'Step Up to Writing' teaches students 'excellent organizational skills, and helps them build a framework. Then they can do the revision and all the fun stuff, putting in the extra pizzazz - they won't get bogged down in organizational structure.

'They can revise to an audience - it is so motivating to share their writing when they find out they can entertain and teach,' Sanders explained.

For Sanders, the beauty of 'Step Up to Writing' is that it is not a 'canned program, it was written by a teacher, and it has been field tested in classrooms in K through 12. It identifies special needs up through star level - it takes in the whole span of year to year,' she said.

Another plus factor is that the program is color coded, so that visual learners can instantly follow the guidelines.

'It is very visual, and it is color coded like a stop light. In the green phase students practice writing a topic sentence, then in yellow they get their brain in gear and think about examples, reasons, facts and transitions.

'In red they stop and explain and give an example - adding layer and layer of information. Then they go back to green, and remind the reader of their topic sentence,' Sanders explained.

For the upper levels, she noted, teachers can add in the 'blues,' so older students can bring in more information to augment their writing.

She added that the program uses supplementary materials like literature and writing in magazines, for example, so that students see how authors use structure.

'You can't teach writing in isolation,' Sanders said, noting that reading and spelling are also important factors.

'We have to be careful that we don't get too formulaic - we don't want robot writers. [This program encourages writers to] make it interesting to add in examples, events and evidence,' she said.

But the key is always organization. 'Students see that they need a strong backbone for the whole process - so they organize their thinking to make their writing more powerful,' she noted.

Alysia Warner and Joellen Deverell are in their third year of using the 'Step Up to Writing' materials with their third grade classes, and both see a rising success rate with their students.

'For third grades, it helps them organize their thoughts and their writing - it helps them stay on topic,' Warner noted.

'It helps them with beginnings - it is so hard to think of how to start,' Deverell added.

Warner continued, 'It gives them the skeletal structure and then we can teach them to elaborate.'

Deverell noted that the program also teaches students about 'transitional words, so we don't have just a list.'

'We start with a topic sentence and build on it, like an accordion - adding details and examples. They can work on word choice and sentence fluency if they have organization.

'[Step Up to Writing] gives them visuals, it gives them structure. It's teacher-friendly, especially in the primary grades. We've got kids…'

'Feeling successful,' Deverell chimed in.

Both teachers credit Sanders with helping implement the program, and seeing that other teachers in the building and district wide get 'Step Up to Writing' training, so that eventually all teachers throughout the district will use the program.

'She's been the driving force - giving us the resources and the time. We make sure that we're meeting the state standard and we teach to the modes,' Deverell noted.

Warner added, 'It helps that we've devised a curriculum map for the whole year with 'Step Up to Writing.''

Sanders noted that this is the first year of full implementation of the program in the four elementary schools, but, she added, teachers at Gardiner Middle School were just trained, and they will be implementing the program as well. A full-day teacher training for 'Step Up to Writing' will be held on Oct. 14, Sanders noted.

In the end, Sanders said, 'We'll look at the state writing assessments to see how kids do. We're really excited - we think we'll see tremendous growth.'