A PERSONAL INQUIRY INTO IMPROVING STUDENT WRITING
Elaine Hamilton and Heather Knill-Griesser
We can’t give children rich lives, but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there in their lives. (L. Calkins, 1991)
My action research project was inherited in my transition to a Grade 3/4 teaching position at Graham Bell School. Heather explained the Action Research project that she was implementing in her class and her inability to complete the project without access to the children in her new role as Primary Consultant. I agreed to assist Heather with completing the action research project. Then I questioned my sanity. “What had I done!” I trusted Heather’s judgement and believed in our connections/relationship which had in many ways existed before Heather and I existed. Our grandmothers had been friends and we grew up together attending the same public schools. As kindred spirits, our professional relationships/values/beliefs were one.
The action research project began with a review of the 1998-99 Grade Three Provincial Assessment Results in Writing. Heather was concerned with the overall achievements of the students in writing. Only 14% of the students were performing at Levels 3 and 4; 22% of the girls were performing at Levels 3 and 4 compared to 6% of the boys. An interpretation of the results indicated that further work was required to have students perform at Level 3 in writing to meet the provincial expectations.
The current practice was reviewed and the following aspect of the practice as a research issue was identified. (J. McNiff, 1998) The question for the action research project became:
“How can I improve student writing using available resources, parent involvement, and developmental assessment tools?”
Taking the Inquiry Forward
A critical look was taken of the writing process and the resources that were available in the classroom. New resources were purchased that included:
The writing process was integrated across the curriculum using planning sheets, first draft, editing and revising, and the final draft stages of the writing process on a daily basis. Dialogue journaling occurred between the teacher and the students in Reading Response Journals. Research projects and genre studies included using planning frameworks from First Steps Writing. Students were introduced to the expansion of their vocabulary through the use of hands-on spelling and phonics activities. Students participated in a mentoring program with the kindergarten class assisting their “buddies” with reading, writing, and computer literacy. Peer and self evaluation were reinforced in the writing program. Parents were involved in the writing program by participating in a home study journal with their children. Videotaping of the classroom provided further data. See attached video clip.
I attended B.A.R.N. (Brant Action Research Network) for information and peer support. I took the First Steps Writing and Oral Language Workshops to supplement my writing program.
My Personal Journey
By accepting an Action Research Project which was implemented by someone else; I was working at two different levels. I instantly became involved in the inquiry and outcome process, while still trying to accept ownership for the question.
Action Research begins with values. As a self-reflective practitioner I need to be aware of the values which drive my life and work so that I can be clear about what I am doing and why I am doing it. Sometimes I need to spend time clarifying for myself the kinds of values and commitments I hold as a working person. (J. McNiff, 1998).
At a B.A.R.N. meeting where Jack Whitehead was in attendance, we were discussing our action research projects and Jack questioned how he or the group could assist us to move forward with our stories. I thought about this and where I was having difficulties. I could see growth in the children and make notations, but the most difficult area for me was reflecting on myself. I noted this and suddenly realized much of who I am is due to my upbringing and education; just as it is for my students. I agree with Susan Drake who states, “We teach who we are. A teacher’s implicit values are very much part of the real lessons of the classroom” (Drake, 1997, p. 40).
As a child, education was valued in my family. I found spelling very difficult, although I don’t remember this same difficulty with reading. I checked with my mother to see if my memory was correct. She provided verification. My mother had realized part of my spelling difficulties were due to my lack of phonetics. Attending elementary school in the early 1960s meant I was part of a group of students who were not taught phonics. My older sister (currently a teacher with the Brant Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic District School Board) taught me my phonics. I accepted the mentoring position and worked extensively with my younger brother (who had a mild speech delay), prior to his admittance to kindergarten. He attended a Head Start Program the summer before kindergarten, organized by the Board of Education, and I volunteered as the assistant teacher. Language, whether written or oral, was important.
My desire or need to educate moved me into a career in Early Childhood Education. While teaching preschool, my program encouraged written language through name and initial sound recognition of students' own names and their peers'. Children showing an interest in written language, were encouraged and supported. The joy and satisfaction in their accomplishments was often evident in the pleasure on their faces. Those who couldn’t yet control a pencil to print their names enjoyed the experience by rolling snakes. “Let’s make our snakes and then our names.” Oh, the versatility of play dough. Their excitement in completing the task was celebrated by all of us. Written language does not always have to mean pencil and paper. Often as educators we have to be creative.
In my second career, I found myself working as an Educational Assistant with the Brant County Board of Education. I clearly and fondly remember two long term occasional positions. One was in a Junior behaviour class where many of the children had difficulties in language (reading/writing). “Better to act out then let the rest of the class know you can’t read.” The teacher had instituted a reading program for her students and as language improved so in many ways did behaviour. The other was a deaf Junior Kindergarten class. Although the children had little or no hearing or speech their enthusiasm for language was contagious. Small fingers would continually fly and children with eager faces would quickly lead you to their reading centre to share a book. I came to the conclusion I needed to expand my own learning and decided at this time that university was a definite possibility. I earned my Bachelor of Arts through extension courses from Waterloo University and after attending York University full time, I earned my Bachelor of Education in 1996.
I quickly found myself as the Executive Director of Niwasa Head Start, an Aboriginal Head Start Program funded by Health Canada. As part of our mandate, we established a head start preschool program to prepare urban Aboriginal children for elementary school, while re-establishing ties and introducing them to their native culture and languages (Mohawk and Ojibway). I felt it was only right that I learn one of the languages and thus began my lessons in the Mohawk language. This experience enabled me to understand the struggles and challenges my students so often face and the joy one can experience in a small success. Nia:weh/Meegwetch Niwasa.
Fate was continuing to lead me. My first contract position was as Teacher-Librarian at Graham Bell and Victoria Schools. When the Grade 1/2 teacher told me of three of her students who were becoming bored with their language program because they excelled in this area, I asked her to send them to me each day I was at the school. We spent their language period together doing novel studies, creating our own books, and enthusiastically learning. Soon I had other groups.
In June 1999, I became surplus to the system, but my journey did not end. And that is what this had become, a journey of learning not just for the children but me too. In August I was offered a position in Courtland in a Mixed Exceptionalities class. Although my students were in Grades 5 to 8, academically they were kindergarten to Grade 5. I had an idea of where my focus had to lie: language, mathematics, and social skills with self esteem as a major hurdle. I spoke with Heather and implemented many of the ideas she was developing in her Grade 3/4 class. With our class focus, these areas became important to the students and they began to take pride in their accomplishments. Where we lacked resources, we became creative. Each student was encouraged at their own academic level. We sought out what was important to them and that was our starting point. M. was thirteen but still printed at an early Primary level. She wanted to cursive write her own name. “It’s important when you're grown up; you have to know how to write your name.” I remember her excitement and joy the day she independently wrote her name for the first time. We all celebrated and she began working harder on all her subjects. K. a Grade 8, read at a pre-primary level. We developed an individualized program for him with a focus on phonetics and rhyming families in reading and spelling. He soon began to challenge himself to excel in spelling dictation. “I’m going to get perfect this week!” Often he did.
Most of us are not very experienced at listening to ourselves. We listen to everyone else: to principals, supervisors, specialists, students, professors, publishers, researchers, parents, critics, editors, reviewers, and friends ... but when it comes to listening to ourselves, we don’t have the time or the faith. (L. Clakins, 1991)
I had finally taken the time to listen to and reflect on my own process. I realized much of what I had been doing in my life had been leading me to where I was today and this very question. “How can I improve student writing using available resources, parent involvement, and developmental assessment tools?” I had accepted ownership for the question and was now able to move on.
If we want to work in conditions that are alive and stimulating for us, we must take responsibility for establishing those conditions in our classrooms. For starters, this means that we must decide that we are not going to feel guilty about giving ourselves time to learn. (L. Calkins, 1991)
The Inquiry Process and Outcomes
In this section, I have integrated the research process and the findings using evidence drawn from my own research notes. Home study journals, which contained wonderful reflective journal entries by both parents and students, provided the opportunities for parents to communicate their values to their children. One parent wrote, “Mommy and Daddy’s happiest memory of you as a baby was when you were born. We were the luckiest parents in the world and still are.” Parents' appreciation of the home study journal program was validated when a parent commented, “I love the journal idea. I can’t wait to see what he writes.”
Manipulatives are not only part of the regular writing program but have become a choice during free time activities. Students have used problem solving strategies to create games using the manipulatives. They have become a favourite activity during indoor recesses.
Parents have commented on the progress they have noticed in their children. One parent commented “I am very impressed with the gains my son has made in writing. He is even writing stories all the time in his free time at home and then he reads them to me.” Another parent commented about the quality of their child’s writing and the neatness of his work.
The success of our writing program was validated when Cathy Theophilus, an educational assistant in our school came into our room to check on the progress of J. in writing.
I pulled out J’s reading response journal. Cathy explained that last year J. struggled to write one sentence. I turned to yesterday's journal entry which was two pages (every line) in length. Cathy was amazed. Although J. needs to be reminded to put spacing between his words, phonics and beginning and ending sounds were used.
The children are beginning to develop greater confidence in their own abilities and are comfortable enough to make inquiries if they feel I have made an error or omission. During music we were compiling a list of wood wind instruments. I had forgotten a comma in our list. K. inquired whether there shouldn’t be a comma. Writing skills are carrying over into other subjects. M. and L. noticed a spelling error on the board, one letter had been omitted. The children are becoming more aware of correct spelling and sources to use to verify spelling. B’s spelling has greatly improved; he has begun including clarification if he is uncertain he has spelled a word correctly: “Sinamall that’s the movie theder” (cinema that’s the movie theatre). Many are still using the Word Wall and then their individual Word Books, while some are beginning to use the classroom dictionaries and thesaurus. Prior to the Grade 3 provincial assessment we were reviewing sources to access correct spelling. C. made the suggestion they could use the reading passage to check the spelling of words they were uncertain of, rather than always referring to the dictionary.
During reading response, many of the children are beginning to reflect on what has been read. When a character in a story died, S. reflected “I wonder how she died?” While D. questioned, “Why did Samantha have kittens?” T. is able to relate the story to her every day life. “Old grandma died that’s really sad when my niece died it was really sad to she was just a little baby girl named Emily just like Willie’s sister her named is Emily to. Emily is just the best name in the world.”
During class discussions, reading response, and written assignments, the children are sharing their opinions more readily and supporting their opinions with evidence from their readings. D. “I like Alice, because she had enough courage to tell her parents what happened to Willie.” T. “I liked Willie because he standed up to his dad and he got a lot of reseked (respect).” “I liked the houl (whole) book because it relates to what could of happened and it teaches a lot of things like Willie. When he broke his leg that was a lesen (lesson) not to ride the work horse.” E. “I think that the book is called the Door In The Wall because Robin keeps leaning (learning) new things like making a harp and making a toy boat and learning to wright (write) and read.”
Ideally, both teachers and students should bring all their skills, wisdom and energy to the teaching-learning transaction. We should not relinquish our identities as teachers in order to give students ownership of their craft. ... We need not be afraid to teach, but we do need to think carefully about the kinds of teacher input which will be helpful to our students. (L. Calkins, 1986).
Peer and self editing have been very effective. The children have begun carefully reviewing their own work and then asking a peer's opinion. Students have begun offering to edit work for others rather than waiting to be asked. Careful monitoring of this process is, however, necessary as some of the students diligence and commitment to the task is a little over zealous, thereby, creating errors that did not previously exist. Students who are stronger in language skills have begun asking if they might work cooperatively during research activities with students who benefit from language support. They have begun to value the strengths in themselves and others to the benefit of everyone.
The Early Literacy consultant was assisting us with writing narratives. Some of the students were having difficulties understanding that they were not writing a retell. M. wanted to retell a Pokemon story. We were discussing why this was not possible. That story had already been written and he was to create a new story of his own. J.“That would be plagiarism. Mrs. Knill-Griesser told us that. Although they may not always follow the conventions of writing they are retaining what they learn. During the provincial Grade 3 assessment practice test the students were somewhat frustrated I was unable to provide the reading and writing support they were used to. This was also very difficult for me. We discussed this issue and I reinforced to them that all they were to do was their best, the same as they did each day at school. They knew how to use the resources available and that I had confidence in their abilities. During the assessment, they used the skills they had been taught and I heard comments such as, “We’ve done this before.” “You give us harder work than this.” “This is easy”
When writing becomes a personal project for children, teachers are freed from cajoling, pushing, pulling, and motivating. The teaching act changes. With a light touch we can guide and extend children’s growth in writing. Also, our teaching becomes more personal and this makes all the difference in the world. (L. Calkins, 1986).
Writing has become more than just a part of the curriculum. The students are developing an awareness of the value of the written word and using it for their own purposes. We read a number of poems from Nickolas Knock and Garbage Delight by Dennis Lee, because the Carousel Players are doing a performance of Lee’s works. Each student re-wrote a verse for "Alligator Pie." They were very proud of their work and have asked that I re-read the verses to them anonymously. At the end of the day B. shared a poem he had written, on his own, with me. He had attempted to create a rhyming poem, but did not feel he was finished. I asked him to share it with me again later. D. is experiencing a family separation. She has discussed her feelings with me and is working through her experience by writing. She wrote a letter to both her parents expressing her thoughts and feelings.
Dear Mrs. Hamilton
If you remember the note my mom wrote to say thank you for your
concern. I wanted to tell you I don’t cry every night anymore because
he is coming for fathers day.
Our students will also catch the magic from each other - if we let them. This means that we must focus at least in part on the very best writers in the room, extending what they can do and celebrating their successes ... because success is contagious. (L. Calkins, 1986).
T. has begun writing a story of her own undertaking. She has coordinated with E. who will be doing the illustrations. This is an activity outside of our regular class activities. T. has also begun a story with K.. As we shared these stories with the class, I began to find more and more stories each day on my desk with little notes attached asking me to please read them to the class.
In June, we began reading "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone." All of the children are enjoying this book very much. K. (who often finds reading challenging) came to me during free time to ask if he could read some of Harry Potter. He sat down with the book and read silently. When the bell rang he returned the book and said “Good; now I know what happened in the Quidditch game.” With improvement in writing skills, improvement has also been noted in reading skills.
The more we know a child, the better observers we become. ... this is why we need systems of evaluation. This is why we need to develop and keep records of growth. By noticing growth, we nurture it. (L Calkins, 1991).
It is important to determine what works best for each child. M. is very pleased with his reading. When small group novel discussions are over. M. will appear at my side and say, “Can I read to you?” We read at least a page each day. Both M. and I value these few moments as we are both aware of his improvement.
As a challenge for the students and a means to expanding their vocabulary, we began Building Big Words. Each word of the day contained ten to fourteen letters. They used their letters to spell as many words as possible, while always trying to discover the word that would use all the letters. M. would often ask me if I would save a big word he had discovered so he might spell it for the class. Each day I saw his self esteem grow. At the end of each week, I would ask the students to spell the four big words for that week. Half of the students would have all four words correct or only one error.
On the Grade 3 provincial assessment held in May a year earlier, the Summary of Attitudes showed 69% of the girls and 47% of the boys indicated they liked to write, while 56% of the girls and 29% of the boys felt they were good writers. In June, 13 months later, the students were asked to complete a Student Reading/Writing Attitude Inventory. This inventory indicated the following results for Grade 3 - 100% of the boys and girls like to write; 100 % of the boys felt they were good writers; 85.7% of the girls felt they were good writers; 75% of the Grade 4 boys liked to write; 100 % of the Grade 4 girls liked to write; 100% of the Grade 4 boys and girls felt they were good writers. Here was evidence of an improvement in attitudes.
Pre-tests and post-tests in September and June using the three assessment tools, showed improvement in all of the children tested. Student absences made it impossible to test all of the students.
Indicating Grade Level of Improvement
|Assessment||% tested||1/2 grade||1 grade||2 grades||3 grades||4 grades||5 or more grades|
|Morrison McCall Spelling||96%||7||12||5||1|
|Brigance Reading Comprehension||96%||1||6||9||8||1|
Parents and student comments at the end of the year attested to their feelings of success:
"B’s report is awesome. B. is listening to what is being taught and understanding the concepts enough to apply himself. Thank you in helping develop B’s growth."
"Very good report. I’m proud of my daughter."
"Good Job Mrs. Hamilton, Thanks"
"I worked very hard and I think I did very well."
"Thank you for everything you taught me during the past year. I learned a lot and will miss you a lot."
"Thank you for making school fun."
Summary and Next Steps
Although the conception of this action research project was Heather’s, it became our project and the Grade 3/4 class became our class. We both shared the last day with this class and rejoiced in their accomplishments as they moved on to Grades 4 and 5. We believe that we improved student writing using available resources, parental involvement, and developmental assessment tools. What lies ahead for Heather and me? We will each continue our journey as life long learners and our paths will continue to cross. Heather will continue as Primary Consultant and I know I will be calling on her in my position as Grade 2/3 teacher at Graham Bell School. Will there be future Action Research Projects? Most definitely. Was our project a success? Definitely, but was also, at times, very challenging. I feel I have developed a deeper understanding of who and why Elaine Hamilton is a teacher and that matters to me.
Calkins, L. McCormick. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books Inc.
Calkins, L. McCormick, & Harwayne, S. (1991). Living between the lines. Concorde: Irwin Publishing.
Drake, S. (1997). Confronting the learning outcome: We teach who we are. In T. Jennings (Ed.) Restructuring for integrative education, 39-51.
McNiff, J. (1998). Action Research for Professional Development. Mississauga: Ontario Public School Teachers Federation.
Name: Elaine Hamilton Current
Position: Grade 2/3 Teacher at Graham Bell School, Brantford; Grand Erie District School Board
Academic Background: Early Childhood Education diploma, BA in Social Development
Bachelor of Education Degree (Primary/Junior), Additional Qualifications in Special Education
Name: Heath Knill-Griesser
Current Position: Curriculum Consultant, Primary, Grand Erie District School Board
Academic Background: Masters of Education Candidate, Brock University