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A writing journey

(Pictured above) Greenway teacher Cindy Jose with a “juicy word wall” that is filled with words her students can use to make their writing more interesting for the reader.

In 2010, Winnipeg School Division partnered with River East-Transcona School Division and St. James-Assiniboia School Division on a journey to create stronger student writers in the face of challenging community factors.

The divisions invited Regie Routman to speak to staff. The internationally-respected educator has 40 years of experience teaching, coaching and leading in the field of education, with the goal of raising reading and writing achievement across the curriculum and creating whole school change.

This was far from a "one and done" speaking engagement; it was the beginning of a long-term commitment to create lasting change. Ms. Routman requested school teams bring classroom teachers, a resource teacher, a Reading Recovery teacher and an administrator to the session. The intent was to establish professional learning communities that would support and sustain growth in student writing.

In all three divisions, there are students who require extra supports and one-on-one programming such as Reading Recovery, a Grade 1 program, to build their literacy skills to grade level outcomes. While students showed continued growth as readers once they returned to their classroom, data indicated they were not sustaining their growth as writers post-intervention.

"This is really about transforming writing and how we support children in their growth as writers," said Celia Caetano-Gomes, WSD's Superintendent of Education Services—Curriculum and Learning Innovation. "We want to support student capacity, the capacity of our teachers and create common expectations amongst our divisions when it comes to writing."

Schools entered into a Regie Routman in Residence Sustainability Plan to plant the seeds for future growth. A 2010-13 pilot project saw David Livingstone, Prairie Rose and River Elm schools undertake three weeks of residencies (one per year) with either Routman or her associates, such as educator Sandra Figueroa.

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"The resident would come into a hub school for an entire week to work with students and mentor teachers from both the hub school and visiting schools," Ms. Caetano-Gomes said.

Lead teachers were established at each school to work closely with the visiting Routman resident. Following the one-week sessions, each lead teacher's classroom became a model of best practice that other teachers could visit and observe in action.

"This was hands-on, in-school training that had much deeper learning than if we had just gone somewhere to attend a workshop," said Greenway School Principal Barbara Myron.

After the pilot, another cohort was set in motion for 2013-2016; this included Lord Nelson and Greenway Schools as "hub" schools, while Inkster, Tyndall Park and Laura Secord also sent teachers to observe the residency sessions.

An additional cohort started in 2014-2017, with Machray, Carpathia and Wellington serving as hub schools, while Norquay, Harrow, Grosvenor, Gladstone and Queenston sent teacher representatives to attend the residences sessions.

Teachers and students worked from Ms. Routman's "Optimal Learning Model," which gradually releases responsibility to the student as they gain confidence.

Teachers model the writing process for students, followed by collaborative writing sessions and finally having students write independently.

"We call it 'I do, we do, you do,'" said Greenway teacher Cindy Jose. "When I'm first modeling the writing for students, I think out loud—the students need to be able to understand your thought process as you're starting to write. You ask yourself the same kind of questions that we'll ask when we write as a group, and they'll ask them again when they write independently. 'What do I want to write about? What do I know about this topic?'"

One of the main questions students must answer is who is their intended audience? What is the purpose? Is it to persuade, inform, entertain or is there another purpose?

"We establish the audience and purpose from the beginning, so they know their writing is going somewhere," Ms. Jose said. "The students know that someone will have to read it besides their teacher."

When it comes to writing first drafts, students are encouraged to mark up (or even cut up) their writing and use post-it notes to insert ideas and revisions.

"I think one of the major parts of all of this is having students learn the editing process. It's messy, but that's okay. Students can go back, move things around and change words," said Lord Nelson Vice-Principal Julye Rogoski. "And when students are stuck, it's okay for teachers to give them a post-it note or suggestion and help get them on to the next step."

Around the classroom there are charts, word walls and examples to spark students' writing.

Teachers also read "mentor texts" to students—engaging, well-written sample texts that gets students excited about their writing topic.

"We looked a lot at good mentor texts—great children's literature that teachers could read aloud to serve as a model for students," Ms. Stevenson said.

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Another important element of the program is to give students writing challenges that are authentic and meaningful.

"One of Regie's guiding principles is that students can't write if they don't have anything meaningful to write about," Ms. Caetano-Gomes said.

"If you give students a subject they care passionately about, they'll care about how they write and how they communicate with their audience."

For example, at Lord Nelson School, intermediate students researched and wrote about the state of Lake Winnipeg. They wrote and sent letters to the mayor, their families and friends to communicate the issues impacting the lake, such as microbeads in many common health and beauty products. Since completing the three-year residency project, Lord Nelson has since embarked on a school wide writing project on children's rights.

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"Classes set content learning goals and language learning goals," said Lord Nelson Principal Sandy Stevenson. "It really took off. Not only were students excited about their learning, the teachers were too…there was a buzz in the school."

Since the completion of the project, the conversations about writing continue among teachers, students and administration. At Greenway, student writing is displayed on hallway bulletin boards so students and staff can read work from other classrooms, or even leave comments and questions on post-it notes. Meanwhile, Lord Nelson has a "writing staircase" of exemplar writing samples for each grade level displayed in a front hallway for students, teachers and families to see.

"All along this journey, we made a point of reinforcing and celebrating good writing practices for both students and teachers," Ms. Caetano-Gomes said.

Continuing the community

The professional learning communities have continued after the completion of the residencies. Teachers continue to visit lead teachers in other schools to see writing instruction in action in a live classroom. Both within WSD and across all three school divisions, teachers at each grade level are looking at writing samples from their students and having professional conversations and review sessions; exemplar writing samples are set for each grade level.

In between residencies schools also work in learning communities to deepen their understanding of writing progression development through identifying common belief systems, videos, and book studies.

And the students continue to write.

"The students see themselves as writers," Ms. Myron said. "They think about writing all the time and see its real world purposes.

"I get a lot of letters from students. There are thank you letters and persuasive letters, like when they want a double recess. The students understand the different forms and the classrooms are writing letters to each other. We write to each other all of the time."

With files from Celia Caetano-Gomes, Jason Drysdale and Tanis Pshebniski

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Routman residency educator Sandra Figueroa with administrators from participating WSD schools.


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