Tips to help with writing
In the classroom to learn, teachers too
Consultant works with staff to improve reading, writing skills
A small group of third-graders sat on a rug in Gina Samaniego’s class with their notebooks and pencils ready to go.
Seated with them were several teachers from the John F. Kennedy Magnet School, also with their notebooks and pens. This morning they were going to be students too.
Leading the lesson was Laura Sarsten, a literacy consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC. As she guided the students she would occasionally pause to address the staff, sharing techniques with them as she presented a mini-lesson on writing.
This is the second year Ms. Sarsten has been in the local schools, focusing on JFK, King Street and Thomas Edison. She visits approximately once a month. Patty McGee, also from Gravity Goldberg, LLC, visits the middle and high school. Park Avenue Elementary School runs a dual-language program and works with a different consultant.
“We are working with consultants to deliver a specialized expertise in balanced literacy to the district and bring consistent, progressive professional development to teachers so that they can provide the very best instruction possible to our students,” Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Dr. Colleen Carroll said.
Ms. Sarsten arrived at JFK on Jan. 10 as school began and met with teachers to review some techniques to use with students in helping prompt them to write.
During this time several teachers said they have noticed their students could generate some fun, interesting ideas to write about. However, they would then struggle with how to write those ideas down on paper. Some students would get stuck on spelling everything properly, while others struggled with how to put the idea they had in their mind into one they could write on paper.
A good place to start, Ms. Sarsten said, is with a pre-writing exercise, which can help teachers understand where their students are with their writing skills and what they may need more help with.
Another option is to use strategy groups. These are small groups, best if selected by the teacher to incorporate a mix of skill levels, in which the teachers work with the students on different concepts. Typically, Ms. Sarsten said, a meeting like this takes about 15 minutes.
Finally, Ms. Sarsten said, it can help students to know they are not the only ones who have a difficult time writing and even if the teacher lets the students know they also struggle with writing, that can help them feel better about the work too. Additionally, when a teacher compliments and notices what the student can do, rather than just focusing on the issue the student struggles with, that can go a long way in building a student’s confidence.
“We want the students to say ‘Ah, I need this learning. The teacher sees me, knows what I need and I am ready,’” Ms. Sarsten said.
When the group visited a classroom, Ms. Sarsten began by introducing herself. She then had the entire class come to the rug and have a seat. She reviewed elements of a book she had brought, thinking about the things she admired about the book and things she might try in her own writing.
For example, with her book, “The Life Cycle of an Emperor Penguin,” Ms. Sarsten admired how the book was broken up into chapters and how the author asked a question. For the things she might try in her own writing, Ms. Sarsten said, she would think about the things she could teach a reader, and she might use a question too.
Students were then given a few minutes to look at their own books, which they had selected, and make lists of what they admired and things they might try.
Among the things the students admired were the questions asked and the photos.
Ms. Sarsten then selected a small group of students to work with while they sat on the rug, while the rest of the class went back to their seats to continue looking through their books and making lists.
The focus of the small group work was to show the students strategies they could use to develop topics to write about.
“I like to come up with lists of things I do every day or things I really care about,” Ms. Sarsten told the students, adding one topic for her might be teaching.
“Now the hard part. I need to explore the topic to see if there is enough to write about,” Ms. Sarsten said.
To do this she would ask herself some questions about her topic —such as how would she decorate her classroom, or remember all of her students’ names or organize her classroom library.
Questions to ask, she said, include who, what, where, when, how and why.
The students were then given a few minutes to select a topic and write down questions for themselves.
“At the end of the strategy group I ask them a reflective question, such as what was hard about this or what is your next step,” Ms. Sarsten told the observing teachers as the students worked.
Student topics included cats, taming a younger brother and how to play a certain video game. Ms. Sarsten spoke briefly with each student individually asking them more questions about their topics.
Ms. Sarsten and the group of teachers regrouped after spending time in the classroom to review what they had seen.
One teacher noticed one of the students had been struggling to verbalize her thoughts.
“That is part of it,” Ms. Sarsten said. “For that student, she needed confidence. Is this a topic I can write about?”
“The important piece is the kids need to see us do this, see our notebook, they need to see us really living and breathing the lesson,” Ms. Sarsten said.
Another important component on working with students in such a way is for teachers to have a prepared dialogue ready to use as they go through the lesson. However, with the understanding that they will likely have to improvise parts of it as they move along.
“We have to think on our feet,” Ms. Sarsten said.
Ms. Sarsten’s visits have helped guide the district as they move towards balanced literacy, with the current focus now on writing.
“We have a home-grown writing curriculum,” Ms. Sarsten said of Port Chester. Her visits, she said, alternate between tools she shares with teachers and having the teachers develop their own tools to use in their classrooms.
“They watch me, create tools, we do it together, then they do it on their own,” she said.