NEW PORT RICHEY
Diane Johnson's fourth-grade classroom at Cotee River Elementary School has hints for strong writing everywhere. Posters on the walls offer cause-and-effect cue words, ideas for catchy introductions and examples of different sentence types. Each student also has a folder filled with rules for organization, structure and grammar.
Johnson has her own instructions, including reminders that good writing is part of a larger goal.
During one recent science lesson about hurricanes, she read aloud from a story, frequently pointing out how the words the author chose gave a better understanding of the content.
"Lashing, raking, tearing branches. Not just, Oh, some branches fell," Johnson told the students. "Look at the verbs. Does that give you a visual?"
Less than a year ago, Florida schools got a rude awakening with their FCAT writing results. The state had increased the passing score while also raising the standards by which they judged student samples.
If the state Board of Education had not intervened, only about a third of students statewide would have been considered at or above grade level. Among last year's Cotee River fourth-graders, that rate would have dropped to 5 percent, down from 69 percent.
"Writing was determined to be an area of need," principal Lou Ceretta said.
As a result, many schools, including Cotee River, changed the way they taught the craft.
No longer would it be a skill taught in isolation, but rather as part of the entire curriculum. Teachers would amp up their emphasis on spelling and grammar. Schools would provide extra training for teachers.
And children would get lots of practice writing — something most experts agree is critical.
"When you don't teach writing every day and you don't integrate writing into all the content, the kids will struggle," said Jan Lacina, associate dean for graduate studies at Texas Christian University's college of education.
She stressed that the lessons must center on the skill and not as a means to a test score.
"When you are preparing kids to become writers, it is not to prepare them for one test a year," Lacina said. "When you provide kids with strategies for writing, all kids can grow and become effective writers."
Those strategies, she said, include prewriting, planning and editing. Pat Jones, head of the Tampa Bay Area Writing Project, added that teachers should model good writing themselves, use "mentor texts" for students to emulate, and offer concepts such as employing vivid verbs.
"Our best teachers are inviting them to tell us your stories, look at how other authors do it and see if you can use the same thing," Jones said.
Timed prompts can familiarize students with test protocols, she said. But these should be infrequent, she added, instead giving students the opportunity to simply have fun writing.
Jones recommended the workshop concept.
That's something Cox Elementary School does each week.
Fourth-graders and teachers gather in the media center, where they review the pieces of a story — introduction, characters, setting, problems, elaboration, solutions, conclusion — and then work, first as a large group and later individually, to come up with examples to share.
The teachers often turn the lesson — for instance, a story about taking care of an animal — into a competition among classes.
Writing needs to be fun for the kids to absorb it, lead teacher Mary Nicholson said.
Nicholson has led efforts to improve writing at Cox for a few years, and as a result the school consistently ranks near the top of all Pasco elementary schools.
Besides boosting the attention to writing conventions, she said, the school did not dramatically change its approach, which begins at kindergarten and builds moving forward.
"We do it every day. We do it cross-curriculum," Nicholson said. "They don't moan when they have to write. They're writing all the time."
The process also must include giving students honest feedback. The Cox fourth-grade team pored over students' samples with them, offering praise but also occasionally telling them they simply had to try again.
Johnson, the Cotee River teacher, shared that philosophy.
"To keep that enthusiasm up, you've got to be a cheerleader for them, yet be very honest, too, and tell them, 'This isn't going to make it,' " she said. "It's a bit of a challenge sometimes, but, God bless them, they really are trying."
Students at both schools said they enjoy the way their teachers teach writing. Even the less-glamorous parts.
"The most important thing I've learned about writing is punctuation," said Cotee River fourth-grader Jaheim Pierce, 11, who went on to discuss the use of quotation marks. "Writing helps me to understand. If somebody expresses themselves and says how they feel, I might feel the same way, too. Writing helps me feel the way they feel."
He shared one of his teacher's bugaboos, the use of the transition "and then so." Too boring, he explained, noting that no one wants to read a grocery list.
Being successful feels great, most kids agreed.
"It just makes me feel like I can do anything," said Catherine Hoskins, 9, a Cox fourth-grader. "When you're writing, you're talking about your whole life. It lets people know how you feel."
As Florida moves into the Common Core State Standards, teachers will need to further refine their writing instruction to reflect such cross-curriculum needs, said Mariana Haynes, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellence in Education.
That will include reading a passage and writing about a topic not on the basis of feelings, as many FCAT prompts seek, but using the text to provide evidence for the response. Teachers will have to give clear instruction on how to write drafts, review and edit, and make corrections in a clear and interesting way, Haynes said.
"They need to be able to understand how to use the language to make the point," she said. "There's a lot to be done in this area."
Fourth-graders, eighth-graders and 10th-graders take the FCAT writing exam in late February.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek on Twitter. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.