When Julie Johnson, an elementary school teacher with fifteen years of experience, made the decision to participate in the Columbus Area Writing Project in 2007, high on her list of goals was a desire to turn her students into enthusiastic writers. But there was a problem.
“I felt that writing instruction was my weakest area,” she says.
She had just moved to a new school in the Hilliard City School District in Hilliard City, Ohio, and, after several years of teaching fourth- and fifth-graders, she had decided to take on the challenge of teaching first grade.
You might say that her experience in the summer institute was a success. Just three years later, Julie Johnson was named the 2010 recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English Donald H. Graves Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Writing.
“It was at the Columbus Area Writing Project that I truly began to see myself as a writer and learn the power of writing teachers being writers themselves,” she says.
A Classroom of Writing Project Principles
In Johnson’s reflective essay (PDF), which was part of her application for the Graves Award, connections to recognized NWP best practices abound.
“Writers need time to write for authentic purposes and audiences.”
“Each writer is unique in their [his/her] needs and interests.”
“Writing is meaningful in all areas of the curriculum.”
A huge part of Johnson’s approach is her belief that first-graders can be researchers as they actively research the answers to burning questions as they write.
“It isn’t quiet in here,” she said of her classroom. “Conversations abound! Talk is so important to all young writers, but especially to my students for whom English is a new language.”
She also uses technology, such as Pixie, so that students can illustrate their writing and record their voices, to reinforce her literacy-building efforts.
A School of Writers
As Johnson built her classroom writing community, she was quick to discover what many Writing Project teachers learn soon enough: for the teaching of writing to succeed at a school, writing needs to be a schoolwide effort.
That understanding led to a successful grant application by Johnson and a few of her colleagues to the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation. Through the grant, Johnson and her colleagues secured funds that would allow Avery Elementary School to embark on a road to becoming what Johnson called a “model writing school.”
She says, “We wanted to create a writing school, not just a collection of teachers who teach writing. We wanted people to walk into our building and know that writing is valued at Avery Elementary.”
Drawing on her Writing Project experience, Johnson knew that step one in this process would be to convince teachers that they themselves were writers. So she drew together a core group willing to take up the challenge.
To dispel the anxiety among a group of teachers who didn’t view themselves as writers and weren’t accustomed to sharing their writing, she chose the group’s first writing prompt to help the teachers feel comfortable writing and also to help them find some connection with other writers in the room. The prompt used George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” as a mentor text.
“We noticed what Lyon deemed important in her poem (hair, family, church, quotes, etc.). That gave us the structure to write our own poems. So now each person was focused on bringing their memories to life through their words.”
A first grade teacher wrote, in part:
I am from badminton games, catching fireflies,
Card games and playing Spoons.
I am from cranking homemade ice cream.
I am from memories of the 4th of July.
The group was now off and running. Schoolwide writing activities were generated. The group videotaped lessons in each others’ classrooms, explored mentor texts, and discussed visions of children’s growth as writers from grade to grade. They shared ideas for integrating writing in science and social studies.
In all of these activities, the Columbus Area Writing Project, particularly through its director David Bloome, was there to support the Model Writing School. At one session Bloome pushed participants to “take a risk” in their teaching of writing, which spawned new forms of assessing student writing, integrated writing in the study of content area, and ignited a willingness to try out new genres.
Blogging as a Tool for Sharing
As Johnson continued to learn and grow with her colleagues at Avery, she saw a chance to share what she was experiencing with others. She created a blog: Raising Readers and Writers.
She uses her blog to demonstrate how she uses mentor texts to move her first-graders to research and writing and how technology has aided their creations.
And how is Johnson’s work with the Model Writing School progressing? Perhaps no better commentary can be found on the success of the Model Writing School than Johnson’s own “I Am From” poem:
I am from a Writing School
I am from unlined paper, marker-smudged fingers, and
I am from, “Hey, I can write like that” and “I have another
question I want to research.”
Where it’s OK to hang out in the hall to read stories,
poems, and I Wonder posters.
I am from the place where young children know that readers ask questions
and authors can help their readers understand.
It is here that the writing journey begins.
I am from older, sophisticated writers whose angst spills out on paper,
Who also find humor where others might not.
Their writer’s notebooks are jammed with words waiting for a story or a poem.
Pens and pencils fall out of their 3-ring binders.
At times, writing becomes their savior.
Authors hover over them
As they decide what to put on paper next.
Thinking becomes clearer through writing and collaboration.
Ideas are refined through conversations.
It is here where writers grow.
I am from hallways brimming with narratives,
colorful look-at-me illustrations,
water-fountain splashed poems,
and bright, vibrant bulletin boards
dancing with students’ words.
I am from colleagues who care.
Whose words challenge me, lift me up,
and carry me.
Writing is honored here.
Real writing happens here.
I am from a world of writers.
It is here, in this special place, where everyone can say,
“I am a writer!”