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DanvilleSanRamon.com

Cover Story - January 18, 2008

Write on

Children - and teachers - inspired by the Reading and Writing Project

by Natalie O'Neill

It's five minutes until recess in Sue Benit's fourth-grade classroom at Alamo Elementary - but instead of restless clock-watching, her students are in a trance. They're hunched over notebooks, pencils in hand.

"Everyone knows I'm a daredevil," a freckle-faced girl scribbles onto the page.

"The only thing I could see was thick white snow," another boy writes.

Younger kids from neighboring classes are filtering out into the hallways, where footsteps and muffled squeals ring. But even with the stir outside, only a couple boys near the window look up from their notebooks.

The class is writing first-person stories about their winter break, a 30-minute exercise that's part of the district's Reading and Writing Project.

The writing element of the project engages students by letting them chose the topic they want - then teaches lessons like punctuation, transitions and prefixes around that topic.

Instead of assigning specific essays on teacher-chosen subjects, the idea is that kids will want to write more if they get to focus on what interests them.

"When they pick their own topics, they are more invested in what they are saying," says project staff developer Kathy Moore.

And when it comes to reading, the philosophy is that students will excel if they are allowed to read at their own level - whether that's above or below the grade's average.

"The whole idea is that you are making growth where you are - not anyone else," Benit says.

Students are tested for reading ability by answering comprehension questions and reading aloud. Teachers categorize books into reading "levels" and mark them with alphabetical letters to signify how difficult they are.

School Board Trustee Joan Buchanan says the approach is successful because it pinpoints students who are having trouble reading, right off the bat.

"You know right away if little Billy is having a problem," she says.

The teaching method originated in New York City, after founding director Lucy Calkins completed a doctorate about the differences between how teachers teach writing and how real writers write.

About eight ago, teachers and administrators began trying out the program at Sycamore Valley Elementary School. Since then, initial focus has been on elementary school students in the San Ramon Valley but the project is now being implemented up to the high school level.

School board trustees honored teachers this week for their accomplishments using the Reading and Writing Project at Quail Run Elementary School.

"What I get out of this is an infectious enthusiasm that's spreading, and you're like the incubators," Trustee Greg Marvel told the teachers.

In Benit's class, the 9-year-olds are required to spend half an hour a night doing silent reading at home with the book of their choice. Parents report that they've never seen their kids be so enthused about reading, she says.

"They're enjoying it - they're not spending effort trying to decode words," says Buchanan, an advocate of the project.

Getting youths to read at their own level is essential because tripping over words is daunting and discouraging. It keeps students from wanting to read, district staff says.

The style of teaching is new, too, in that it encourages kids to discuss ideas during read-aloud sessions. Students talk with partners about plot prediction, imagery, characterization and vocabulary.

Teachers might say, "What would you do in this situation? What do you think the character will do?" or "Who knows what that word means?"

In general, older methods require students to answer questions independently after the story, as a way of connecting to the lesson.

In Benit's room, during a read-aloud session on a recent Wednesday, she is reading a book about nature. Stacks of other colorful books frame the reading corner, and poetry hangs on the walls.

The excerpt she will read next involves a volcano, so she starts with some plot prediction.

"Now, I want you to turn and talk. When you think of a volcano, what do you think about?"

Cross-legged on the floor, kids turn toward their partners and ideas start to emerge.

"I think of danger," one girl says.

"I think of Hawaii," her partner says.

A boy in sweats raises his hand to share his association.

"I think of my mom's mind," he says.

"Why's that?" Benit asks.

"Because when it gets angry, it erupts," he says.

Discussion like this serves as a way of connecting the students to the lesson.

"You've made the connection, then they go, 'Oh, I get it!' And you made it more real. They may never say it to the whole group, but they'll say it to a buddy," Benit says.

The Reading and Writing Project aims to help kids "read to understand," learn different styles of writing, and use reading to become better communicators.

"I like that you get to express yourself," says fourth-grader Kathryn LaBarbera.

Still, some critics are concerned the method of teaching doesn't cater well enough to standardized tests, which are timed and often involve answering multiple-choice reading comprehension questions.

The STAR exams, for example, taken by fourth-graders in California is timed and requires students to write on specific topics. Fourth-graders who have learned the New York Reading and Writing approach aren't always used to having topics chosen for them - or being under time pressure.

Much of what the project is teaching is a curiosity and a passion for learning - things you can't test for. Because of this, some school districts have had trouble showing it is effective.

"How do you show this is working? That's harder," Benit said.

The San Ramon Valley Unified School District staff maintains that children who spend more time reading perform better on standardized tests. Similarly, the more a student practices writing, the more likely he or she will internalize the structure and perform well on writing assessments, the district Web site states.

As an example, Buchanan points to Coyote Creek and Hidden Valley elementary schools, which have fully implemented the program and have the highest API test scores in the district.

In part, this fixation with standardized test scores was triggered by the controversial "No Child Left Behind Act," passed in 2001. The legislation requires public schools be evaluated with standardized tests.

Supporters say it holds schools accountable and that it will narrow socioeconomic gaps in the quality of education. But opponents say it encourages teachers to "teach to the test" - how to regurgitate facts - as opposed to promoting independent thought, creativity and discussion.

The legislation prompted heated rhetoric about what it means to learn something - and how to show that.

In the case of the Reading and Writing project, Buchanan says it does prepare kids for standardized tests - a necessary hoop to jump. But it also taps into creativity, she says.

"I think any good program should do both. The problem is you have to balance how much testing is necessary. It's useless in many respects ... but the public wants a yardstick," she says.

Melinda Burgess, who teaches second grade at Alamo Elementary School, says she likes the program because it meets the needs of the individual child - but that it's by no means perfect.

"It's not an end all, fix all. There's no one right way," she says.

One thing she misses about the older approach is that there isn't as much creative fiction writing in the project, she says.

"They don't cut loose with the creative writing," she says, adding that's one thing she supplements with the program.

Another concern is that there isn't enough time in the day for the project's method of teaching.

"I'm not a skeptic, but I'm thinking, 'What about all of these other things?''' Benit says.

During writing sessions, students meet with the teacher individually to go over their work. The teacher takes notes detailing what the child knows and what she is going to teach next.

In Benit's class, students are thrilled to share their work in their conferences.

"You used the word 'frolic,'" Benit says to one student. "I like that."

The program brings in editing and helps kids learn to use specifics and description.

"You don't write about the watermelon, you write about the seed," says Benit.

Burgess uses another example.

"A boy might say, 'I caught a big fish.' But what did it feel like, what did it smell like?" she says.

As far as the state and the district are concerned, it's still up in the air whether the teaching style will stand the test of time. Project developers, however, say it's much more than a trend.

"This is different because it's not a program - it's a philosophy. It's teaching kids how to be able to think," Moore says.

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