"If we don't model what we teach, we are teaching something else."
~Abraham Maslow, Founder of Humanistic Psychology
3rd Grade Teacher Sees
Struggling Writers Transform
When WriteSteps Founder Suzanne Klein met teacher Denise Dusseau last year, she felt an instant affinity.
Suzanne was looking for outstanding practicing
teachers to create the new Common Core WriteSteps, and Denise had the
perfect combination of skills and experience. She is a gifted classroom
teacher well-versed in best practices, with a love for children and a
master’s degree in curriculum. In this interview, Denise reflects on the
new WriteSteps lessons and the changes in her students since she began
using it in her classroom.
Let's start with some background. How did you become involved with WriteSteps?
Denise: Suzanne came to my district five years ago to
make a presentation to the 3rd and 4th grade staff, and we were very
intrigued. The district had previously adopted the Lucy Calkins program,
but many teachers weren’t comfortable with it. WriteSteps teaches
writers to be more organized -- I appreciate that -- and it addresses
standards, so I continued to explore it even though I liked Lucy
Last year I joined the WriteSteps team to create the new Common Core 3rd
grade curriculum, and I feel really proud of it. It’s a fusion of a lot
of different things I know and believe in: Lucy Calkins, Ralph
Fletcher, Barry Lane. It's the best of the best, but in a format that
really works. There’s a lot of value in these other approaches,
but none of them alone has everything teachers are looking for.
The Common Core WriteSteps does. If this curriculum had fallen
into my lap six years ago, I would have stopped looking at other
programs then and there.
This year, you started teaching WriteSteps in your classroom. What differences have you seen in your students' writing?
Denise: Because I have always enjoyed writing, my students love writing time. It’s the highlight of our day. The difference this year is that even my struggling writers look forward to writing workshop. WriteSteps is building their confidence; they are making real progress now. It’s a joy to see!
About a quarter of my students have learning disabilities. For kids who
have IEPs or challenging learning issues, writing can be a very
difficult skill to support. Before this year, these students just didn't
write; they couldn't get started. As a teacher, when there's no
foundation to build upon, you can't find a way to support them, and it's
frustrating. But now they're getting their ideas down on the page, and
it's making all the difference. I'm able to coach them. I'm not forcing
them, they're doing it on their own.
Why do you think your struggling writers are more motivated?
Denise: I think it’s because we spend a lot of time
looking anonymous student writing, with samples of many different
ability levels. When we look at a poor sample as a class, we say, “It’s
not a bad writing piece, it just needs more work. This is a really good
foundation. Now what does it need?"
The range of anonymous student writing samples in WriteSteps provides a
bridge that works for all students. Because we find things to celebrate
even in the lower level samples, the struggling students are motivated
to keep at it. We work together to make improvements to every piece of
writing we look at, and they're making that connection: “Oh, we did that
using the student sample! I can do that in my writing, too.”
When we analyze student writing, we refer to glows and grows. The glows are the strengths in the writing, and the grows
are the areas that need improvement. My struggling writers are seeing
that even the ones who write easily have areas they could improve (grows), and because of this, they aren't ashamed of their own writing anymore.
think it's also because WriteSteps provides so many tools to help
different learners. When we teach opinion writing, for example, students
are using their five-square graphic organizer. Once visual learners
have seen that and worked with it, they can organize their ideas and
develop a strong piece. Other programs rely heavily on auditory
learning, but 3rd and 4th graders really need different approaches to
help them organize their thoughts on paper. With the graphic organizers,
the auditory piece is there, the visual learning is also there, and
it's hands-on for tactile learners, too. You're tapping into multiple intelligences.
WriteSteps now includes daily lesson plans for teachers. What
would you say to critics who think daily lesson plans are too
Denise: When I first saw WriteSteps five years ago, I
actually worried that it was too prescriptive for me because I wanted
students to be able to write about anything they wanted. But what I’ve
learned over several years of teaching writing workshop is that we
really need that structure to help students build their skills.
WriteSteps doesn’t take away the creativity of the teacher! It’s never
monotonous, and there are places within every lesson for teachers to
pull out all their little tricks. I love that. And for teachers who
aren’t naturally enthusiastic about teaching writing skills, the
day-by-day lesson format really helps them become more confident and
capable. It shows teachers what each Common Core skill looks like and
how to approach it.
The Common Core Standards include requirements for the writing skills students should learn in every grade. Many teachers will see these and wonder, How do I do that? They may know what a good opinion piece or personal narrative should look like, but they don’t necessarily know how to get their students there.
The WriteSteps lessons break the process down into do-able, realistic
steps. Lucy Calkins has some valuable tools, but the lessons are huge,
teaching points are gigantic, and finding the heart of that lesson can
be very difficult. With WriteSteps, you know what the heart of the lesson is, and each day you use a variety of approaches to take students there.
Speaking of the Common Core, writing is a key component of the
English Language Arts Standards. What changes does this mean for K-5
teachers, and where does WriteSteps fit into this?
Denise: I don’t know about other districts, but in my
district, there’s a buzz about writing this year. My district has weak
writing scores, so writing is a school improvement goal for us now. We
want teachers to get comfortable teaching writing, and we want them to
teach it every day.
I really appreciate that my district understands that we need a writing
program, and that we need to teach it, if not daily, at least
regularly. We haven’t received any training on the Common Core
yet, and I hope we get that. What teachers really need and want is to
make sure that we’re all interpreting the Standards the same way, and
that there aren’t any gaps in instruction. That’s a valuable
aspect of WriteSteps – the new standards are clearly addressed in each lesson.
Yet this is not a “race to cover” program. It’s an immersion
program. We’re teaching them a lot of skills and exposing them to a lot
of different genres. It correlates to the reading program. The skills
and concepts we are teaching really stick, because we’re giving students
numerous opportunities to practice them.
What is your advice to teachers who feel insecure about teaching the writing process?
Denise: Keep an open mind and be enthusiastic. I
believe teachers have to “sell” writing to their students. It makes a
big difference. Keep a writing journal like your students, and let them
see you write. Last year, my students loved writing, and this year
they love it, yet I had two different writing programs. I am the common
factor. What's different with WriteSteps is that our more struggling
students are coming around. Every WriteSteps lesson helps the students
become better writers; it’s building a foundation for them, and it will
help teachers learn, too.
Teaching Tips from Denise
Check out our blog
on Wednesday, Dec. 14, for some great teaching tips from Denise! She
shares ideas for motivating young writers, collecting student writing
samples, and opening and closing lessons with activities that capture
interest and drive learning home!
Suzanne to Discuss Common Core Writing on Lifetime Television
Watch for Suzanne's upcoming contribution to The Balancing Act, airing in February on Lifetime Television
in partnership with The Learning First Alliance, including the National
Association of Elementary School Principals. She'll be sharing insights
about empowering teachers with well-designed Common Core writing
Our Gift to Teachers --
Pilot a Common Core Unit for 30 Days!