Idaho Falls beefs up writing program

IDAHO FALLS – Sixth grader Jamal Graham never liked writing until his teacher tested a new writing program aligned to Idaho Core Standards.

Linden Park writing
Sixth-grade students complete a writing exercise Tuesday in Idaho Falls while teacher Mary Ulrich, back left, and instruction coach Jenna Briggs look on.

Before entering Mary Ulrich’s sixth-grade class at Linden Park Elementary, Jamal struggled for inspiration, and couldn’t summon the energy and attention to dive into a writing assignment.

But that has changed in a big way during the past three months. In the Idaho Falls School District, 116 of the 220 elementary teachers opted into a new writing project aligned to the new Idaho Core Standards. District officials bought the Lucy Calkins Common Core writing study unit as supplemental, grade-level specific programs to beef up the district’s existing reading program.

Jenna Briggs, one of the district’s instructional coaches, said the writing program breaks instruction down to focus on narrative writing, opinion pieces and informational texts separately.

Classes started with narrative writing, and before teachers knew it, elementary classrooms full of students were sitting quietly, writing for 45-minute stretches at a time.

“It’s strengthened and more rigorous to prepare for Smarter Balanced and the Core (standards),” Briggs said. “Kids are succeeding because they can find more access points to start writing.”

That was the case with Jamal. Ulrich introduced him to narrative writing and he found it can be more personal and interesting.

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She pushed him to focus on personal experiences – sharing some of her own embarrassing childhood moments along the way.

“I need to be somewhat vulnerable and open,” Ulrich said. “I told them a story about myself and it gave me a chance to hook them in.”

Now Ulrich and her students talk about opening essays with exciting leads. They discuss supporting details and paragraph development. They sprinkle dialogue into the mix, and students wrap things up with a conclusion.

It’s better and more fun than fifth grade,” Jamal said. “It’s about my personal life and it’s not just research stuff. (Ulrich) inspires me a little, and sometimes when I don’t know what to write about she helps me out.”

Although students have not yet been tested against the new writing standards, Ulrich is encouraged by the progress this year.

“Some of those kids at the beginning of the year could not pull a paragraph together,” Ulrich said.

Now, students weave together paragraphs in minutes.

“That’s the coolest thing, the biggest hump we’ve gotten over,” Ulrich said.

Briggs has also been impressed with progress at lower grade levels.

Mary Ulrich
Mary Ulrich teaches class at Linden Park Elementary.

“I’m seeing them do things teachers never expected; writing a topic sentence with details and a good closing or a four-page story in first grade,” Briggs said. “People thought that was absolutely impossible.”

Now that Ulrich’s students have made progress on the narrative form, Ulrich will guide them into opinion writing and informational texts.

The idea is they use the skills they developed writing fun, personal stories and apply them to more scholarly type papers that will be demanded in junior high and beyond.

Before leaving sixth grade, they will be expected to differentiate between fact and opinion, cite information or references from an informational text and complete a two-page paper with the proper elements of a story.

As a reward for finishing a paper, students read to peers in other classes or grade levels and exchange compliments and one suggestion for improving the paper.

“It’s important because she (Ulrich) is making it so when we go in to junior high we’re not clueless,” Jamal said. “She’s just getting us ready for it.”

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