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The Columbia Writing Project

Turning Students into Strong and Confident Writers

A writer often begins with just a thought: an event from real life, or perhaps something imagined. Then a story is drafted, revised, revised again, edited and finally published. Through this careful process of creation, students learn to become proficient and confident writers.

This year, Roslyn's elementary schools have begun a new writing initiative through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The Project is a research and staff development organization, based at Columbia University, which for more than 20 years has worked successfully to improve literacy instruction in many schools in New York City, on Long Island and across the nation. The goals of the Project are achieved through research, writing, and professional development of teachers and school leaders. It was founded by Lucy Calkins, a noted expert in the field and the author of the "Art of Teaching Reading" and "The Art of Teaching Writing."

Writing 2
Staff developer Emily Smith from Teachers College (at the blackboard) gets fifth grade students in Ms. Denig's class started on the writing process while Harbor Hill teachers (at left) observe.
Writing 2
Later, teachers confer with the staff developer while students work on their writing projects.

Although writing has always been one of the basic skills learned in school, it has not always been taught as systematically as other academic subjects, or integrated fully into other curriculum areas. The importance of writing continues to grow as standardized tests, colleges, and employers increasingly demand writing samples as evidence of individuals' ability to communicate effectively. Furthermore, the Project aims to help improve scores on standardized tests. There is close alignment between the Reading and Writing Project's work, English Language Arts (ELA) guidelines, and New York State learning standards.

Teachers at the Heights, East Hills and Harbor Hill Schools are all participating in extensive training throughout this year under the leadership of expert staff developers from Teachers College. As they become familiar with methodologies and techniques, teachers incorporate writing into their daily activities and schedules. The teacher-educators who staff the Project develop long-lasting collaborations with teachers in the schools they serve. Teachers who receive training in the Project, in turn, become mentors and coaches for their students so they can learn to be powerful and independent readers and writers.

"Effective professional development is critical to the success of the program," explains Dr. Dan Brenner, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. "It is very important that teachers have an opportunity to work with staff developers who are teachers themselves and who understand the learning process not only in theory, but in practice. This gives teachers the additional knowledge and techniques they need to work more effectively with students. Best of all, the Teachers College model provides ongoing support which enables us to continue to grow."

The writing process encourages children to choose their own topics and to write rough drafts which they revise and edit before publication. They collect ideas from the world around them and write the ideas down. After they've drafted a story, they learn the importance of revision (the motto is: "When you're done, you've just begun") and editing. The final step, after a story is finally published, is to celebrate it: either by reading it aloud in class, presenting it to the principal, or acknowledging the accomplishment in some other way that encourages students to continue writing. By understanding and participating in the process, students become more and more confident in their writing ability and more inclined to involve writing as a central part of their daily experience.

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A sign board in an East Hills classroom helps to guide students on their fiction writing projects.

The writing project teaches students a range of narrative styles. They start with personal narratives, depicting events from their lives. They learn various techniques: how to focus on the most important parts of a story, how to develop point of view, and how to strengthen the story by bringing out connections between internal and external responses.

Students are also introduced to different genres of writing, such as realistic fiction. In this unit, they learn to create good leads and good endings, add dialogue, provide details by showing instead of telling, develop character, reveal character's emotions and introduce dramatic tension.

Parents should notice significant growth in their children's writing as they become increasingly immersed in the writing process. Through each unit, students develop stamina, focus, structure, detail, a sense of purpose and an appreciation for writing conventions. Given strong skills, consistent encouragement and the opportunity to write frequently, students will gain the most important characteristic of effective writers: an enthusiasm for the written word.

For more information about the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, please contact Dr. Dan Brenner, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, at 516-801-5010 or email him at You may also wish to visit the Project's website.

February, 2009