08/23/2014 12:32 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

Engaging Those Kids in Writing

Back to school is happening around the country. Exciting times for students and teachers. So what can we do differently and better this year? Here is one idea.

Teaching writing has been a challenge for teachers for years. That is one of the reasons why many adults are poor writers; they did not get the training they needed in elementary school and high school. So is there a way to break this trend? The answer is yes. There are many ways and here is one way that works effectively and has a great track record. Engagement is the KEY.

This program is called Being a Writer series and it is a flexible writing curriculum for grade K-6. It is based on building a community of writers---kids write together about literature they find interesting. It is part of the "interest-based learning" curriculum. Kids want to read books about things of interest to them. No one gets excited about "See Spot Run" type of books.

Schools and teachers can get these pre-selected books as part of Being a Writer program. As a 30 year teacher, I can say that this approach to learning works. Even young kids can find books that are interesting to them and if they are part of a group of kids all writing about a topic suggested by the book, then kids are interested in being part of the community.

"There are few commercially-available elementary school curricula that really address growth in writing," says Richard Sterling, Director Emeritus of the National Writing Project. (NWP) "Not just writing as a way to improve reading," he adds, "but writing on its own terms. Being a Writer is one of them. I served as advisor and Trustee for the Developmental Studies Center (DSC), the non-profit organization in Oakland that developed the program for several years, and I am pleased to see this program made available to schools and districts nation-wide."

Being a Writer is built around regular and ample periods of writing with units focused on genre study using high-quality children's literature and trade books. Units are also built around recurring ways of working together in the community of writers: teacher and peer conferences, classroom discussion of writing informed by models, collaborative writing, student self-assessment, and an emphasis on choice. Careful attention to teaching students how to work positively in a community harken back to the DSC's founding by Eric Schaps as a research center concerned with character development, social and emotional learning, and positive youth development in schools and communities.

The common interest in workshop models for writing instruction has led to partnerships between districts implementing Being a Writer and local Writing Project sites. Peter Brunn, Director of Professional Development for DSC, sees this as a natural partnership, where local Writing Project sites become long-term professional development homes for teachers who begin to engage with teaching of writing as their school moves forward with the program. "Writing project teachers bring a passion and depth of knowledge that can really support a school working with Being a Writer," according to Brunn. "It gives teachers a community."

And in support of NWP's mission, Brunn adds, "Being a Writer gives districts an opportunity to scale quality writing instruction. A lot of teachers come to the National Writing Project and they come to feel a vocation, almost, as teachers of writing, and they give of themselves as teachers and leaders. Our challenge is to provide experiences for teachers who haven't had that yet and are just getting started." Partnerships between districts using Being a Writer and local NWP sites can provide a place for a whole new generation of teachers to work with writing in their classrooms and then take their developing insights and questions to a community of engaged colleagues at the Writing Project.

Check it out at the Developmental Studies Center website. This is the perfect time of year to improve curriculum and make teaching this year more effective and satisfying for teachers, students and parents.