The Impact of the AACTE-Microsoft Grant on Elementary Reading & Writing

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Accountability for student learning and support of evidence-based instructional approaches are critical responsibilities for teachers. Both are particularly significant with the current reliance on state standards, assessment tests and the No Child Left Behind Act (Shanahan 2002). Every elementary teacher must have research-based resources to help improve student writing; therefore, we implemented a professional development initiative.

Acknowledging this need, a proposal for an AACTE (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education)-Microsoft Innovative Teachers Grant was written and accepted. The intent of the program was to build a partnership, or community of professional expertise (CPE), between the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University (WIU) and the elementary teachers (grades 2-8) at V.I.T. Community Unit School District #2 in order to develop a database of online writing activities. This article will discuss the first five workshops that were held from January through May 2003. It will also cover the district’s technological implementation, as well as teacher perceptions of the workshops and the database to which their work contributed.

The purpose of the grant was for teachers to gain and apply writing skills by designing technological activities for their students. The technology workshops provided teacher training and student activities designed to improve student composition and writing scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT).

Initially, teachers developed an online database of student activities to network their writing instruction among elementary classrooms. The first five workshops were conducted to introduce new instructional techniques that would address student motivation and interactive dialogue, reader response, and writing composition skills. The writing skills elements were focus, elaboration (support), organization, integration and conventions. The techniques used in the workshops were supported by evidence-based research, which was found by reviewing journal articles and books used to assist struggling readers and writers.

Another aim of the program was to improve teacher technological competencies by developing a database of writing activities to share through the CPE network. Teachers were motivated to design and implement online activities in adherence to state testing requirements. The planning efforts for the teachers’ network and the community online resources were designed to implement technology in order to increase student learning as reported by Simkins et al. (2002). The writing skills were research-based and founded upon state reading and writing standards, as well as technology goals for the AACTE-Microsoft grant workshop implementation.

District Implementation

The district’s technology director and superintendent coordinated district-level technology applications and teachers’ writing needs assessments. The initial entry meetings and correspondence by letter and e-mail were conducted to ensure an appropriate technology commitment that would fulfill grant requirements. The participants were to attend writing and technology workshops, develop materials for their own writing curriculum, and add them to an online database of writing activities for their school. Prior to the workshops, a needs assessment was conducted that revealed technology had not been used for writing composition or student practice.

Workshop Implementation

Five 90-minute sessions for 12 elementary teachers were conducted from January to April 2003. Each session targeted one of the Illinois writing assessment areas, while instructional writing components and techniques were distributed in handouts and strategically modeled on a SMART Board interactive whiteboard. Computer application time was also provided for developing participant writing activities. The CPE online database was developed with teachers from grades 2-5 who worked within a two- to three-week time frame between workshops to create two activities - totaling 24 activities for each month.

Two employees of the WIU Center for the Application of Information Technologies (CAIT) conducted a presentation on the software available in the grant during the first workshop. The second workshop session related to focus, which is the first target area of the Illinois writing assessment. Since the state writing test stresses three areas of writing (narrative, expository and persuasive), practical student activities of these types of writing were emphasized. Ideas for story starters were also shared with teachers (Lenski and Johns 2000), and suggestions for effective introductory paragraphs and ways to start writing using hook sentences were discussed (Morretta and Ambrosini 2000). A PowerPoint presentation titled “Hooking a Good Sentence” demonstrated action buttons that let fourth- and fifth-grade students practice selecting good hook sentences. Students read and reread the sentences to determine the best response; they then select the purpose of the writers’ messages.

The Illinois state assessment (ISBE 2002) stressed that excellent focus included a strong theme and use of appropriate supporting details. The related activities used in the grant workshops involved matching sentences with main ideas and story webs (Kirk 2001; Hatton and Ladd 2002). Participants were then given time to work on their own activities dealing with focus. Teachers developed 20 activities that were put on the Web database of writing activities (see sidebar on Page 14 for an example).

The third workshop session was presented on elaboration (support). The major emphasis of the session was the prompting of students to include details supporting the main idea in their writing, as well as expanding events by using descriptive words, better verb choices, prepositional phrases and appositives. Actual models of word choices, descriptions, phrases and appositives were distributed to participants for their selection and use according to the learning needs of their students. Sentence combination for complexity of thought development was discussed, and picture prompts were provided as resources for teachers in assisting students with detail recall for composition (Lenski and Johns 2000). The participants were given independent work time during the session, and the database was expanded with two activities on elaboration (support) - totaling 18 activities.

A third-grade elaboration activity,Yahooligans! Animals site “The Octopus,” included information about octopi from the Yahooligans! Animals site. Students searched for eight facts and elaborated with interesting and descriptive details on an octopus graphic organizer.

The organization of writing was stressed during the fourth workshop session. State standards noted a narrative must have a good introductory paragraph, a strong concluding paragraph, a consistent flow and a strong sequence of events. Story, narrative and persuasive composition frames were demonstrated as were Fuller and Newman’s models (1994).

Workshop participants had more difficulty creating activities on organization than was observed during the previous writing target areas. Participants created 17 activities for their school’s writing database. The workshop leaders adhered to writers’ workshop ideas for organization of students’ composition folders (Strickland, Ganske and Monr'e 2002). The scheduling of writing session time and routines were also modeled for concise understanding of process writing stages, student groups and story publication. The participants were unfamiliar with writers’ workshop techniques, so the presenters used the “Four-Blocks” literacy model to provide teachers with a strategic framework for guided and independent reading, as well as writing and word analysis (Cunningham and Allington 2003).

The fifth workshop combined the two writing target areas of conventions and integration. The Illinois standards for conventions state that writing errors should be minimal and not interfere with the author’s ability to communicate. Integration in writing involves focus, supporting details and balance. Research on transitional words and conventions, as illustrated by Hacker (2000) and O’Hare and Funk (2000), was presented to the participating teachers.

The workshop participants were then encouraged to expand the compositions of elementary students by adding transitional words (phrases and clauses), as well as punctuation in order to focus on proofreading, revising and editing. The functional approach to writing occurs when these three processes are conducted with young writers’ stories and not in isolated exercises (Fearn and Farnan 2001).

The proofreading concept was linked with the focus and organization workshops as teachers proofread authentic student writing samples for introductory paragraph clarity. Participants were also informed on how to guide students in the peer conference and editing processes; a procedural peer conference handout was provided for later use. A convention activity exemplified from the database is the “Writer’s Checklist,” which can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking on the related link at www.wiu.edu/users/lgb100/grant/conventions.html.

Integration instruction during the conventions and integration workshop included the target areas of consistency and idea continuity. The participants primarily designed integration activities and rubrics to check these areas. An example of their work, the integration activity “Butterscotch,” can be downloaded off the same Web site listed above.

Results

Teacher-Designed Activities. The first objective was for teachers to develop writing activities for the online database that would be shared among faculty members and with the WIU directors. Currently, 115 activities, including 12 conventions and 12 integration activities, have been listed on the V.I.T. Schools/WIU community online site. Since some of the activities were for teacher use, nine activities were not included on the Web site for student use.

ISAT Scores for Future Comparison. The second objective of the workshop was to improve student writing and scores on the ISAT. When the grant was written, the criteria for the state writing assessment were leveled one through four: Level four being above standards, while level one indicated an academic warning. In 2006, an analysis will be conducted of the third- and fifth-grade 2003 writing scores with those of subsequent years. With the use of the database, third- and fifth-grade students in 2006 and 2009 should be better prepared to perform at higher levels on the writing portion of their tests.

Discussion

Twelve tenured teachers attended the first grant workshop in January 2003, and 10 teachers completed the first five workshops. Data was collected by compiling activities and due dates from the online community site and each teacher’s hard copy records. Of the 10 teachers who completed the first half of year one, three of them took the workshops for three hours of college credit. These three teachers completed two activities in each area of the five target writing areas (10 total activities). The remaining seven teachers completed two activities each for the focus and elaboration areas. Five of the seven teachers completed the required two organization activities, while only three of the seven completed the required two activities for conventions and integration areas. The seven teachers not taking the course for college credit earned seven hours each of continuing professional development units from the Illinois State Board of Education. One teacher attended only the first workshop, while another teacher attended four out of the five workshops but did not put activities on the database.

Overcoming Barriers

The grant provided the use of Microsoft Windows XP, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, MapPoint and Visio software. However, the district computers were lacking sufficient RAM, causing operating problems such as crashing in the Microsoft programs. In addition, there were problems implementing Microsoft Class Server. The intent was that the teachers would post activities on the server so that students could access the activities when away from school. To solve this incompatibility challenge, a Web page was developed on the WIU server where writing activities were posted and could be accessed by all participants.

Teachers experienced two problematic areas when implementing the writing activities in the classroom. First, designing activities required time-consuming directions that took the entire writing period to explain. In order to overcome this difficulty, participants used SMART Boards to present an interactive writing lesson to the whole class.

The second problem was that teachers felt students were losing too much class time on individual computers. As a solution, implementing interactive writing activity time with the whole class allowed teachers to use the technology for demonstrating the writing process. Acknowledging that the literacy areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing should not be taught in isolation, teachers used Gebhardt’s ideas (2002-2003) during the interactive writing sessions. For instance, Gebhardt’s idea to link visual clues to develop meaning, graphics and text enhanced the students’ understanding of the writing area that deals with focus. All learners, including first and second language users, benefited from integrated literacy development during these writing workshops.

Future Implications

One of the primary purposes of computer writing activities is to provide students with varying abilities risk-free independent time using the computer for writing skills development. During guided practice and rough-draft composition lesson segments, struggling writers may use the action button activities with colorful, motivational graphics to better understand the specific concept being developed. Teachers are also able to match students’ writing needs with the database activities.

The database demonstrates the writing elements by offering activities that are cross-grade level and on cross-curricular topics. Teachers may select the topics and activities for individualized writing or class writing needs. The writing activities database is available for all teachers on the local campus. It also has been made available nationally through distribution on the Web address mentioned in this text.

We encourage readers to develop computer-assisted activities for their students or enjoy the ones in this article.


Meaningful Connections Through Teacher Activities

One of the 20 teacher-created activities from the grant workshops included “Remembering a Special Birthday,” which is a narrative expressive composition with guided prompts that students can respond to on their paper. First, students list party guests and feelings as keywords. They then develop the introductory paragraph and events of their special birthday. All of the shared documents and participant-designed writing activities are online at www.wiu.edu/users/lgb100/grant/focus.html. In Findley’s article (2002) we are reminded that students construct meaning by personalizing content connections as in the “Remembering a Special Birthday” topic. Making meaningful connections is essential during prewriting and throughout the composition’s development.


Online Database Helps District Meet NCLB Demands

Since one objective of the grant was to develop a database of online writing activities, the Illinois Learning Standards for English Language Arts are exemplified in the writing target areas of the grant workshops. Thus, in working to increase the percentage of writing exam scores that meet and exceed standards, the grant provision of participant training in writing and reading processes is assisting the V.I.T. Schools in meeting the NCLB requirements.


References

Cunningham, P., and R. Allington. 2003. Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.

Fearn, L., and N. Farnan. 2001. Interactions: Teaching Writing and the Language Arts. NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Findley, N. 2002. “In Their Own Ways.” Educational Leadership 60 (1): 60-62.

Fuller, G., and K. Newman. 1994. Step Up to the TAAS Writing for Fifth Grade. Waxahachie, TX: The Teacher’s Touch.

Gebhard, M. (2002-2003). “Getting past ‘See Spot Run’.” Educational Leadership 60 (4): 29-35.

Hacker, D, 2000. A Pocket Style Manual (3rd ed.). Boston: Bedford and St. Martin.

Hatton, S., and P. Ladd. 2002. Teaching Idea Development: A Standards-Based Critical-Thinking Approach to Writing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). 2002. “Illinois Learning Standards for English Language Arts.” Online: www.isbe.net/ils/ela/standards.htm.

Kirk, K. 2001. Writing to Standards: Teacher’s Resource of Writing Activities for PreK-6. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lenski, S., and J. Johns. 2000. Improving Writing: Resources, Strategies and Assessments. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co.

Morretta, T., and M. Ambrosini. 2000. Practical Approaches for Teaching Reading and Writing in Middle Schools. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

O’Hare, F., and R. Funk. 2000. Modern Writers’ Handbook (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Shanahan, T. 2002. Literacy in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Theory and Practice. Edited by B.J. Guzzetti. Pages 401-404. Denver: ABC-CLIO.

Simkins, M., K. Cole, F. Tavalin, and B. Means. 2002. Increasing Student Learning Through Multimedia Projects. Alexandria, VA: Association of Curriculum and Development.

Strickland, S., K. Ganski, and J. Monr'e. 2002. Supporting Struggling Readers and Writers: Strategies for Classroom Intervention 3-6. Portland, ME: Steinhouse Publishers.

Online Resources

  • AACTE-Microsoft Innovative Teachers Grant
    (Writing activities from V.I.T. Schools/WIU database)
    www.wiu.edu/users/lgb100/grant/

  • Data Analysis and Progress Reports, Illinois State Board of Education Click Here.

  • 2002 V.I.T. Elementary School Report Card Click Here to view

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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