Third Grade Teacher Sees Struggling Writers Transform

Third grade Curriculum Creator Denise Dusseau.
Third grade Curriculum Creator Denise Dusseau.

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.  Denise had the perfect combination of skills and experience. She is a gifted teacher, well-versed in best practices, who loves children and holds a master’s degree in Curriculum. In this interview Denise reflects on the changes she has witnessed since introducing her students to the Common Core WriteSteps lessons. 

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 Calkins.

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.

A writing circle organizes a story Mrs. Dusseau cut into strips.
A writing circle organizes a story Mrs. Dusseau cut into strips. “We work together to improve every piece we look at, and now my students are making that connection, ‘We did that in the sample piece and I can do it too!'”

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.

I 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 prescriptive?

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. The writing program I used before had valuable tools, but the lessons were huge, the teaching points were gigantic, and finding the heart of the lesson was 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.

With activities like Author's Chair, even kindergarten students identify themselves as writers.
With activities like Author’s Chair, even kindergarten students identify themselves as writers.

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.

~December, 2011 for WriteSteps.