At 8 a.m., that early hour before school starts, most students aren’t yet focusing on their studies. They’re sleeping, or in transit or chatting with their friends.
There’s one room, however, tucked away among the hallways of Dillon Valley Elementary School, where the students aren’t snoozing or traveling or talking — they’re writing.
These students, 14 in total, are part of a writing club started last year by literacy coach and reading recovery teacher Hollyanna Bates. Joining as fourth-graders, they are now finishing up their fifth year at the school. Bates said that the idea for the writing group came about when she was looking at scores from the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) test.
“I said to myself, these guys could write better,” she said. “They have a lot of potential and they just need some instruction.”
So Bates handed out signup sheets and waited. The response was positive and soon she had her group, which has remained mostly the same throughout two years. Before writing group, Ella Bower said she didn’t write all that much, especially outside of class.
“We didn’t really have all these techniques, so I guess I usually didn’t really like to write because I didn’t know how to use the vivid words and the ‘showing not telling’ to make it really like (what) someone would want to read,” she said. Now, she enjoys it a lot.
The students in the writing group learn about various types of writing, including fiction, journaling, informative and scientific, to get a taste of what they may be writing later on, both in and out of school. They also discuss various techniques, which any of them can rattle off in a breath, like use of simile and metaphor, sensory images and “showing not telling.”
“We learned sensory images, so it’s writing that can make you actually feel it, taste it,” said Bates’ daughter Elsa, who is a member of the group.
They also share journals, analyze books and critique one another’s work.
“One thing that I really like about writing group is that when you’re with Miss Bates or when you’re writing with her, she just gives you so many great ideas and tips to help improve your writing,” said Toril Aserlind. “And then you just start writing, and then she finally says it’s time to go but we just can’t stop writing.”
“It’s like an addiction,” AnnaRose Craig chimed in.
Spreading the love
The students in the group have come to enjoy writing and are now eager to share that love with their classmates. So earlier this year, with the help of Bates, they created a schoolwide postal service.
“We wanted to just make kids write more and talk with friends, like in a formal way, so we thought we would make a mailbox,” Toril said.
The rules of the postal service are simple. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to write letters to anyone else, from kindergarten to fifth grade, teachers included. Whenever you receive a letter, you have to write a reply. In order to make sure everyone followed that rule, the writing group exacted a pledge from their classmates at the assembly announcing the letter system.
So far, the post office has been a huge success. Bates estimates that more than 100 letters are sent every week. Each letter is sorted and hand delivered by a member of the writing group. While in the beginning they struggled with lists of names and classroom numbers, the students have most of them memorized and are well-connected to their fellow students, Bates said.
“It’s fun to write, because you’re showing that you care about them and that you want them to write back to you, and there’s a special connection,” said Kalena Sapp.
She often receives letters from her younger brother, in second grade. “My brother wrote to me. He said, ‘Kalena, I love you very very very very much,’ so I had to write back,” she said, smiling.
In addition to letters passed among siblings and friends, the students make sure to write to other classmates as well.
“I write to the kindergarteners,” said Ella Bower. “I can just imagine the smile on their face, because they always love to hug us. They smile and I think they really like getting letters.”
With the fifth-graders moving on to the middle school next year, Bates will be collecting a new group of future writers. Meanwhile, the advancing students said they will keep practicing and are thinking what it would be like to carry on the letter-writing system to the middle school. Regardless, writing will continue to be an important part of their lives.
“It’s a joy,” Toril Aserlind exclaimed about writing group, as her classmates giggled around her. “You know that you can just count on a really good time.”