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Hitting the target: Osborne Middle's approach to writing sets students up for success

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
 Ashley King works on a drafting exercise on technology in the classroom during Cathy Seguin’s language arts class at Osborne Middle School on Thursday. The exercise is in preparation for the upcoming state writing assessment that all eighth-graders must take. Last year, Osborne Middle had the highest writing scores on the assessment. 

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips Ashley King works on a drafting exercise on technology in the classroom during Cathy Seguin’s language arts class at Osborne Middle School on Thursday. The exercise is in preparation for the upcoming state writing assessment that all eighth-graders must take. Last year, Osborne Middle had the highest writing scores on the assessment. 

HOSCHTON — Osborne Middle School principal John Campbell said he believes the key for learning is reading for meaning and writing to demonstrate understanding.

If kids can do those things, they can be successful in any subject, Campbell said.

That philosophy led to a schoolwide initiative that focuses on turning students into proficient, effective writers.

Sample writing topics

The following were topics for the Grade 8 Writing Assessment in 2010.

Expository Writing Topic

Writing Situation

In some countries, students are responsible for the basic cleaning of their school buildings. Fifteen minutes is set aside each day for all students to sweep, dust and clean their classrooms and hallways. Think about what your class could do to clean the school.

Directions for Writing

Write a letter to your teacher explaining your solution for cleaning the school. Provide specific details so that your teacher will understand what your class will do.

Persuasive Writing Topic

Writing Situation

In some countries, students are responsible for the basic cleaning of their school buildings. Fifteen minutes is set aside each day for all students to sweep, dust and clean their classrooms and hallways. Think about how you would feel if students were responsible for cleaning your school.

Directions for Writing

Write a letter to your teacher in which you convince the teacher that students should or should not be required to clean your school. Defend your position with specific reasons and detailed examples.

Data indicate Osborne Middle’s method is working. Nearly 97 percent of the school’s students last year passed the Georgia Grade 8 Writing Assessment, a test of expository and persuasive writing.

More impressively, the school had the highest average score in the state — 243.09, just fewer than seven points away from having an average score that exceeded standards. Osborne also had the highest percentage of students — 33.1 — who scored top marks on the test.

Educational assessment expert Rick Stiggins has written that students can hit any target that they can see clearly and that doesn’t move. Sixth-grade language arts teacher Jennifer Bakaric said that’s what’s happening at Osborne — and the kids are hitting the target.

“We use the same techniques (to teach writing) in sixth grade that they do in eighth grade,” Bakaric said. “They’re constantly writing, and they know what’s expected. It’s not a guessing game.”

Creating the target

At Osborne, writing instruction isn’t just done at the eighth-grade level so students can pass the big test. It’s a process that starts in the sixth grade — even before, since the students learn writing skills at the elementary level.

“We’re pouring the foundation,” Bakaric said.

“Yes, it’s like building a house,” said Martine Humphrey, a sixth-grade science teacher.

Another feature of Osborne’s writing program: The skill isn’t just taught in language arts classes. It’s integrated into the other content areas.

So do all of the faculty consider themselves writing teachers?

“Absolutely,” said Mark Moon, a sixth-grade social studies teacher.

Moon sees benefits to incorporating writing into the content area other than improving students as writers.

“One of the best ways to see if they really understand in depth is to get them to write,” Moon said. “They’re not just memorizing facts. The climate of the school is geared more toward ideas and critical thinking.”

Another important element to the instructional plan is the writing rubric, a tool used by each teacher to judge the quality of and grade students’ work.

Students’ papers are graded on a five-point scale in four areas — ideas, organization, style and conventions — and the rubric is a chart that shows exactly what the students must to do earn points in each domain.

With the rubric, students can understand exactly why they received the score they got and what they can do to improve, Bakaric said. The students also learn how to use the rubric to evaluate their own work.

The consistency of the expectations for students’ writing is key, the teachers said.

“If the whole school’s on the same page, that’s what makes the difference,” Humphrey said.

Involving parents

As former U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel said, education is too important to be left solely to the educators. It’s widely acknowledged that parental involvement is important to students’ success.

To help parents learn how to effectively help their children writing, Osborne hosts a writing workshop for parents.

“The teachers show us exactly what is expected,” said Clellie Gibson, the school’s PTA president.

Gibson didn’t consider herself to be a good writer, but with guidance from Osborne, she’s been able to help her children at home. For four years, Gibson has attended the school’s writing workshop for parents.

At the workshop, the parents learn about the school’s writing rubric. Gibson keeps a copy of the rubric on her refrigerator, and she refers to it as she proofreads her children’s papers.

Parents are also taught about the school’s system for helping students learn to add more details to their writing, an area in which many children struggle. The students use pink, blue and green highlighters to note the main idea, supporting facts, and specific examples and details in their paragraphs.

“I know we’re always looking for more green,” Gibson said, noting that details are highlighted in that color.

Gibson’s got a lot of faith in Osborne’s approach to writing instruction. Her daughter, now a freshman at Mill Creek, took the state writing test last year and did “extremely well.” Her son’s now in sixth grade at Osborne.

“I think it’s so important to have good writing skills,” she said. “I think it will help them throughout college.”

Getting results

Because icy conditions caused schools to be closed last week, the state postponed the administration of the writing test. It’s now scheduled for Wednesday.

Even if it hadn’t been postponed, school officials said they feel the kids would have been ready.

Jacob Padden, 13, said he’s ready to take it.

“I love writing. … (I like) being able to express feelings into it and making people laugh when they read it,” he said. “I’m excited for the writing test.”

Jacob said he’s always liked writing, but he thinks what he’s learned at Osborne has helped him get better.

“I’ve improved a lot in adding (details) into my essays and having transitions,” he said.

That level of self-awareness is what helped Osborne achieve such success on the writing test.

The school’s achievement is a nice validation, but Campbell said it’s just a byproduct of what the school is trying to do.

“We’re trying to prepare kids for challenges that face them in the future on Advanced Placement tests ... or on the job,” he said. “We’re trying to meet the long-term needs of the kids.”

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