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School Spotlight - Smith working on reading & writing to benefit math

Smith students work collectively on a math problem. When Arthur H. Smith Elementary School fifth grader Kiley Smith first heard about the school’s new writing camp, she knew it was something she wanted to be a part of. She wanted to work toward improving her writing and comprehension, and this seemed like a fun way to do it.

Through the after-school writing camp she gets a chance to work with other fifth grade students, who may or may not be in her regular classroom during the day, and she gets more one-on-one time because there are fewer students in her session of the writing camp than there are in her class during the regular school day.

“I decided to join writing camp so I could get better at my writing,” Smith said.

Writing camp is something new at Smith school and it’s something that was actually born out of a desire to improve math scores on the Smarter Balanced Assessment. It may seem counterintuitive to look at improving students writing abilities to boost math scores, but it’s an idea Principal Jared Lind is betting on to make a difference.

“Our kids know their math concepts and can conceptually solve math problems,” Lind said. “What happens is when you start adding academic language, bulleted lists of instructions and wording that is at or above grade level – our students can’t find the math.”

So the idea is to improve writing and comprehension to help students get through the words to find the math.

An example of a typical math problem fifth grade students are facing on tests and in their everyday homework is below:

Justin is packing a container with books.
• The dimensions of each book are 8 inches by 6 inches by 2 inches.
• The dimensions of the container are 16 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches.
• All of the books and the container are rectangular prisms.
Part A
How many books can fit in the container if the books are packed so that there is no unused space in the container?
Part B
Each book weighs 2 pounds. The maximum weight the container can hold is 40 pounds.
What is the greatest number of books that can fit in the container without going over the containers weight limit?
(Hint: The answer can be found at the end of this story.)

Getting to the math in the above the problem requires a lot of reading and comprehension. Students need to be able to read through the words, comprehend what is being asked of them and find the numbers needed to get the math done.

This is why Lind has decided to offer third, fourth and fifth graders a chance to focus on their reading and writing skills through writing camps.

“This isn’t an intervention, it’s an opportunity for every kid to grow their writing,” Lind said. “We need to grow our tool belt.” 

The camps are offered after school, with students meeting Monday through Thursday for 70 to 75 minutes for a two-week block of time. 

Amber Shields, a fifth grader teacher who oversees the fifth grade writing camp, said every third, fourth and fifth grade student – over the course of the school year – will be invited to take part in the writing camps. Throughout the year there will be three different camps offered – one dealing with narrative writing, persuasive writing and opinion pieces. 

Shields said the first several sessions of the camp are focusing on narrative writing. Every two weeks a new group of roughly 25 students from each of the three grades – third, fourth and fifth – receives an invitation to take part in the camp. The students who agree to attend then spend two weeks learning and creating their own examples of that style of writing. Then after every student in each of those grades has received an invitation, they start over – sending invitations to those groups of students again – this time inviting them to attend a writing camp focused on persuasive writing. Every session there is one classroom for third graders, one for fourth graders and one for fifth graders.

Shields said the camp has really given her a chance to work one-on-one with students and it has given students a good chunk of time to work on their pieces. Instead of getting a few minutes each day to work on actually writing – they are getting more than an hour a day focused on improving their writing skills.

Shields also makes her writing camp students use computers and type as much of their writing as possible. She said she does this to help get students feeling comfortable typing, because the Smarter Balance Assessment is all done on the computer.

Shields said so far the students who have gone through the camp are enjoying themselves and getting something out of the program.

“They’re really engaged,” Shields said. 

Kiley Smith said after just a few days in the writing camp she felt like her writing was improving.

“I feel like I’m getting a little better with my writing and identifying the beginning, middle and end of a story,” she said. 

She said she’s also looking forward to doing it again.

But writing camps aren’t the only thing Lind and his staff are doing to improve writing and comprehension. They’re also changing classroom expectations. One word answers are no longer the norm. Students need to be able to use the academic language associated with each subject. 

“We’re working hard to model academic math vocabulary and being encouraging when they mirror that academic language,” Lind said.

He said there is also a big push to encourage students to speak in complete sentences, and teachers and staff are working to improve writing school wide, as well as addressing the language needs for all students, especially the school’s English language learners. 

“It’s a multi-pronged attack,” Lind said.

Lind said the school is working to put more language supports in place, such as the new E.L. Achieve program, which gives students a block of time each day to work on language.

Fourth grade math teacher Jeremy Smith said giving students the tools they need to take on today’s math problems is important.

“If the students have a strategy to attack a situation, they’re likely to be able to solve it,” Smith said.

He said he works with his students to use the words in a math problem to help them read and visualize the situation. They work to use the language to find the math.

One way Smith is doing this is by giving students math problems without the numbers. For example, on a recent morning Smith gave the students this situation:

Olyvia has __ red beads and __ green beads. Zoie has __ beads of all different colors.

That was it.

From there students looked at the words and determined what was being asked of them. The students worked together and decided the problem was asking them to find how many beads Olyvia and Zoie have all together. As well as, how many more beads does one girl have than the other. 

Once the students had determined what kind of math they were going to be doing – addition, subtraction, multiplication or division – in this case it was first addition then subtraction, Smith gave them the numbers. He filled in the blanks giving Olyvia 68 red beads and 79 green beads and Zoie 334 different colored beads.

Having the students concentrate on the words in the problem first, gives them a chance to really think about what is being asked of them. 

And that sort of understanding is exactly what Lind and the rest of the teachers and staff are hoping students will gain out of focusing on their language skills to work on improving math scores.

Answer: Part A – 24 books. Part B – 20 books.