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Learning language, creating their story  

Writing Workshop instills a love of literacy at Westmere Elementary School

09.30.15 — There is nothing simple about learning the English language. It's fraught with phonetic inconsistencies, irregular conjugations, homophones, homonyms. So and to don't rhyme. Neither do cough, bough or through. Yet, by some etymological wizardry, pony rhymes with bologna.

Traditional language acquisition is largely an immersive process. For learners who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH), the challenges of language acquisition — and by extension, literacy — are compounded by a lack of access or limited exposure to spoken language.

In Cara Wolff's classroom at Westmere Elementary School, her second- and third-grade DHH students are working to surmount those challenges and develop a lasting enthusiasm for reading and writing with Writing Workshop.

Writing Workshop is a student-centered writing program structured around short, small-group lessons, idea exchanges, guided, independent writing time and sharing. Students work daily in writing journals and have the opportunity to write from their own lives, experiences and interests within each topical unit.

Wolff said Literacy Coordinator Donna Lamkin has helped guide her in developing a rich literacy program for her class. "There really isn't a program out there tailored for deaf children,� said Wolff. "So, we put our heads together and came up with ways to make Writing Workshop a foundation for our literacy curriculum.�

A laminated book illustrated with a smiling crayon face rests in a spinning rack in Wolff's classroom library. The book is a sampling of works from the class' first Writing Workshop unit, "All About Me.� Students selected their favorite piece for inclusion in the book. By the end of the year, the class will have a collection of books from each unit they complete.

The next in line is a unit about autumn. To kick off the new unit, Lamkin joined the morning lesson and idea exchange. She brought a delicata (winter) squash and some fall photos to spark discussion, and they jumped into conversations about fall foods and holidays: pumpkins, pilgrims, costumes and Christopher Columbus.

The fluid discussions and independent work encourage natural differentiation in instruction, as the kids collaborate in lessons, but contribute and write independently at their own level. The students' inherent love of talk and drawing sparks a motivation and enthusiasm for the hard work of writing.

Following a spirited discussion about fall, both spoken and signed, the kids grabbed their writing journals, crayons and pencils for their independent writing time. They started by drawing. Pumpkins, werewolves, turkeys and neighborhoods of trick-or-treaters sprang up on the lined pages. They talked about what they were drawing and why, carried books to their desks for reference and refined their work.

The writing followed. They persevered through sound spelling, patiently stretching the words out, listening, watching lips move, writing and rewriting. Throughout the independent writing time, they held their notebooks up eagerly to share their stories with classroom staff, visitors and each other.

"They're seeing a purpose to writing,� says Wolff. "They have something they want to write about, a story they want to tell. They see how drawing is connected to writing, how writing enriches their drawing. They're learning to appreciate the written word, and that, I hope, will carry over into reading.�

As if to illustrate Wolff's hope, one student put the finishing touches on her jack-o-lantern and slipped her journal into the bin. With a few minutes left before snack time, she headed to the spinning rack, lifted "All About Me� from its place and settled into the reading corner to explore the stories she and her fellow writers created.

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