Lake Joy Elementary fifth-grade writing team producing strong results

alopez@macon.comMay 23, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- Students in Traci Shipp’s classroom jumped when she punctuated a line from “The Tell-Tale Heart” with dramatic flair.

“She’s really a gifted teacher,” said Rumi, one of Shipp’s fifth-grade students.

“It’s really fun,” said Julia, referring to studying writing with Shipp. “She gives us lots of ways to organize our paragraphs to make our readers enjoy our writing.”

After reading the Edgar Allan Poe short story Tuesday afternoon, Shipp asked her fifth-graders to identify compositional elements used by the author. They discussed building a story’s arc with suspense like a roller coaster’s climbs and falls and using figurative language, similes and onomatopoeia, like Poe used “bump bump” for the sound of the victim’s heartbeat.

One of three writing teachers, Shipp helped prepare Lake Joy Elementary School’s 181 fifth-graders for the state writing assessment, which was administered in March. Students were assigned topics and given two hours to write an essay in either the informational, narrative or persuasive genre.

Principal Douglas Rizer said scores have climbed steadily since Lake Joy opened seven years ago. Early on, only about 75 percent of the school’s fifth-grade students met or exceeded state standards, he said.

This year, Lake Joy was one of four Houston County elementary schools -- including Matt Arthur, Northside and Quail Run -- where more than 95 percent of fifth-grade students met or exceeded state standards.

Beyond merely meeting the standard, more than 43 percent of Lake Joy’s fifth-graders exceeded them, which represents the highest percentage in Houston County. Statewide, only 13 percent of fifth-graders exceeded standards.

Lake Joy fifth-grade teachers have one homeroom class but teach multiple classes in several subject areas. Shipp, Laurie Jarrard and Tina Goodroe made up the school’s fifth-grade writing team this year.

“We feel very lucky that we are allowed to teach to our strengths,” Jarrard said. “When you are passionate about it, they can see it. It’s infectious.”

The team uses the workshop model to help students develop their writing.

“We teach a skill, and we demonstrate that to students within books,” Goodroe said. “And then we have them go try it out in their own writing.”

Students are encouraged to use standard narrative devices like similes and metaphors, Shipp said, but more than that they are encouraged to make their writing exciting through strong lead sentences, vivid verbs and descriptions of personal experience.

“When you give me a paper, if I’m not laughing or smiling or crying or going ‘What?!’ then it’s boring, and you don’t want to read that, so don’t write that,” Shipp said.

Over the years, the teachers also have adapted to the state assessment. They use example essays to expose students to the scoring rubric. And noticing that successful essays often included at least 25 sentences, several years ago Shipp began encouraging students to count the punctuation in their essays to make sure they hit the mark.

But the team does not obsess about and teach to the assessment, Jarrard said. “Reading stories, looking at stories, how they are crafted, we are doing that all year.”

Shipp said her classes include special education students and English-language learners, but the expectations are high for every child regardless of the writing skills they started with in fifth-grade.

Inspired by a visit to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Goodroe is known for transforming her classroom with props and decorations or dressing up in costume to make learning fun. In one instance she had her students study in tents and called her classroom “Camp Share-a-Story.”

The idea is to get Lake Joy fifth-graders to love writing as much as their three writing teachers, Shipp said.

“We make it fun, and they love it, and I think that’s going to carry them to college.”

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