A unique writing project that allowed students of all ages to share their stories helped Pleasant Hill Community School students see themselves as writers and build their literacy skills.
The Writing on the Hill project saw every student in pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 create a piece of writing and illustration that was compiled into a classroom book. Students learned how to share their stories, strengthen their writing skills and discovered more about their classmates.
"With this project I learned how to describe things that I didn't know before," said Emily Peepeetch, who was part of Pleasant Hill's Grade 7 classroom during the 2016-17 school year.
"Before the project my writing sentences were simple but then Mary Bishop read my work and told me to describe with more details. She asked me about colours and how things looked, so I added some descriptive words to make it more interesting. I also improved using punctuation and when two characters are speaking to each other. Overall, I thought the project helped me become a better writer."
The project was led by Pleasant Hill teacher Lloyd Laliberte and Mary Harelkin Bishop, a Saskatoon Public Schools literacy consultant and author, and included involvement from the entire teaching staff as part of the school-wide project. A grant from Dakota Dunes Development Corp. and support from Globe Printers allowed for the publishing of the book and provided a copy for each student.
"We were talking about why our students at Pleasant Hill were struggling to write and how we were having difficulty motivating and engaging them. We came to realize that they really didn't see themselves as writers. The question became: How can we help our students see themselves as writers?" Harelkin Bishop explained.
"We thought: what if we got the whole school involved so that from pre-K all the way to Grade 8 everybody was writing? It became our dream and we decided that each class would produce its own book so each student could see a piece of their writing and an illustration in that book."
Each classroom selected a theme and students engaged in the writing process with leadership from their teachers and Harelkin Bishop, who visited each class to talk about writing and being an author.
Students in Brad Gryba's Grade 6-7 class began with picture prompt. They discussed how pictures can tell a story and then each student worked at pulling their own story from the image.
"I found it really helpful to get their fluency up. Giving them an open-ended prompt like that didn't restrain them in what they could talk about or what kind of story they could tell," said Gryba, who was excited by his students' response to the project and the opportunity to see their work in a published form.
"It really encouraged them and made sure they put their best foot forward and did their best work. In previous assignments during the year I thought I had seen what was their best effort — their best work in writing — but given this opportunity to be a published author and to have some feedback from an author along the way really motivated them."
Student Soe Ka Kaw Naw said Writing on the Hill gave her and her classmates the opportunity to learn about the process involved in publishing a book while also improving their writing skills.
"I worked with my teacher Mr. Crowe and he helped me fix things to make my writing more interesting. There was lots to learn about editing before I could publish the book," she said. "I like that we got to choose our own topic for the book. We got to choose something from our own memory so I knew what to write. I also learned how to draw the picture of the school that would go with my story."
Turning individual classroom writing projects into published work is not unique, but the opportunity to include all of the school's students was something that excited students, families and staff members, said Principal Lisa Hynes.
"It was very collaborative right from the start and our students had a voice in making decisions about what they were going to write about," she said. "The teachers brainstormed with the kids and it's because they had some choice that they were really excited. Our younger students just couldn't believe that their work was going to be published, that their words, their illustrations were going to be in a book. They wanted to be part of something like that."
Hynes said the project required teamwork and brought friends and classmates together. Staff would overhear conversations between students talking about what they were writing about. It provided students with an opportunity to think about writing in different ways by exposing them to a variety of genres and gave them a chance to consider their voice, their audience and being an author.
"I was speaking to one student in Grade 8 and she was explaining to me that when she usually does writing assignments the writing is for herself or her teacher, and she is used to that. But in this case she really had to think about what other people are going to think about her work and the writing she has done. She wouldn't have gained that perspective had it not been writing that she was going to have published."
Putting their learning into action and having a published book as a symbol of their success engaged students and provided them with a deeper understanding of themselves as learners, Hynes said.
"I think the project gave our students more confidence in their writing. The students always speak about being wonderful readers. We assess their reading regularly, we talk lots about interventions for reading and this moved into their writing abilities," she said.
"It built up their confidence. They felt good about it and it really did have a big impact here on learning for our students."