Writing — the other side of literacy

Photos courtesy of 826LA

826LA is an innovative community project designed to help K-12 students develop creative and expository writing skills and to help teachers better teach writing.

The nonprofit is one of six sites around the country that matches up volunteer tutors with local students. The overall mission of the project is based on the idea that one-on-one attention facilitates great learning and that writing is critical to success.

826LA has a special emphasis on English language learners and hosted an elementary ELL camp last summer. Colorín Colorado recently spoke with Julius Diaz Panoriñgan, programs assistant and summer program coordinator, about 826LA's outreach to English language learners.

About 826LA

Tell me about 826LA's ELL camp.

It was a three-day-a-week summer camp for first through fifth graders that ran for six weeks from 1 to 3 p.m. Our Valencia program started it, but it makes so much more sense in LA than maybe any other city in the country. LA has a lot of ELLs, and they're not just children.

In the summer, we don't have the drop-in tutoring that goes on during the school year and we don't have school kids coming to the center for field trips, so we're better able to focus on the camp by shifting the resources that were spent on the drop-in tutoring to the camp.

By concentrating all our resources and making the ELLs the biggest push, we're better able to run the workshops and make them immersive. This results in a lot of great things. We're able to have some ridiculous ratios of volunteers to kids, 1.5 kids to one volunteer, if not lower. There were definitely days when we had one-on-one.

How is the camp structured?

Our focus is writing. Reading and speaking play a role, of course, but it's mostly about writing.

A lot of what we do with the students is based around projects. We're very serious about the projects that we do. While we definitely have things we're trying to accomplish with the process of the project, every project has its own purpose, too. It's a nice complement to official curriculum, and it's a great way for them to gain some skills without really realizing it.

For them to participate fully in school, they need to develop [literacy skills] at a young age. And we do that development with project-based learning. So for us, it's all about the project.

Tell me about some of the projects.

We set the camp up as a fictional publishing company, Mr. Barnacle's Writing Camp.

Our fictional publisher was writing a book about pirates, so we had the kids write down 10 things about that they knew about pirates. On the second day, we had the kids write letters. Sometimes in classrooms, letters can be passed off as practicing for the sake of practicing, and it's not what it could be. But we told them right off the bat that we were going to mail these letters.

They were writing to a pirate whose ship was the "Scary Closet." They wrote the letter and put them in bottles. We told them we would throw them in the ocean.

This was more playful than one of our usual weeks, but they did learn to write letters. We didn't say this is the salutation, body, or closing, but we showed them the elements.

We also explained that you have to get the form right so it's not lost in the maritime postal service, and they learned how to address an envelope. Of course it was curled around a bottle, but they were properly addressed.

Did the children get replies to their letters?

Yes, as a matter of fact, they did. We had a volunteer come in, dressed as a pirate, and the kids were able to interview him. We taught them about basic interview questioning forms. They learned about leading questions, open-ended questions, things like that.

Tell me about another project.

Our second day project was writing for pets. We talked about the importance of knowing your audience and writing for a purpose. So they wrote stories for pets. Even if they don't have down the finer points of English, a dog — or a goldfish — can enjoy their story.

We also did a small unit on filmmaking. We had the kids write a script for a commercial. Scripts exist to be filmed, so we filmed them. Everything we filmed was tied into what they wrote, so it's relevant to them.

When we get the kids excited, when they care about the final thing, there's genuine motivation.

How do these projects help their English skills?

We create a really immersive environment, which goes really well with project-based learning. Even when the kids aren't as confident in English, they see the project coming together and it's very hands-on.

We think the project-based approach works because they see the outcome, not just the process, and they're willing to work through the process, to get to the payoff at the end. It just feels less like a drill when they see an end result.

Do you see this as different from what happens in school?

It's different in school. In school, you're made to feel different. You get pulled out of class to go work on English. But here, it's about confidence building, and showing them they can do it.

We have kids at varying levels of proficiency, this last summer we had kids who were pretty obviously ELL kids and others that you would never know had not spoken English all their lives. But it shows them they can work with a variety of kids and being comfortable with that. They didn't feel apart from others. Everyone was doing the same thing regardless of their language skills.

What do you think is the biggest thing they take away from the camp?

Well, literally, they take away their own book. We have a story-making session that's all about encouraging kids to write. This is the very first day. The class collaborates on two-thirds of a book, then they each write their own ending.

We have volunteers at computers, to write down their story endings. We have the words projected up on a wall so they can literally see the writing process and we have someone else who is illustrating their story. We have a binding machine and print out the text and pictures. By the end of the day, every kid walks out with their own book.

To learn more about this organization and their efforts, visit the 826LA Homepage.

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