Local teacher embarks on grant-winning project

Published 10:04 pm Monday, March 26, 2018

The Virginia State Reading Association awarded a Suffolk elementary school teacher with a $700 grant to help improve the writing skills of her students.

Melissa Phillips, a fifth-grader teacher at Oakland Elementary School, received the grant to carry out her project called “Taking the Right Steps: Remedying Fifth Grade Writing with WriteSteps,” according to her application form.

She cosigned the application with King’s Fork Middle School teacher and local council president Valerie Smith in December and first got the news that she was selected among the statewide applicants from Smith.

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“She told me to call her right away. I was like, ‘It’s a bit late,’ but she said, ‘No, you need to call,” Phillips said with a laugh.

Her project will use WriteSteps, an online writing and grammar program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, along with other materials for students to use on their Chromebooks.

The 12-month program will be implemented next school year and will also be available to students the following summer as they prepare for middle school. Phillips believes her plan will help her students correct frequent writing mistakes she sees her students make more and more in her decade of experience at the school.

“Time dedicated to fifth-grade writing instruction and practice has become less of a priority since the removal of the fifth-grade SOL, and, unfortunately, this weakness moves vertically from the lower elementary grades,” she wrote in her application.

Data will be collected throughout the 2018 to 2019 school year as WritingSteps becomes part of the Language Arts curriculum in one out of three fifth-grade classes.

Students in the classes will be given a writing prompt and 20 multiple-choice questions this September, and their written responses will be evaluated. They will be tested once again in June 2019 with a different writing prompt and new questions.

The scores on both the fall and spring assessments will be compared between the class using WritingSteps and the classes without the program. Her theory is that the WritingSteps students will improve their scores by at least 20 percent.

“Students will gain confidence as well as develop increased engagement while significantly improving their grammar, mechanics and usage,” Phillips wrote.

Phillips inspires her students to write in class with “wacky picture prompts.” One recent prompt had illustrations of a bucket of army men, a leprechaun and a broken violin, she said.

“You take those wacky things and build a story out of them,” she said.

It’s not just about helping the students test better at the end of the next school year, Phillips said. She also wants these writing comprehension routines to help her students find their own voice in their writing.

“It’s becoming a lost art, but it shouldn’t be,” she said.