Forget notebook paper, Newport News students write on their desks
Jan 02, 2013 (Daily Press (Newport News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
On a recent morning at Palmer Elementary School, fourth-grader Emily Harless and her classmates tackled six division problems, working them out step by step. But there were no pencils or papers in sight.
The students in Danielle Bojung's class wrote the math problems on their desks using washable markers. Each child wielded a marker and desks were covered with numbers and symbols in red, black, green, orange, purple and blue.
"It's easier than pencil," said 9-year-old Emily. "All you do is use your finger to erase instead of flipping your pencil. You have lots of room unless you write big."
Writing on desks, once forbidden behavior in school, has become the norm in several elementary classrooms across Newport News Public Schools, said Brian Nichols, division executive director of school leadership. He first saw the strategy in action a few years ago at Hidenwood Elementary School when he was principal there.
"I had a teacher who didn't have white boards and wanted every kid to show their work, so she used the desks," Nichols said. "Great ideas spread pretty quickly. Children write on their desks at about half the elementary schools in Newport News."
Erase with a fingertip
Palmer first-grade teacher Dena Janowski learned about the strategy from a colleague. "That's a genius idea," she thought and incorporated it into her teaching.
Just before holiday break her students were working on sequences and patterns during their math lesson. Janowski worked with a small group at a half-circle table, drawing patterns with blanks and having them complete the strings. Other students worked together at a central table, drawing patterns down its length.
"The first time they did it, they were puzzled," she said of her students. "They asked, are we really allowed to write on our desks
"Now they ask constantly," she said.
Principal Gary Black and Janowski said the strategy offers several advantages. Students do not have to worry about staying within lines or tearing their paper. If they make an error or want to rethink a word or number, they can erase with a sponge, cloth or fingertip.
"It gives students the freedom to write any way they want to," he said.
On a recent day before the holiday break, students were using their desks as writing surfaces in three Palmer classrooms. In each room, all students were engaged in the lesson.
"See what they know"
In the fourth-grade math lesson, students wrote out acronyms and multiplication tables next to their division problems. Some students neatly sectioned their desks into six squares, one for each problem, while other students used the entire desk to tackle the problems one at a time.
Black, Janowski and third-grade teacher Laura Archer said desk writing offers teachers an immediate assessment of whether students have grasped a lesson or concept.
"I can walk around and see who gets it," Archer said. "It's an adjunct to my teaching."
"It's easy. It's quick. You can instantly see what they know," Janowski said.
Teachers said they can adjust their lessons on the fly after scanning their students' desks.
"They can enrich and extend the lesson," challenging students, or "they can intervene," with students who struggle, said Nichols. "You can see where the breakdown or connections are."
"By making them write out the problem and solve it, you can see how they arrive at answers," he added. That will be helpful for students with the state's new Standards of Learning tests, which require students to show how they arrive at answers.
"It's beyond getting the right answer," Nichols said. "It's how do you know it is right."
"We need further insights"
Students also say the strategy helps them. Emily said when she and her classmates get stuck, they can turn to neighbors and work together to see where the problems are.
"We can all see what we're doing," she said.
The practice appears to be a grass-roots strategy. An Internet search turned up school and blog posts and Facebook pages from teachers across the nation, touting the advantages. Posts included photographs of high school students drawing maps, making notes during chemistry labs and plotting math problems. But few scholarly articles and little research has been posted.
"It kind of grows out of the curriculum shift," Nichols said. "We need further insight into how students arrive at answers."
Watching students write on their desks helps teachers gain that information. Nichols also said student assessments show they retain skills and information better when they use their desks as writing surfaces.
Black said the strategy has made a difference in his school. Teachers use desk-writing in conjunction with lessons shared on interactive whiteboards, blending high and low technology. Students still use papers, notebooks and pencils, and laptops and desk computers, he said. But writing on desks has become part of the school day.
Black said he wished he had known of the strategy when he taught math.
And Nichols, who applauds the practice, noted the change in attitude toward the strategy as he harked back to his own experiences as a student: "I used to get in trouble for writing on desks."
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