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A system for writing

‘Step Up to Writing’ program unlocks the mysteries of creativity

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DENVER — A former middle-school teacher is quietly rewriting the book on how to teach writing.

Maureen Auman is armed with step-by-step procedures that break down the writing process into recipes children of all ages can follow. And she's taking by storm a state intent on improving scores on standardized tests that increasingly measure writing skills.

To the schools that pay $1,200 to $1,300 a day to learn about it, Auman's "Step Up to Writing" is a godsend, a down-to-earth method of conquering what many find one of the toughest and most elusive subjects to teach.

But to her critics, Auman is a bleak omen, an educator with the potential to persuade thousands of Colorado schoolchildren that writing an essay or a story requires little more than filling in the blanks.

To both groups, Auman openly admits she has never collected data to prove or disprove that her program works.

Officials in Colorado's three largest districts say they are unable to even estimate how many schools use Step Up, much less how well it works.

Asked whether her district had collected data on Step Up's effectiveness, Cherry Creek schools elementary education director Mary Terch said: "Because we use it in conjunction with other things, it's kind of difficult to pull that out. We certainly have had good results in schools that use the program. But we also have had good results in schools that use (the) Six Trait (writing program.)"

Like many programs in the closely knit K-12 education world, Step Up to Writing has spread almost purely through word of mouth.

"I have been going and going and going like the little Energizer bunny for so many years," said Auman, 53. "Doing a really conscientious looking at the data has not really happened."

To understand why, it is important to also understand how Step Up to Writing came about.

Auman's privately held Read-Write Connection company might have grown into a booming business with customers in more than 20 states and materials published and promoted by education group Sopris West.

But Auman is a teacher first.

In fact, the business that is now Read-Write Connection was born in the mid-80s when Auman was casting around for ways to better prepare her students for a district writing test.

"I just said to myself — this is the missing piece,' " Auman recalled. "I need to teach my kids organization."

From this, the building blocks of Step Up to Writing were born: Start with a sentence summarizing your topic.

Find at least two reasons, details or facts to back it up.

Add explanations.

Wrap it all up with a sentence that concludes.

Auman found the methods worked in her classroom. News spread throughout the school.

"People weren't threatened by it," Auman recalled. "From classroom to classroom, we had a common idea of what a decent set of notes looked like, what a decent paragraph looked like."

Auman's ideas spread to other middle schools and then elementary schools in the Denver area.

With input from the increasing numbers of teachers trained in her program, Auman's methods expanded, addressing everything from elementary school story-writing to high school term papers. At one conference, for instance, a teacher suggested using multicolor paper strips to describe different parts of a paragraph. The strips soon became one of Auman's hallmarks.

By 1998, Auman was spending so much time teaching her method to other teachers that she left to focus on her writing workshops full time.

On a sunny morning in southeast Denver, Virginia Hallock's class at Bradley Elementary is learning how to write in red, yellow and green.

The green paper strips mean "go." They're for introductory sentences. Yellow means slow down and back up the introduction with reasons. Red means stop. Stop and explain.

The strips lie in colorful bouquets on more than 20 little third-graders' desks.

A 30-year education veteran who has seen many an education fad, Hallock says Step Up is a fresh, practical approach that really works. She gives it much of the credit for the school's writing proficiency rates, which have increased since 1999 from 19 percent to 28 percent in grades three through six.

"It is so hard to teach writing to children," Hallock said. "Their minds flip from thing to thing. There's no cohesiveness to their work. The things they wrote before (Step Up) were lovely. It's just that they were not organized."

But Jacquie Swensson, Writing Center director at Metropolitan State College of Denver, says Step Up trains students in something besides organization. It trains them to fill in the blanks without thinking for themselves.

"There have been lots of studies showing this kind of formula is very limiting," Swensson said. "It's limiting in that students don't find places for their own ideas. They're too busy counting sentences in the paragraph."

Taught properly, Step Up works for all levels because it teaches youngsters to preserve organization without sacrificing creativity, Auman says. And this, she says, is much better than the creative writing workshops and free-form journaling that many educators used before.

"The method is not the end," says Aumon. "The idea is that the method is going to help kids internalize organization. I think the critics just look at what beginning writers are able to do and don't look beyond that. . . . I teach kids six different ways to start a story not because there are only six ways. If the kids know these six ways, they can think of other ways."