by Nina M. Riccio, M.A.’09
It wasn’t the quality of the staff, the leadership of the principal, or the preparedness of the students, but the teachers at Fairfield’s Mill Hill School just couldn’t seem to move their kids forward in writing. Out of frustration, the principal asked one of her second grade teachers to lead the initiative to design a better approach to teaching writing.
“She chose me because I had published a children’s book,” Barbara Mariconda, M.A.’85 said of that day 18 years ago. In fact, Mariconda had written a series of children’s books, all part of her master’s thesis in communication at Fairfield. “But as I began to assess the instruction of writing, I realized that, in all my education courses I had never learned how to teach the craft of writing. And that made me realize that other teachers hadn’t either.”
So Mariconda set out to right that wrong, using the skills she had gleaned in her writing courses and creating a methodology to teach teachers how to get the concepts and skills of good writing across to their students. “My approach was to have the students look at their writing in small chunks, to have teachers model aloud the thought process a writer uses, and to have them use vocabulary that empowers self-expression. I think students often know more than they can articulate,” said Mariconda.
Fortunately for Mariconda, her partner in the classroom, Dea Paoletta Auray ’88, was a dynamic young teacher and a fellow Fairfield grad. “Because I was brand new, I wasn’t afraid to say I didn’t know something, or that a lesson didn’t seem to be working,” Auray said. Both agree that candor and collaboration were essential in helping them create the best possible program.
After five years of writing, rewriting, testing, and tweaking their approach, the results were nothing short of astounding – students jumped 47 points on the Connecticut Mastery Test for writing, with 92 percent of them at or exceeding goal. “I was delighted, but not really surprised,” said Mariconda, noting that they had watched the scores increase steadily for years. “The scores reflected what we’d seen in the classroom and the fact that we’d really become a community of writers.”
If there’s one thing that teachers do, it’s talk shop. Soon, word of the exciting new writing instruction at Mill Hill spread all through Connecticut, and Mariconda and Auray found themselves in demand as speakers at schools across the state.
“We were teachers, not business people. We didn’t have tremendous vision in that we didn’t see the scope of what this could be,” Auray admitted as she recalled those days. But the program the two of them created, Empowering Writers, began to take on a life of its own. About that time, Mariconda was planning for a leave of absence to work on a novel and Auray was preparing for maternity leave. During their respective leaves they co-authored their first professional book on narrative writing.
Neither one has ever returned to the classroom. They’ve now been in business 13 years, with regional offices across the country staffed by former teachers who are as passionate about teaching teachers as they are. The Empowering Writers program has been used by thousands of teachers in states across the country and in Canada, and Auray and Mariconda are often on the road conducting training sessions or giving presentations at teacher conferences.
Juggling the growth of the business is one skill she learned at Fairfield, where she was studying business management and marketing. Though Auray said her focus was more social than scholastic in those days, all those business production and accounting courses have come into play in the office, where she handles the commercial end of things. “We used to do everything together, but that’s
really not efficient. Fortunately, we have complete trust in each other,” said Mariconda, who takes the lead on new development (the two now have 30 books, DVDs, flip charts, and other teacher’s aids in the Empowering Writers series) and maintaining the website.
“The push in school is to write across the curriculum,” said Auray, adding “good writing is not so much about writing a lot. It’s about clear thinking and having the skills to express that on the page.”
For more about the Empowering Writers program, visit www.empoweringwriters.com.