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Project helps teacher develop "write" stuff


July 03, 2007

It sounds like a retreat for the next generation of Great American Novelists – a project that enables forty educators to spend three weeks sharing their poetry and stories, conversing with celebrated authors, and honing their craft through critique groups and regular revision sessions.

But for the elementary, junior high, and high school teachers participating in the Mesa Writing Project, a project developed by ASU and Mesa Public Schools District (MPS), the skills they are learning will help them achieve much more than a Pulitzer Prize. By practicing techniques used by professional writers, these educators learn better strategies for teaching writing and awakening a true passion for writing in their students.

“The Mesa Writing Project is something we’ve wanted to do for years,” states Laura Walsh, the Secondary Language Arts Specialist for MPS and co-director of the project. “So many teachers have been telling us they were never taught how to teach writing and weren’t getting the professional development they wanted.”

Darcy Reede-Caron, Library Services Specialist for MPS, agrees, adding that today’s schools teach writing primarily to help students produce better answers on exams. While this product-centered approach may enhance test scores, it does not encourage students to develop writing skills for understanding and communicating new ideas.

Concerned, Walsh voiced these problems at a meeting for ASU’s Educational Partnership Beta Project, a collaboration between the ASU Office for Education Partnerships and MPS. Her words caught the attention of Dr. Jim Blasingame, an associate professor of English and coordinator of the English language arts effort of the Beta Project, who partnered with Walsh and Reede-Caron to develop the project.

“Mesa schools provide the real world laboratory in which to apply the instructional approaches and content knowledge we teach at the university,” states Blasingame. “And the real world expertise of Mesa’s veteran teachers helps us field-test the best approaches and modify them to fit the classroom.”

Every day in the three-week long project finds teachers writing and revising a variety of poems, personal narratives, and short stories to gain the skills needed to teach writing. Teachers also share their assignments with fellow participants during regular feedback sessions and contribute daily blog entries on the Beta Project web site.

As teachers grow more adept at writing, their work can grow quite intense. During one feedback session, participants shared poems about leaving abusive relationships and the pain of watching a loved one succumb to drug use. Such experiences reveal the powerful ways writing can help one acknowledge and communicate thoughts and feelings, making educators more passionate about teaching such techniques in their classrooms.

“Once teachers take the same risks with writing they ask their students to take, they develop more empathy with students,” says Kathy Deakin, an ASU graduate student getting a PhD in English Education who helps facilitate the program. She finds that by participating in writing activities, teachers also become more confident about teaching such exercises.

Teachers also listen to many guest speakers including ASU writing professors, poets, and authors, who share their experiences with and strategies for writing. Blasingame’s work as co-editor of The Alan Review and review editor of The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy also enables him to invite many celebrated speakers including award-winning Chicano author and poet Gary Soto and acclaimed science writer Sneed Collard.

“Listening to these authors has been amazing,” states Lindsay Karges, a third grade teacher from Eisenhower Elementary School. “Gary Soto was here and I was shocked to hear him say he can be very insecure about whether or not his audience would like his work. I’m going to take this back to my students and let them know that even celebrated authors don’t always feel they have the best writing or can accomplish all that they do, but they write anyway. I think that’s very empowering for students to hear.”

While many participants in the project are English teachers, several specialize in different content areas such as social studies, science, and physical education. Such diversity is important for the participants, who want to develop a cross-curricular approach to teaching writing.

“I teach fitness classes which are about developing lifetime fitness habits,” says Barb Anderes, a physical education teacher from Westwood High School, who requires her students to keep journals and write essays about their lessons. “I think writing helps my students process information better – the lessons become more of who you are. And if my students see reading and writing involved in different areas, they’ll see reading and writing as part of their lives and not something you stop doing after high school.”

Matt Post, a general science teacher from Shepherd Junior High, will incorporate writing activities into his lessons by assigning students to write essays from the perspective of scientists such as Galileo to articulate early theories on the universe.

“Students need to understand there’s more to science than doing experiments – to communicate in science, we need to read and write effectively,” he states.

Beyond improving their writing and teaching skills, participating in the Mesa Writing Project creates opportunities for teachers to interact with educators from both elementary and secondary schools. This enables teachers to build professional relationships between grade levels and inform educators about the writing skills students must acquire early in their education to avoid re-teaching basic skills in higher grades.

“I’ve seen kindergarten teachers talking with tenth grade teachers about how they fight the same battles with getting students interested in writing and teaching them grammar skills,” says Deakin. “It’s very gratifying to see these teachers meet in a collaborative setting and realize they can work together to ensure their students’ success.”

Once the three-week project ends, both ASU and MPS will continue to support the teachers. All of the writing lessons will be shared on ASU’s Beta Project web site, providing new resources for educators. Mesa teachers will also continue working with Blasingame and his graduate students on a follow-up study that will assess improvements in their writing lessons through surveys and student writing samples.

Many teachers feel responsible for sustaining the project by sharing what they have learned with their colleagues and encouraging their schools to incorporate new writing strategies into their curriculums.

“I think we’re the ambassadors for the Mesa district and that the image of the Mesa Writing Project we take back to the schools and the information we share are going to spark more interest in the project,” states Karges.

Mesa Writing Project is a subset of ASU’s Educational Partnership Beta Project. All teaching strategies shared in the project are based on current state standards for writing. Teachers participating in the program are offered the choice of earning 6 ASU graduate credits, 6 salary credits from MPS, or a $1340.00 stipend. For more information about the project, as well as other teaching resources, please visit the Beta Project web site.