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Teachers know best when it comes to writing

June 26, 2012

“Can a classroom feel like home?

“Can a person feel safe to write?

“Think about the word ‘home.’ Create a list of words that remind you of home. Write what a home looks like, sounds like and feels like.

“Imagine not having a home.”

Little by little, Antonio Bryant leads his class into a writing exercise. Before they know it, the students are putting words on paper, and creating a story.

A true scenario, but Bryant’s students are not elementary school pupils, but teachers from the Phoenix area who have gathered to learn new ways of teaching students to write.

The 20 teachers, ranging from kindergarten to college, are part of the summer 2012 Central Arizona Writing Project Summer Institute sponsored by Arizona State University and the National Writing Project. Bryant teaches fifth grade at ASU Preparatory Academy.

The invitation-only institute, part of the National Writing Project (NWP), takes place for three weeks each June. For three hours a day, the invited writing teachers gather to present workshops, such as Bryant’s, on how to teach writing, to write themselves, and to reflect on how they can use what they have learned in their own classrooms.

Jessica Early, an assistant professor of English at ASU, who directs the institute, said ASU faculty experts, such as James Blasingame, Laura Turchi, Christina Saidy and Sara Duerden, also come and speak to the teachers.

Teaching teachers

The core principle of the NWP, and the institute, is that “teachers are teaching teachers,” said Early.

That philosophy grew out of the experiences of James Gray, founder of the NWP. In his memoir, “Teachers at the Center,” Gray describes his first year as a teacher of English and literature, which was a total disaster, and his gradual realization that administrators could not – and should not – tell teachers how to do their jobs.

As he moved on in his career, first teaching in high school and then at the University of California, Berkeley, Gray was invited to teach a workshop for the National Defense Education Act in Hawaii. The audience was to be successful classroom teachers from throughout Hawaii, and despite what he had learned, Gray decided to “teach the teachers.”

“About halfway through my course, I sensed that all was not right,” he wrote. “I became increasingly troubled. There were tensions in the classroom. And then something clicked, and I knew what I should have known all along. I tried to make amends. I asked two or three teachers if they would like to demonstrate something they had had success with in the classroom. But it was too late; I had waited too long and had given off too many wrong signals. There was no great interest on the teachers’ part in doing anything at all.”

Gray said he vowed that if he had the chance again, he would “never again work with a group of respected teachers as if I were the lone expert.” In the early 1970s, Gray launched the Bay Area Writers Project, which led to the founding of the National Writing Project.

ASU’s CAWP, which includes a summer institute for young writers, is one of more than 200 NWP sites across the country, Early said. “The Summer Institute received its initial funding from NWP through federal funding, but this funding stream was cut in 2011. Since then, the NWP has received funding through Title II seed money and has continued its support for writing project sites like CAWP across the country through much smaller and quite competitive seed grants.”

This year’s Summer Institute is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Women & Philanthropy program in the ASU Foundation for a New American University and NWP funds left from previous years. Early was just awarded a $20,000 grant through the NWP to fund the 2013 summer institute.

The enrollment is capped at 20, and teachers must be invited to attend. Recommendations come from past participants, Early said, “and we also contact schools that are low-income and ethnically diverse.”

The institute strives for diversity within the 20 teachers, from depth of experience to school location. “We want the majority to have a lot of experience. And we want teachers from all over the Valley,” Early said.

Participants don’t necessarily have to be writing teachers, she added. “They can teach any grade and any subject.”
Teachers are interviewed, and asked to submit “a pretty extensive resume.” All the participants come to an orientation a month before the institute, and they are assigned “homework,” Early said. “We give them a book on writing and a journal, and encourage them to write every day.”

CAWP pays for each participant to earn up to three credits for the institute, or they can elect to receive one credit and a stipend.

Research on teaching writing

Once the institute is over, the teachers stay involved, Early said. “They will be ‘teacher leaders’ in their districts, and they will come back for fall and spring ‘renewal’ workshops.”

The teachers also will participate in local and national writing and research projects sponsored by CAWP and NWP, such as teaching college admission essay workshops at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix to help bring more writing into the school’s curriculum.

Another such project is the Family Writing Project for students, parents and siblings, which was organized three years ago by Early and Tracey Flores, a co-director of CAWP, at Landmark Elementary School in Phoenix. Flores has moved to the Glendale School District and started family writing projects there, and now five teachers from the current institute plan to start projects at their own schools in the coming year.

Teachers who have participated in the summer institutes also have led research groups on various topics, such as incorporating digital technology into writing lessons, which was led by CAWP co-director Debra La Plante.

“These research groups were funded by CAWP through the National Writing Project and ASU Women & Philanthropy,” Early said. “My research findings on teaching the college admission essay have appeared in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Educational Leadership, and The Journal of Writing Research.

“The findings from the other groups have been presented at national conferences, including the National Council of Teachers of English Conference, the National Writing Project Rural Sites Network Conference, the National Writing Project Annual Conference, the Writing Research Across Borders International Conference, and the Arizona English Teachers Association Conference.

“Ten teachers from CAWP will be presenting for the third year in a row at the Arizona English Teachers Association Conference (AETA) in September on the ASU Poly campus. Funds from CAWP and the Women & Philanthropy will also support all of the teachers from the summer institute to attend the AETA Conference,” Early said.

Diversity is key

ASU's Central Arizona Writers Project also has been recognized by NWP for conducting faculty workshops on English as a Second Language. Flores and La Plante presented at the 2010 National Writing Project Annual Conference and 2010 National Writing Project Rural Sites Network Conference based on the work related to the Family Writing Project and the English Language Learner (ELL) Boys Writing Group.

“I also presented with Debra and Tracey at the 2011 National Conference of Teachers of English on our work with the Family Writing Project at two different elementary schools in Phoenix and Debra La Plante on her ELL Boys Writing Group,” Early said.

And, NWP has invited Early to present her research on teaching real-world and gate-opening writing at a conference in Golden, Col., at the end of July as part of the supporting effective educator development (seed) grant focused on online learning.

The online learning project will serve as a companion to Early’s forthcoming book, “Opening the Gates: Creating Real World Writing Opportunities for Diverse Students,” written with co-author Meredith DeCosta.

As evidenced by the NWP’s focus on teachers from kindergarten through college, writing instruction is important for all students, not just gifted ones, Early said. “Writing is a neglected art in K-12, and it’s where our students are struggling the most. Too often, rigorous and ‘interesting writing’ are taught in AP classes, while others are taught ‘test-prep’ writing.

“It’s important that students learn diverse forms of writing,” Early added. “Once the students get into high school most of their writing is done in English classes. But that writing is not suitable for college and the workplace. There, they want what NWP is targeting – more real-world writing.”

When should you start teaching children to write? “The earlier, the better,” said Early, whose own daughter, Lucca, age 3, is already learning some basics.

“My husband and I are starting to teach her writing by showing her how we write different things throughout the day (i.e. grocery lists, email, text messages, letters, books, articles, birthday cards, etc.). I also give her lots of opportunities to use pens and pencils and paper in her pretend play (we pretend restaurant and she takes my order with a pen or pencil and paper).

“She practices signing her name (it looks like scribbles right now, but this is an early stage of learning to write) every morning on a sheet of paper when she gets to her preschool. I also have her come visit my office on campus and she sits at my desk and pretends to write using my computer keyboard. She draws and paints and colors all the time, and all of these things are helpful in early writing development."