Grab a pen, it's time to write

Teachers share writing expertise during summer workshop

Grade school teacher Scotty Clark doesn't hesitate to tell a colleague where her writing belongs: "in the compost pile."

That's how educators here at the Maine Writing Project suggest that someone's work needs to gel, and it's just the kind of encouragement they expect from each other.

The project draws teachers from around the state who spend a month every summer doing what they rarely have a chance to -share techniques, network, and hone their writing skills.

When they're done, they go back to their classrooms with a notebook's worth of ideas and newfound enthusiasm.

"It has reenergized me and refocused me on my role as a writing teacher," says Barbara Malm, a third- and fourth-grade teacher from Blue Hill. "It's been well worth all those July days,and that's saying a lot."

Each summer, K-12 and university educators across the United States grab pens and paper and take part in programs like this one, modeled after the National Writing Project (NWP).

What began in 1973 over concern about the writing ability of incoming freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, has evolved into a nationwide effort to promote good writing instruction -one that has served more than 2 million educators.

All but three states have writing projects; many have more than one. Local educators are in charge of the 161 sites, typically hosted by universities and tailored to meet community needs. The NWP, partially supported by the US government, provides some funding. The rest is supplied locally.

The idea, say organizers, is to improve the second of the 3 Rs by going to the source: getting successful teachers to teach each other what works in the classroom. It's an approach that keeps educators up to date at a time when state standards and student needs are rapidly changing.

"It's always relevant because it's always dealing with whatever's current," says Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, co-director of the NWP, based in Berkeley, Calif.

California, the cradle of the NWP, hosts the most sites - 16. Sheridan Blau, director of the 20-year old South Coast Writing Project in Santa Barbara, says the way writing is taught in California -from state assessments to daily assignments -has been influenced by the projects. Other states are being similarly influenced.

Maine's three-year-old project is one of the newest in the NWP fold, but already its fellows are changing perceptions about public education. "I realized that there are some incredibly powerful, wonderful things happening in public schools that we are not hearing about," says Lori Power, a past participant, who teaches writing at the University of New England in Biddeford.

What could I be doing better?

Jeffrey Wilhelm, director of the site at the University of Maine, says the project accepts only strong teachers, but ones who may be asking, "What could I be doing better?"

"After you've taught writing for a while," says special-ed teacher Erin Woodsome, "you realize ... you can only get so far. There are things you need to figure out to help kids."

This year, enthusiasm is high among educators during the project's fourth and final week, despite full-day sessions and hours of nightly homework. Many of the activities mirror current trends in writing instruction - group work, peer involvement, and lots of revision.

Teachers meet in small groups to discuss books by leading experts, and what works in the classroom: things like giving children a special place to write -near a window or in a cubicle -and the advantages of notebooks for jotting down ideas.

But it's the demonstrations that resonate the most. Ken Martin, an English teacher in Harrington, is planning to rework his curriculum based on what he's heard. A lesson given by a colleague on using literature logs - where students read books of their choice and then write entries to teachers and students about what they've read -gave him fresh ideas.

Educators also engage in a lively town meeting as an example of how to prompt kids to formulate arguments; in another room, teachers sprawl on the floor coloring. Wendy Sutherland says she has her sixth-grade students draw symbols from their writing when they are refining, to help them clarify central ideas.

While students taught by writing-project teachers have shown improvement over the years, the skills of US students overall need work. Long-term writing trends tracked by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that between 1984 and 1996, scores for 11th-graders declined, while those for students in Grades 4 and 8 were unchanged.

Investment in teachers

The bottom line, say advocates, is that better student writers will come with better development and use of teachers. "We put our kids in classrooms with teachers - not with computers or a series of books," says Ms. Eidman-Aadahl.

The NWP approach of tapping teacher knowledge makes sense, given the expertise available in today's professionally older teaching force, says Vicki Jacobs, who's been involved with Boston-area projects and is associate director of the Teacher Education Program at Harvard.

For many of the teachers in the Maine project, the toughest part is the writing they do themselves. But they recognize its importance. "If I'm going to be a better writing teacher, I need to be a better writer myself," says Darlene Armstrong, a first-grade teacher.

In the end, teachers earn graduate credit, the opportunity to conduct workshops in schools -and a permanent slot in what fellows describe as a family. "I would do this again in a heartbeat," says high school teacher Jan Kwiatkowsky. "It's been one of the richest experiences of my life."


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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