English MATTERS — SPRING 2012


Thirty-three Years of

Teachers Teaching Teachers

by Robert McNamara and Janine Brodine, PSWP Directors

The Puget Sound Writing Project (PSWP) provides professional development for K-12 teachers, both through summer institutes and through contract work with schools and districts. For the past 33 years, it has been supported by the UW Department of English and is a major contributor to the Department’s community outreach efforts.

While the writing institutes offered by PSWP vary in length and have been offered in various Western Washington locations, all are guided by principles shared by National Writing Project sites, including the beliefs that becoming a writer can make one a better teacher of student writers and that teachers can best teach other teachers successful classroom strategies.

For these reasons, every class session begins with 45 minutes of independent writing time. The participants spend their time writing about whatever interests them: Some write articles, others poems, sections of novels or memoirs. One participant, Jennifer Bradbury, worked on a novel for young adults. Though she didn’t publish that novel, her PSWP experience gave her the confidence to write another novel that was published three years after the institute.

While the morning writing allows teachers to pursue any writing interest, the teachers are also given assigned writing, which includes critical summaries of research articles, action research papers based on classroom research, and reflections on their own writing process. In the longer institutes, participants develop inquiry questions which they pursue over the course of the following school year.

Participants wouldn’t fully experience themselves as writers without the experience of sharing and getting responses to their writing. Twice a week, the class divides into writing groups of four participants to read their work aloud and to respond to each other’s work using a protocol that encourages both positive and constructive feedback, a procedure we hope the teachers will take back into their classrooms.

In addition to working as writers, participants also teach each other strategies that they have found successful for teaching writing. For example, during the 2011 Invitational Institute, a third-grade teacher presented on ARMS, a revision strategy, which introduces students to the different activities that make up revising: adding, removing, moving and substituting. A math teacher presented on Box and Whisker Charts, which foregrounded how she uses writing in teaching her students to understand and use these important statistical tools. Presentations always include some writing and are followed by reflection. Of particular importance are the questions: How might I use this approach in my classroom? How did it impact me as a writer?

Despite demanding expectations, PSWP alums frequently say, “This is the best professional development I’ve ever had.” National research has also shown this model of professional development to be successful. Between 2007 and 2011, PSWP participated in one of these studies, training teachers in one Northwest middle school while teachers in a demographically comparable school received no training. In the school where teachers were trained by PSWP, the scores on the state exam went up by 15%, while in the control school scores dropped by 5%.

Like several other established literacy programs, the National Writing Project had its federal funding cut effective June 2012, a cut which was passed on to all local sites including PSWP. To help replace the lost funding, we are seeking donations to our endowment fund. For more information please visit our website at http://depts.washington.edu/pswpuw/.

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