Connected Learning Content-Area Literacy Professional Learning

Exploring Ongoing Questions About Content Area Literacy and NWP Sites

When site leaders from sites around the country met online over a period of two weeks in 2008 to explore how to include more content area teachers in their local writing project work, a number of provocative issues emerged.

Do content area teachers see the summer institute as a writers’ retreat where they would have to establish their professional identity as a “writer”? If so, how can this perception be changed? These and other compelling questions were front and center in Recruiting and Supporting Content Area Teachers in Writing Projects, where 25 site leaders from 15 sites gathered in the online space Tapped In to ponder the possibilities and challenges that sites face in recruiting and retaining content area teachers.

The goals of Recruiting and Supporting Content Area Teachers in Writing Project Sites were:

  • To share our thoughts about and experiences with content area literacy
  • To identify ways that writing project sites can attract and expand the participation of content area teachers in site activities
  • To identify ways we could recognize and integrate the work of content area teachers more fully into local writing project sites
  • To identify ways to use the NWP network as a resource for building and disseminating knowledge about content area literacy.

The Start: What Is Content Area Literacy?

The participants began by establishing some common ground. As an introduction, they all read portraits of content area literacy instruction (PDF), written by content area teacher-consultants who had detailed ways that reading and writing were key to the learning goals they and their students had set.

For instance, history teacher David Gribben of Bronx International High School, a member of the New York City Writing Project, commented that “writing in a journal is essential in history. It forces students to think about history and themselves—makes it personal.”

Brad Martin, a biology teacher at Corning Union High School in Corning, California, and a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project, explained the importance of “writing to learn” in his life science class. “The writings in life science are used to help students put vocabulary into the context of a written response….I look for understanding or misconceptions within their writing.”

For math teacher Kim Donegan, who teaches at Centennial High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, and is a teacher-consultant with the Colorado State Writing Project, writing is important in teaching this most abstract of school subjects.

“My daily writing activity,” says Donegan, “involves a word that is pertinent to that day’s lesson. Each day the students are given the prompt ‘What does ______ mean?’ [for instance ‘slope’]. Their job is to give me a ‘real life’ definition of the word, not something that would be found in the math glossary. Then I relate the definitions students share to the actual math definition.”

After reading these portraits, event participants were asked to consider what is the same and what is different in the uses of reading and writing across grades and disciplines.

Robin Atwood of South Mississippi Writing Project acknowledged the complexity of this question in her response: “In the content areas, reading and writing are used more as tools for making meaning, for digging more deeply, for constructing and conveying knowledge. In other words, you’re not studying the reading and writing processes themselves so much as you’re using them to make meaning of a particular discipline.”

Kristen Van Dusen of Maine emphasized that her business and work skill students need to become familiar with many genres—from emails to purchase orders to textbooks. In her ideal school, “the first week would be devoted to a textbook preview—i.e., ‘This is how your chemistry book is set up and here’s how you should read it.’” Christine Wolfe told of a shop teacher—a teacher-consultant from Pittsburgh—who has students create a PowerPoint presentation introducing the class to a machine they like.

Ed Osterman of the facilitation team followed up by suggesting that “we may need to point out how much writing is involved in new online forums. Perhaps we also need to explore some new questions related to technology use: What does it mean to compose online or use online forums to communicate and publish our work? How does it differ from more traditional forms of literacy?”

What Works in Content Area Literacy Professional Development?

Participants offered examples of their successes with content area professional development. The importance of mentor texts and samples of student work was emphasized by Jennifer Bernhard and Lisa Antoniou of the Eastern Kentucky University Writing Project. Antoniou writes, “I recently did a [professional development session] for my faculty for one hour after school in which I showed them how to incorporate a learning log into their classroom with [“writing to learn”] strategies. I provided them with examples of student work in a learning log from each content area.”

Providing ideas for sustained professional development with content area literacy, Diane Dougherty of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project shared her site’s successful work with Literacy Tuesdays, “a two-year partnership with a school district where teacher-consultants conducted in-school workshops with ALL teachers….Over time we did see a change in the culture of the school. Teachers began talking about literacy, sharing strategies and resources. This year teachers themselves (fellows of the Writing Project) have taken over these Literacy Tuesdays.”

Looking at sites’ professional development efforts in content area literacy also revealed the obstacles that many sites face in trying to include and learn from content area teachers. Frustration ran high among participants with administrators’ requests for the “one-shot workshop” and the “quick fix” for content area teachers.

Does Your Summer Institute Work for Content Area Teachers?

According to online event participants, attracting content area teachers to the summer institute proves to be difficult, even though many sites are doing professional development workshops for these teachers.

Participants asked whether content area teachers saw the summer institute as a writers’ retreat where they would have to establish their professional identity as a “writer.” This discussion led to a wealth of suggestions for rethinking the way summer institutes work and recruit:

  • The summer institute can make greater use and display of content area articles and journals.
  • There might be less emphasis on the writing of personal narratives and more on writing-to-learn activities.
  • We should look again at our sites’ websites and promotional materials: What would content area teachers notice? What wouldn’t they see?
  • We could develop a mentoring program to support content area participants as they design their summer institute demonstrations.

Is There “Another Way In” to Your Writing Project Site?

Perhaps, participants speculated, another solution to the problem of attracting content area teachers would be to find “more entry points to the writing project than just the summer institute.” This suggestion led again to a wealth of ideas for change:

  • Offer a one- or two-week institute in content area literacy that focuses on content area teacher-consultants.
  • Sponsor study groups in schools or as a continuity event to focus on issues or needs of content area teachers.
  • Create a cohort of content area teachers from a region/district for an ongoing series of literacy workshops for which they would receive a stipend or graduate credit.
  • Target a particular constituency within a school (grade level teachers or a specific content area).
  • Offer a professional writing institute in which content area teachers read and write about literacy in their fields.
  • Use technology as another entry point. Content area teachers who use technology can connect with the tech liaison to help them see where they fit in to the work of a writing project site.

Listening Hard

As a result of this two-week event, participants began to think outside the box about how to attract, include in leadership, and learn from content area teachers. In that sense, the goals for the online event were well served. Many wished for more time to discuss and reflect.

As facilitation team member Marcie Wolfe put it, “one of the challenges is listening and looking hard enough to understand where writing [and reading] fits into what content area teachers want to do and their views of their own subject areas. That can take a while.”