Media Literacy Professional Learning Teaching Writing

Innovative Writing Program Helps High Schools


The UA’s Wildcat Writers program is working to shrink the gap between high school writing and freshman composition at the university level.

Wildcat Writers, now in its 10th year, pairs southern Arizona high school students and their teachers with UA composition instructors and students.

Groups of high school and University of Arizona students have spent the semester exploring topics associated with censorship, designing infographics, producing novels and organizing campus events meant to promote literacy, creativity and artistic innovation.

The groups, led by UA composition instructors and high school teachers from the southern Arizona region, have been participating in such collaborations through Wildcat Writers, an innovative service learning and writing program housed in the UA Department of English and supported by the Writing Program.

In its 10th year, Wildcat Writers — an example of the UA’s land-grant mission — teaches students how to employ effective reasoning strategies, develop a solutions orientation and adopt creative processes in individual and collaborative projects.

In that way, the program is helping students to develop 21st-century skills, while also encouraging literacy.

“What makes Wildcat Writers unique is that it is embedded in the curricula of both the UA courses and the high school classes,” said Rachael Wendler, the Wildcat Writers coordinator in the Department of English. “Students from both schools get to participate, and this is integrated in their classes.”

Based on its innovative approach, other institutions, such as Oregon State University, have begun to adopt the program, Wendler said.

More than 700 high school students and at least 20 of their teachers participate in the program each year. Last year, the program supported more than 11 partnerships between local schools and UA composition classes.

For many of the students, Wendler said, connecting with the University is an important point in a process leading to a college degree.

“It is part of our college access vision,” Wendler said about the program, in which she is collaborating with Maria Elena Wakamatsu at Desert View High School, involving students in an investigation of educational inequality.

Wildcat Writers team members acknowledge that regardless of what the future holds for the students, they will need to be highly adaptable collaborators who are skilled in information technology and analytical thinking.

This year, the UA Writing Program’s outgoing director Amy Kimme Hea, postdoctoral research associate Jeremy Godfrey and Wendler received a $7,600 UA 100% Engagement Strategic Investment grant. The grant has helped to involve graduate teaching assistants in the UA Rhetoric, Composition and the Teaching of English Program with local teachers. Wildcat Writers also has received funding support from the UA Foundation.

Partnerships involved linking curricula and also planning months of discussions and activities between the classes at the UA and others at the high schools.

One connection was made between graduate student Brad Jacobson and Kate Street, a Sunnyside High School teacher, who involved students in writing activities around everyday situations. The group also organized a literacy night at the high school and tours to the UA.

“We want them to have the experience of what college is like,” Jacobson said, adding that it is important to give students a realistic understanding of college. “It definitely increases the willingness to look at college in different ways.”

A different Sunnyside team, led by UA graduate student Rosanne Carlo and the Teaching of English Program, working with teacher Barb MacDonald, involved students in analyses of anthologized comic novels. Then the students created their own novel.

UA graduate student Anushka Peres and Wakamatsu, of Desert View High, integrated activities around inventing and creativity in English. A project by one student, Ernesto Moreno — a 3D animated Othello chess game — was a finalist for the Connect2STEM Student Techie award, sponsored by the UA School of Engineering and Cox Communications.

UA English lecturer Kristin Little and Laura Miller have been involving rural students attending Bisbee High School and a group of UA international students in discussions and writings.

At Rincon High, Diane Drury has been partnering with Rachel Buck, involving the students in historic and contemporary examples of censorship in literature, entertainment and pop culture.

“It’s a useful collaboration for both me as an instructor creating lesson plans and also students to collaborate in the activities,” said Buck, a graduate teaching assistant in the UA English department. When the two classes of students were not able to meet, they would exchange reflections via Google Docs.

Tackling challenging issues such as censorship encourages students to think critically, Buck said.

“Diane and I both are interested in the topic of censorship,” Buck said. “I want these students to understand how issues like censorship are much more complicated than we think. One of my goals is to provide opportunities for students to practice listening to other perspectives before they start arguing.”

Not only does such a practice aid them in their current studies, but it also can help ensure that students are better prepared later in life.

“I kind of wish someone had taught me when I was younger how to ask questions about these unusual topics,” said Alex Tunberg, a pre-business freshman at the UA.

“I’ve enjoyed that we are able to learn from each other,” Tunberg said, adding that his mentorship of high school students has helped to open his mind. “I am interested in marketing, so it benefits me to interact with people and to learn how to talk to and engage people.”

Drury said another immediate benefit of involvement in Wildcat Writers is that she gains important professional development, which then aids in her students’ learning.

“When I am able to collaborate with other professionals, it improves my writing and teaching,” said Drury, who has been teaching for more than two decades and also serves as one of the co-directors of the Southern Arizona Writing Project — another UA collaboration, which aims to improve student writing in K-16 classrooms.

“I want to give my kids the kind of experiences that will help them to transition into the University,” she said. “They need to know that they have a voice, and if they start practicing using it now, that will only strengthen their development.”