More Than Skin Deep: Professional Development that Transforms Teachers
My daughter talked me into it: taking a combination kickboxing/step aerobics class. We were going to do it together, but after the second session, she put her step on the other side of the gym because (she said) it was too embarrassing to be next to me. I just couldn’t get it. I was stepping up when everyone else was stepping down, kicking to the left when I should have been punching to the right. When I tried to copy others in the class, I was at least a move behind.
One evening the instructor started classes the way she always did. After teaching short bursts of kicks and steps, she said this in a perky voice: “You all have the pattern, right? Let’s go!” As she turned on the music, what went through my head was this: Pattern? Pattern?! What pattern? And in a flash I thought about my middle level students in writing class. When I taught lessons on abstractions related to writing—think thesis statements, unity, flow; topics that seem so logical to me—they probably thought just what I thought in that step class: What is she talking about? By putting myself in a learning situation where I was not very adept, I learned something about my students, something that made me a better writing teacher even though the class was not in any way related to teaching writing.
Now, I don’t recommend kickboxing or step aerobics classes as the most effective or efficient professional development experience I ever had. But in some ways it is more typical of professional development (PD) I have endured: It’s not really about me or about what I need to learn. It’s more about the time there. Yes, I learned something, but I could have learned more from more effective PD. And that’s where the National Writing Project comes in.
The National Writing Project (NWP) began in 1974 at the University of California–Berkeley, based on a few very important principles: (1) Teachers teach writing better when they are writers themselves and (2) teachers have a lot of important knowledge to share with other teachers. Writing Project sites are now housed at more than 200 universities nationwide (www.nwp.org). The keystone for these sites is summer institute (SI), an intensive invitational professional development for teachers of all contents and grade levels.
I direct a Writing Project site and, as a consequence, am privileged to attend Summer Institute over and over again. As I watch K–16 teachers work together each summer as writers and teachers, I am more and more convinced that there is magic in those NWP principles. Repeatedly, teachers of all subjects return to their students energized to approach writing instruction more effectively. Now orchestra and math and science teachers (in addition to English teachers), elementary and secondary teachers, all have tools for using writing to help students learn and communicate, for helping students develop as writers.
Attending institutes every summer has taught me the biggest keys for my classroom: to encourage more writing and to write with my students. Because of these two principles, my instruction is much improved. Students in preservice classes repeatedly tell me that our course is the first time they’ve felt like writers in years. How odd! They are English majors, for the most part, and write all the time. But they write for assignments, formal pieces of writing that fit the purposes of the courses they take. They do not have opportunities that encourage them to write frequently themselves or just to enjoy writing—until they take my class. And the Writing Project is totally responsible for this change in my teaching. It’s hard to give up the time for writers’ notebooks and sharing each class period. I have to decide that some content I would normally teach does not get taught. I am convinced, however, that what students gain from this informal writing and sharing (both during class and online) is more valuable than what I leave out to give us time for writing. This is what I learned from working with teachers on our Writing Project site, and it has made all the difference in my teaching.
What follows are insights from three fellows from our site about how the Writing Project serves as effective professional development for their own writing instruction. The teachers whose thinking is reflected here represent a range of grade levels. Their experiences, however, transcend the age level of the students they teach. Their reflections show that the principles from Writing Project sites create professional development that is both universal and valuable.
My students believe in a type of writing magic where they sit down, listen to their muse, and in a few hours have a polished piece of writing. If their magical muse doesn’t speak to them, many decide they are not writers and give up. What students often fail to recognize is that writing, like most things, is a process-based system that takes time and dedication.
I teach concurrent enrollment, and the seniors in my classes are often dedicated and talented students. However, a few weeks into their research paper I was surprised to find that the research they were engaged in was shallow and weak. In class I asked them to go to Analyze and Argue (A. A.) with each source they selected. I had my students hold up their annotated articles and look at each other’s. For the most part there was little annotation.
Because of my involvement with the National Writing Project, I learned something about being a writing model for my students, so I grabbed a stack of articles that I had been working with and had seven students hold them up for the class to see. I asked my students what they noticed about my annotation, and their reactions were striking: “You’ve written all over your articles.” My sources were tattooed with ink. Specifically, I focused on asking the absent writer question after question.
My students’ engagement with their sources changed dramatically after this demonstration, and it significantly improved their research papers. This experience strengthened what I already knew: If teachers model the process of writing and research with students, they have a better understanding of what is expected of them.
By discussing and modeling with my students my own research processes and my own writing projects on the side, students showed significant buy-in with the course as they continued to ask me how my writing and research was going throughout the year. Eventually it led to them asking to look at what I had written, and now we frequently edit each other’s work. Because of my time with the Writing Project site, the magical writing muse in my classes has taken on a different shape: Now it’s a process where we work together to improve our writing.
I know that this is going to sound childish, but I thought that writers were born with the gift. I had the view that writers crack their neck a few times and then pump out a flawless manuscript: simple as that! Well, not only did Writing Project Summer Institute (SI) build skills, but more importantly it also provided a change in my disposition. I moved from a fixed to a growth mindset that has helped students view themselves as writers largely because SI helped me see myself as a writer.
SI nurtured the idea of being strategic in my approach to writing instruction. If I require students to grow in technique and skill, then I need to plan for that to happen, not only because of curriculum demands but because students view themselves as writers when teachers plan for success. One of the best strategic methods that I have used in my classroom is modeling: teacher, author, and student.
Students love teacher as model: when I write with them during writing time and then share my writing, with all its imperfections and flaws, it’s kind of like seeing a photo before it’s been Photoshopped or a model without her make-up. Students enjoy giving feedback to my writing. It becomes a shared experience, and they see writing for what it is: a process, not a product.
Students also enjoy using authors as models. SI helped me to respect literature as master teachers. It is wonderful to have C.S. Lewis or Gary Paulsen support my writing instruction. Students sentence stalk or identify writing craft that I have highlighted in a craft lesson. Authors deliver credibility to my teaching because students recognize that they are emulating craft that has been used in stories they love and read.
Finally, students as models is one of the most powerful strategies: SI is based on writing and sharing with an audience. I learned so much from those who went through Summer Institute with me. In the same way, my classroom is based around the idea that we share what we write with others. I use student exemplars in my classroom as models of intended outcomes but stress that exemplars are models of possibilities rather than a restrictive template.
Summer Institute was a career-changing experience. Sounds cliché, but it is true. It transformed my mindset and, thus, my practice.
Whenever I heard someone say, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” I cringed, and a little dagger pierced my heart. Why did that bother me so much? Sad to say, there was some truth to that statement. Prior to attending the Writing Project, I asked my students to write, but I wouldn’t write with them. I encouraged my students to share their writing, but I rarely shared my own. We looked at expert authors and imitated their writing craft, but I never considered myself an expert. While attending the Writing Project, I quickly realized that I was sending the wrong message to my students—the very message that made me shrink with embarrassment.
The first improvement I made was to write often. Home. Outdoors. School. Everywhere. Whenever I required my students to write, I wrote. My next improvement was to be vulnerable and share. When I asked for volunteers to sit on the author chair and read their writing, I sat on the author chair and shared mine. Last, when we looked at expert authors, I included my writing—not final drafts, but imperfect sentences and ideas that required a lot of work. This created opportunities to discuss strategies and discover writing patterns to make meaning. As a result, I often received great suggestions for improvement. As students saw me wrestling with my own writing, they found courage to struggle with their own.
I cannot say that I made a complete transformation overnight. I’m still making progress. Thankfully, the Writing Project gave me the confidence and understanding I needed. Finally, I’ve been able to internalize and practice what I have always known: write all of the time, and share your writing expertise. For we all know that those who can, do; and those who do, teach.
Conclusion? Not the End
In their recent book, Writing Instruction that Works (2013), Applebee and Langer report that NAEP results for writing have changed little since 1969, despite implementation of practices such as those cited in Graham and Perrin’s 2007 report, Writing Next. They conclude that it may be easy to add techniques to our practice, but that changing the “underlying epistemology that shapes teaching and learning” (p. 5) is much more difficult. They believe that changing teachers— by their being “part of a professional community providing ongoing professional development and support” (p. 6)—is more likely to effect change in classrooms. And that is what Summer Institutes do: They change teachers.
Here we have reflections from four teachers—Deborah in university, Sarah in high school, Melissa in middle school, and Gary in elementary school—and we all found value in one specific type of professional development: the Writing Project. For us—and for those whose voices are not visibly present here but have studied in a Project site—this is the most valuable professional development we have engaged in. We are writers. We write and we share our writing; some of us have been published in teacher journals and elsewhere. We are teachers who share with other teachers and learn from other teachers, always seeking ways to improve our writing instruction. That is the magic of writing project as professional development. There isn’t an expert talking head where participants listen and leave. This is a collaborative effort that requires teachers to practice the processes they want students to learn. This is where teachers go to develop as writers in the same way they hope their students will develop. This is where we build a community with other teachers who can support us and help us—a community that carries on well beyond the weeks of a summer institute. More than anything, this is the place that helps us see that we are examples, that we don’t just tell our students how to write, but we show them and work through the difficult parts with them. Together. That’s what the Writing Project is about: working together toward common goals. And that is what makes it the best professional development ever for thousands of teachers every year.