WMU News

Grant will fund focus on rural schools, communities and writing

February 10, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- Eight high school and middle school teachers in Southwest Michigan will join forces to form one of six national sites in a project designed to increase the visibility of exemplary teachers and improve writing in the nation's rural schools.

A grant totaling $28,000 from the National Writing Project to Western Michigan University's Third Coast Writing Project will fund the first two years of a three-year effort that is part of the national "Rural Voices, Country Schools" project. Teachers in Centreville, Edwardsburg, Fennville, Gobles, Niles, Richland and St. Joseph comprise the WMU-led site. The other five national sites are located in Arizona, Louisiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Washington.

Funding for the national effort was awarded by the Annenberg Rural Challenge and matched by the National Writing Project for a $1.6 million investment in rural writing projects. The funds will support documentation, teacher research, public programming, networking and dissemination of materials developed through the effort. Besides the $28,000 in direct funding for the Southwest Michigan site, local participants in the project will benefit from more than $75,000 in program services conducted by the National Writing Project, including expenses for national summer institutes and travel to conferences.

"A lot of attention has been focused on urban schools over the past several years," says Dr. Ellen H. Brinkley, WMU associate professor of English and director of the Third Coast Writing Project. "This effort is a recognition of the fact that there are also unique challenges faced by rural schools."

The initiative, she says, will focus on strong writing to tell the story of what happens in rural classrooms and the kind of issues rural teachers face. Over a three-year period, the project will gather information about rural schools and the communities in which they exist. The data will be used to design strategies for strengthening rural education in America.

The teachers in the project already have started to involve other teachers in their districts, Brinkley says. To document what happens in rural districts, teachers in the project are asking their colleagues to start thinking about their sense of place and what happens in districts located in rural communities. The next step, she notes, will be to bring members of the communities into the project.

WMU's Third Coast Writing Project was selected to lead the Michigan site partly because of its record of working with rural schools in Southwest Michigan. Brinkley says two-thirds of the project's service area is rural and it offers an extensive program of inservice workshops and annual summer writing institutes in which many rural educators enroll or act as leaders.

The rural schools that are part of the Southwest Michigan site are a study in contrasts, Brinkley reports. They include tiny communities with heavy populations of migrant families who live in the area

from April to October as well as affluent areas with an influx of wealthy "summer people" who live in million-dollar lakeside homes. Teachers and students in the districts come from families that may live on Centennial farms, on working orchards or in resort communities.

In 1997, the team of eight area teachers involved in the rural project traveled to California for the first national institute for project participants. Next summer, the team will travel to Santa Fe, N.M., to attend a second institute with the other five national teams and share their stories about rural education. The teachers also have presented readings of their work to those attending the National Council of Teachers of English meeting in Detroit in November and at a writing conference on the WMU campus in January.

WMU's Third Coast Writing Project is one of more than 150 sites for the National Writing Project, which is based at the University of California at Berkeley. More than 125,000 teachers and administrators have been trained through the program to help other teachers improve the quality of writing instruction. The national project receives federal funding support and has accumulated awards and citations from such groups as the American Association for Higher Education, the Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Council of Teachers of English and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

EDITORS: The following individual teachers will take part in the "Rural Voices" project. The listing includes the teachers' name, the level, the subjects they teach and the name of their school.

Tom Anderson, seventh grade English teacher at Edwardsburg Middle School.

Sherrie Britton, seventh grade reading and language arts teacher at Centreville Junior High School.

Renee Callies, English language arts teacher at Gull Lake Middle School in Richland.

Pen Campbell, high school English teacher at Lake Michigan Catholic Junior/Senior High School in St. Joseph.

Corey Harbaugh, English teacher at Gobles Middle/High School.

Dan Holt, creative writing teacher at St. Joseph High School.

Lynn Welsch, seventh grade language arts teacher and department chairperson at Fennville Middle School.

Sherri Willems, language arts teacher and department chairperson at Brandywine Junior/Senior High School in Niles.

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