WMU News

WMU project addresses national drop in writing skills

June 22, 2005

KALAMAZOO--Recent reports show that writing is not receiving enough attention in the nation's schools, but Western Michigan University's Third Coast Writing Project has some of the write answers this summer for area teachers and children trying to address the issue.

In a 2003 report, the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges found that, though most students can write, they do not "write well enough to meet the demands they face in higher education and the emerging work environment." The latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress support that conclusion. Only one-fourth at each grade level is at or above the "proficient" level and only one in 100 is "advanced."

WMU's Third Coast Writing Project again is offering a series of programs, some free, to give teachers some much-needed help with teaching writing, while also helping to build writing skills in 35 children ages 8-13.

This is the 12th year Third Coast has offered its Invitational Summer Institutes to area teachers and students. Seven programs are being offered this year, with some focusing on teachers new to the classroom and others on new technology or trends in the field, such as digital storytelling and the growing challenge of teaching students for whom English is a second language.

In addition to helping children hone their writing skills and helping teachers become better at teaching writing, TCWP's summer programs have built a community of writing professionals, says Dr. Ellen Brinkley, WMU professor of English and director of Third Coast's summer programs.

"Twelve years ago, when TCWP began, I knew how much impact the National Writing Project summer institutes have had on teachers across the country, including myself when I was a high school teacher," Brinkley says. "But I couldn't have predicted what has happened after our summer institutes are over.

"Many participants stay connected to the project and build on the friendships they develop during the summer. They keep reading professional articles and become classroom researchers so they can identify strategies that work well, or don't, for their students. We invite some to provide school-year inservice for teachers in southwest Michigan schools. So we've created a network of teachers who are passionate about the power of writing, and they know how to pass that power and the joy of literacy on to their students."

A major emphasis of recent summer programs has been helping new teachers. The New Teacher Institute is a free, six-month program for teachers in their first, second and third years that has received national recognition as a model for effective new teacher support and professional development. The program is part of the three-year New Teacher Initiative Program within the National Writing Project and focuses on teachers as researchers.

"One thing we try to emphasize is that teachers can create knowledge," says Dr. Jonathan Bush, WMU assistant professor of English and co-director of the new teacher program. "They're not just purveyors of knowledge."

Over the past three years, the New Teacher Institute has served more than 100 area teachers. It's vital to support new teachers, Brinkley says, because estimates have shown that one in three will leave the classroom within five years.

"A first-year teacher walks into the classroom, closes the door and has the exact same expectations placed on them as someone who has taught for 25 years," Brinkley says. "They're supposed to produce the same results. I don't think we do that in any other profession."

The institute culminates in a luncheon on June 24 at which participants will showcase their research projects to colleagues and administrators from their districts, as well as WMU faculty and administrators. Dr. Cathy Fleisher, professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and a nationally recognized figure in the teacher-research movement, will be the keynote speaker.

Brand new this year is a mini-institute called English Language Learners Connected: To Our Classrooms and the World. The three-day institute, running July 11-13, features classroom-tested, research-based strategies for teachers working with English language learners and is co-directed by Dr. Karen Vocke, WMU assistant professor of English. Special attention will be paid to supporting ELL students as writers and addressing important diversity issues.

Technology will be center stage July 13-15 when the free Digital Storytelling Mini-Institute brings together a group of Third Coast teacher consultants to build on work begun in three previous digital storytelling institutes. Work will include experimenting with computer software, creating digital stories and considering the effects of digital media and digital stories on student writing.

Other Third Coast summer programs

Camp for Young Writers, which brings students ages 8-13 to campus June 20 to July 1 to explore and expand creative writing skills and build a community of writers and readers and culminates in a final celebration July 1.

The Invitational Summer Institute, the June 20 to July 15 flagship program for teachers at all levels featuring reading and research, professional and personal writing, technology assistance and demonstrations of research-based, classroom-tested teaching strategies.

Teacher as Writer Summer Workshop, an open institute June 20 to July1 focusing on the craft of the teachers' own writing, providing writing time, response groups and workshop sessions led by teachers and professional writers.

Summer Seminar: Teaching Reading/Writing/Thinking/Comprehension Strategies, a free seminar runs July 5-8 and July 14, gathers Third Coast teacher consultants together to study current research, develop classroom strategies, redesign curricula, integrate state and federal mandates and create new plans and materials.

Titled "The Neglected 'R': The Need for a Writing Revolution," the National Commission on Writing report shows a greater emphasis needs to be placed on writing, according to Brinkley.

"The report makes the case that writing is not a frill for a few, but an essential skill for many," Brinkley says. "Within a curriculum sometimes described as 'readin', writin' and 'rithmatic,' writing hasn't gotten the attention it needs,"

Copies of the report are available at <www.writingcommission.org>.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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