Emily Barton's first grade students came up with the concept “playing with words” on their own after she encouraged them to look at each other's stories and suggest changes. Michele Lacerda said her seventh graders improved their writing throughout the year as they shared their work with their peers. Kaitlyn Myers said her fourth graders became excited about writing when they could use technology that let them publish their work.
These teachers were among the graduate candidates presenting their research findings at the culminating event of the Capital Area Writing Project (CAWP) at Penn State Harrisburg in early May. The National Writing Project Fellowship allows them to earn graduate level credits while using their own classrooms for research into strategies for teaching writing.
During or after their coursework, they develop an Inquiry Project – research centered on a question they want to answer or a problem they want to solve about writing or reading and writing with K-12 students, according to CAWP program director Dr. Julie Schappe. They then investigate current research, implement methods in their classrooms, and analyze the resulting data. Finally, they present their findings in a campus poster session.
Their work links theory and practice, and develops teachers who can become leaders in their schools. This effort emphasizes “teachers teaching teachers,” according to the program's website.
Teaching writing today can be challenging, Schappe said. Changes in what it means to be literate and varied expectations about school, reading, and writing mean students and teachers come to class with different strengths and needs, and bring different life experiences with them. On top of that, communication today can include written language, speech, images, and social media. Students and teachers need to learn “how to be critical participants in complex forms of communication,” Schappe said. “They need to build skills to read, interpret and compose meaning.”
Penn State Harrisburg has been a National Writing Project site for over 30 years. It is one of 190 universities participating in the project recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and the only one in the eight-county central Pennsylvania region. Teachers from 42 area schools are participating. Nationally, the program trains 3,000 teacher leaders a year.
The teachers presenting their posters at Penn State Harrisburg said the program helps them develop their skills and collaborate with peers who can share their ideas and results.
Some were new to teaching; others were veterans.
Lisa Freed has been a reading specialist in the Cumberland Valley School District for 23 years and has her master's degree. Studying alongside teachers, she found the fellowship valuable.
She is spearheading a four-year initiative at her school to revamp the writing program. Participating in the writing project “helped me go about it in a more systematic way,” she said. Her research showed that establishing a social environment that fosters writers starts with positive teacher attitude and a supportive principal.
Teachers who completed the fellowship with the Capital Area Writing Project often return to mentor new fellows.
Bob Hamera retired in 2012 from Upper Dauphin Middle School after 38 years in the classroom. He went through the writers' program in 2000 and now returns to mentor the graduate candidates.
He believes initiatives like this have made a difference. By the time he retired, his students were writing more across different disciplines and were better able to explain their reasoning, he said.
Independent studies on the impact of the National Writing Project confirm Hamera's observations. Nineteen comparative studies in eight states over the past decade have demonstrated the program's benefits.
Kevin Scharlau, who teaches kindergarten in the South Middleton School District, completed the program in 2010 and now serves as the invitational coordinator. He noted that most of the research projects presented this spring shared the theme of collaboration as a key component in writing.
Barton said collaboration was the piece that had been missing in her first grade classroom in the Mechanicsburg Area School District. After her students began to work together on improving each other's writing, they began adding more details, substituting more exciting words and removing unnecessary pieces. Kaylee Keener said her first graders in the Lower Dauphin School District became more engaged and committed once she created a community of writers who shared their work.
Collaboration is also what helps the teachers going through the Writing Project. Scharlau said he still learns a lot by coming back every year to help.
“When I come here, I get to see this new research and get fresh ideas that I can take back to my students,” he said.