Telling Our Stories/Raising Our Voices: From Anecdote to Action
Cathy Fleischer, co-director
As teachers, we know this to be true: The conversation about schools and school reform too often leaves out the voices of those who actually know the most about the day-to-day realities of the classroom and issues that impact students and their learning. While we increasingly read about bold teachers who have added their voices to the conversation, for the most part we remain silent in the public sphere, aware that the pressures on us to remain silent are huge.
But EMWP teachers are working on ending that silence! Fourteen of us joined forces this summer in a crash course on how to join the ranks of those teachers who are speaking out in order to effect change in our local contexts--and to do so in a safe way. We read about teachers who have found their voices and the stories of how they have done it; we learned from community organizers in multiple fields about how to create a public narrative; and we studied the interdisciplinary work of those who have researched the most effective language to use when framing our talk about education. Out of all this came amazing insights and plans: each of us thought about the stories of our own teaching and out of those identified an issue of concern—something that we’d like to change. As we worked with that issue, we thought about the best way to frame it so that we could help others truly understand, and then created a plan with short term, middle term, and long term goals. Along the way we created elevator talks, bumper stickers, and memes to help us focus our plans.
This fall, teachers are working to put their plans into practice and will report back in January on their progress.
Among the projects:
• A plan to help change the way alternative education is viewed within the school and in the community
• A plan to change the ethos of the school into one that believes that “everyone reads.”
• A plan to reclaim assessment and what counts as data
• A plan to reach out to parents to help them recognize real writing and real writing pedagogy
• And many more!
To learn more about this work, join us for a Saturday Seminar on February 14. We’ll talk about our own projects and how you too might join the movement to raise our voices!
Another year, another series of “Literacy for Life,” giving teachers a reason to rise and learn one Saturday each month. Yes, it's new and improved, but it builds on the best the Writing Project has to offer:
• 2-3 sessions each month from September – May
• a 6-college series coordinated with the WISD’s Literacy Summit
• a K-5 series demonstrating the keys to a successful workshop classroom
• a literacy coaching series to solve problems for teachers and coaches
These sessions will bring new faces to Saturday morning, but we will also spotlight familiar faces to stress the fundamentals of the EMWP: teacher as writer (National Novel-Writing Month, National Day of Writing); teacher as consultant (“Writing with Special Education Students”); and teacher as researcher (“Raising Our Voices: Writing for Action”).
As in the past, we’ll hold these meetings at Pray-Harrold (EMU) on the first Saturday of the month (oops, the first one is on September 20), with breakfast at 9:30 a.m. and sessions running concurrently from 10 to 11 a.m. The entire schedule is attached here.
To make us happy and register in advance, fill out this form and return it to our office, even if you want to bring payment later. If you have to surprise us on Saturday, that’s o.k. We’re glad to see you anyway.
A special plea from the director: anyone want to sign up and bring bagels and muffins on one Saturday? Instant reimbursement and heartfelt appreciation. E-mail Bill Tucker: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If anyone wonders how you hold a "Writing Teacher's Leadership Institute" with four teachers, here is the answer: teach together. Gather the witnesses from years gone by and let teachers collaborate. There was very little design in this, just a faith that teachers are stronger together than apart. The new teachers came together the same way as their predecessors had.
This could be the smallest teacher's institute in the annals of the National Writing Project with four new teachers graduating. However, it also brought back two teachers from 2013 (Kevin English and Erin Umpstead), one from 2012 (Shari Hales), one from 2011 (Cynthia Andrews) and one from 2010 (Karen Chichester) to relive the glory of those previous institutes and make it wonderful for the other four.
It also featured guest speakers from days of yore, on family literacy (Chelsea Lonsdale’13), on classroom research (Jessica Kander ’11 and Kris Gedeon ‘03), on writing (Angela Knight ‘05 and Kris Gedeon ‘03), on professional development (Mitra Dunbar ‘04), on school improvement (Dawn Izzi ‘09), and on literacy coaching (Julia Keider’99). And on the penultimate day it featured our published authors of poetry (Kathy Churchill ‘98), of professional inquiry (Sarah Andrew-Vaughn ‘00) and of children's fiction (Marquin Parks ‘11). From this point of view, this was the most widely-attended Institute we have sponsored at Eastern Michigan University.
Teaching isn't about a competition; it's about learning and conversation. It's about resource sharing. It's about the real work of teaching: asking question after question until you find a method, resource, or approach that works for your context. It isn't about being the best. It's about building the reflective capacity to know when you have to seek help and change what you're doing. (Kevin English, Teacher Consultant, 2013)
On August 18th and 19th, about thirty participants gathered in room 300 at EMU’s Student Center because we wanted to learn more about the coaching model. EMWP’s very own Julia Keider presented a two-day Literacy Coaching Institute that began with a much needed explanation of what coaching is...and is not.
We found out that coaching is good teaching, and it is never evaluative. We came to understand that the role of a coach should be that of a trusted advisor. Coaches help teachers work through their challenges; they provide resources and strategies for teachers to use at their own discretion. Julia and her special guest on day two, Jackie LaRose (EMU), modeled coaching practices throughout the presentation and afforded everyone present (new teachers, veteran teachers, and administrators), the opportunity to clarify their understanding. Participants practiced coaching techniques with one another during role-play activities and engaged in thought-provoking group discussions that challenged participants to think like coaches.
Everyone left with a greater understanding of the function of coaching in education, its benefits as sustainable professional development, and ideas about how to employ coaching techniques in our teaching practices or administrative roles. This workshop was such a success and teachers are so eager to learn more that the Coaching to Learn model will be an important focus in this year’s Saturday Seminars, sponsored by EMWP at Pray Harrold. Contact Bill Tucker or Julia Keider for more information.
Our fifth trip to The Jean Noble Parsons Center for the Study of Art and Science in Lake Ann, just south of Traverse City, included five days of quiet contemplation, adventures, writing marathons, and a supportive community in which to indulge in the opportunity to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Each year teachers have a chance to hone their skills, share their practices and stories, and take joy in the company of other writers.
We wrote and shared memoirs, poems, stories, blog entries, recommendation letters, Facebook posts, postcards, and editing suggestions... anything we were inspired to write. We not only wrote at Parsons Center, we also wrote at the old insane asylum, on the beach, in the bookstore, and on the tall ship Manitou while sailing the deep blue waters of the sparkling Grand Traverse Bay. We shared our favorite books while we were sharing meals and eating ice cream at Moomer's.
This year, participants on the retreat shared their favorite prompts, building a sense of camaraderie and boosting the writers’ inspiration. Writing prompts included goals for the long weekend, My Life in 7 Stories, an autobiographical poem inspired by "Lady Lazarus" by Sylvia Plath, pet peeves, The Storymatic, Tell Tale, "21" by Patrick Rouche, and a form of structured poetry writing from Malaysia, known as a pantoum.
Some people work on projects already under construction, others finally begin to cement ideas that have been bouncing around their heads, and still others write pieces for use with their students. Reasons for taking part in the Writing Retreat are as varied as the writers who attend. Writers are encouraged to bring books, articles, games, or magazines. As we write, it's comforting to know that inspiration is as close as the nearest book - or the nearest friend.
A Partial Pantoum
by Laurie Lahti
A chance to rest and play
An opportunity to be creative
No more rushing or stressing
Time to let nature heal me.
A Parsons Center Pantoum
by Angela Knight
a five-day writing retreat
at the beginning of summer
we relax, we write, we celebrate
we are writers
at the beginning of summer
we compose ourselves into our notebooks
we are writers
with goals and ideas and hope
we compose ourselves into our notebooks
we write to see where it leads us
with goals and ideas and hopes
and meals, meanderings, marathons
we write to see where it leads us
until we leave our retreat space
and meals, meanderings, marathons,
the provisions for our pens
until we leave our retreat space
we relax, we write, we celebrate
the provisions of our pens
a five-day writing retreat
Every summer dozens of young writers converge on the Student Center at Eastern Michigan University to attend Inkstains Summer Writing Camp. The first morning of camp is filled with the excited, cheerful greetings of campers who are delighted to see the familiar faces of other camp alumni, their summer buddies.
Here is what a few of our young writers had to say about what brought them to camp and keeps them coming back for more each summer:
"The camps is inspirational. It helps you learn from others to pump out pieces all week. The prompts are fantastic."
"[Inkstains] gives you an opportunity to sit down and write without any distractions. It's positive peer pressure."
"I love how Inkstains unites young writers to bounce back inspiration and ideas. Inkstains allows feedback from the great teachers, which always improves my work...I keep coming back to enjoy the feeling of being in a place all about writing with teachers willing to share and nurture ideas. I enjoy being with other young writers to see other people love writing as much as I do."
"I've learned how to open up in my writing through Inkstains. I've found my voice, and I've learned to be objective about my work and other's work as well."
"[The] benefit of camp is seeing how other people see the world and learning how to make things better together through teamwork and collaboration."
"[The] benefits are making friends, getting writing advice, and making connections."
"The people are super nice and you feel included...You get to learn what works for you. You get constructive criticism instead of, 'Oh, this is good!'"
Professional Development Updates For All Those Data-Lovin’ Hearts...
Part 1 of 3
As we have expanded our long term and district partnerships, I have noticed a need for additional data and evidence about our professional development work. As teachers, we know that people don’t learn complex skills instantaneously, and we understand that making major shifts in literacy instruction isn’t going to happen overnight, either—not even in a single school year. So schools must invest thousands of dollars in professional learning, year after year, in training, coaching, collaborative work time, resources, etc. It’s difficult for schools to make this commitment, because of tight budgets, multiple pressing curricular concerns, and the fact that it just isn’t the norm. The educational community tends toward ADHD when it comes to professional development.
To address some of these issues, I have been developing a plan for collecting data to show the progress that is taking place within the professional development work—progress that may often be hidden. Hopefully this will help schools take the long view when planning their professional development supports. I’ve identified five sources of data to collect—if you have ideas for other sources, please let me know, as this is a work in progress.
• Teacher perception data about the goals and the usefulness of each PD session
• Quality of writing assignment data, from the Assignment Design Framework from NWP
• Changes in practice data, from the Instructional Coaching Scale
• Quality of student writing, through formal or informal evaluation with a rubric or a protocol
• Standardized testing data
To begin, I’m working with schools to identify a specific goal or goals that we will use to guide our work. I’ve noticed that many times teachers are unclear as to the goals of professional development or those goals do not resonate with them. I am working to facilitate communication between the principal and teachers so that the goals are mutually agreed-upon. Staff can write a problem of practice that helps to identify where they want to go, with the goal/s an outgrowth. The next step is to continually refer back to those goals, so that we can assess if we are moving in the right direction. As we both plan our PD sessions and then evaluate them, we have to ask, “Did this move us toward our goal?” If we have problems, we have to ask if the goal is wrong, if the execution is poor, or if there is some other issue. A second element of this planning is to create a theory of action. This is typically a chart that shows what we intend to do (the input), beginning, middle, and end-stage changes, the final outcome we expect, and the method of evaluation. Adding these middle steps showing incremental change can be helpful in showing teachers what they are being asked to do, what principals can be looking for as their teachers make changes, and how we can check to see if things are proceeding as planned.
1. It’s sustained. These people don’t just hand you a book, or teach you something for three hours and then abandon you, or expect you to figure it out on your own. Once you’re in, you’re in! You are a part of their tribe. If you need help, ask. They will give you suggestions. If you feel overwhelmed by a challenge, they will guide you--and inspire you.
2. It’s a tribe of like-minded people. If you are a teacher who loves to teach, loves when the students learn (really learn, not just pass a test), and you want the pendulum of educational reform to swing back to the idea that students CAN learn and write, and we CAN be trusted to teach them because we are the experts, these are YOUR people.
3. It’s led by teachers. You know those students in your classroom you struggle to reach, because they want to entertain, because they didn’t get any breakfast, because they have a sick mama, because they have learned that they are failures? Guess what… I have them too. We all have them. Now, what do we do about it? One of the best parts of EMWP is that the ‘what to do about it’ or how to reach students and teach students: that is what everybody there wants to do, and we’re all in the trenches (sorry for the war metaphor) together. Together we work out solutions.
4. It’s relevant. After every single demonstration in three years' worth of PD, I have walked away thinking of all of the ways I can apply the ideas, the tools, and the skills in my classroom. No matter if it is an elementary school teacher’s demonstration or a high school teacher’s, every participant brings a piece to share that fits into the puzzle. There isn’t one answer, one approach. These people know that. They know that because they teach.
5. It’s what you need. Is there a teacher out there who wants to feel alone, underappreciated, inept, or out of date? No. The fellows at the Summer Institute will give you support, they will understand and explain to you the many ways you ARE an effective, valued professional.
Through my years of teaching writing, every once in a while, I’ve encountered a student whose voice is so powerful that it makes all the day-by-day effort worth every minute. With this student, Rodia Heard, the victory was even sweeter and more profound because she is blind. This particular essay also represents a pedagogical victory because I was able to work out a way for her to use her powerful voice. Before this moment, Rodia had to rely on a note taker and a typist.
I noticed that this interfered with the flow of her expression, so I suggested that she buy an audio recorder so she could record the flow of her thoughts and then have the note taker and typist take it from there.
It took a while for Rodia to get the recorder and to use it. During that time, she was also struggling to figure out what to write about. I encourage my students to select a specific moment and then use critical thinking to unpack the significance of that moment. As we were conversing about this, Rodia remembered the rock that I show to all of my students on the first day of class. Although she couldn’t “see” it, she could feel it in her hand and sense its presence. I always tell my students that this rock is from a river in Vietnam. I also tell them that this rock, purchased from a store called Ten Thousand Villages on Main Street in Ann Arbor, represents how I feel about writing: that through multiple applications (the rock has nine layers of lacquer), I can make something beautiful that never existed before. As you will see when you read Rodia’s essay (I have her permission to share it), you’ll notice how powerfully Rodia explores this “moment.” When Rodia presented me with this essay, she told me that she was so grateful for this empowering experience because now she knew that she could use this process in any situation in which she had to express herself.
The Essay: The Rock
by Rodia Heard
When I started my summer semester at Wayne County Community College District, the first class I took was English 119. Upon entering into the room, I sat down. It was silent, the sun was shining on the desk, but there was no movement. I was told that the Instructor was sitting there, still and silent. This puzzled me. I was not getting a feel as to what type of teacher Mr. Schaefer would be because he was silent. When he finally began to talk, a rock was the first thing he spoke about.
He passed this rock around for each and every student to feel it. He was explaining what he felt about it, and when it reached me, I held it in my hand, and at that moment I knew that my class was going to be enjoyable. I was going to accomplish what I set out to do, which is to learn and be knowledgeable and to obtain a good grade. When I held that rock, it empowered me. It made me feel stronger. The rock, as he told the story and I was holding it in my hand, I connected with it. I could feel the energy from the rock as he spoke about it.
This rock came from Vietnam. The Vietnam era was a time in life where many Americans didn’t have anything positive to say about that country. When I held that rock, which was once something that was found in a river, I didn’t know where the beginning of the rock had come from. Did it break from a larger mountain? I did know that it was there in an area where the water had flowed across and over it. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of people had walked by it, yet it was still there waiting to be picked up and used in a positive situation.
This rock now being displayed in my English class was once just a simple stone, dirty, never cleaned. No one had ever taken time to just say, this rock can be something beautiful. A person must have come along and picked it up. Now, as I’m holding it in my hand, I was admiring its beauty. I could feel its texture. It had a shape that was not round, not long, and not extremely large. It could fit in the palm of my hand. As it did so, it gave me a sense of power and control over my situation. Even though this was an object that could be used as a weapon to hit or cause harm to some one, it was empowering to me just to hold it, as my instructor talked about the layers of lacquer that had been applied to turn it into this finished piece of beauty.
This rock was once, probably, from a family of rocks. It stood alone just like I was in this class, alone, yet empowered. I wondered if, while this rock was on the bank, someone had picked it up and brought it through customs, traveling from Vietnam to the United States. Many of us will never take the journey that the rock has because we don’t leave our homes to venture off into other places.
Not knowing anything about Vietnam, I’m holding a rock that symbolizes something beautiful. When we think of the Vietnam era, we think of negativity, of war, of killings, and captivity. We hardly ever think in terms that something beautiful can come from it. This rock that I’m holding in my hand symbolizes a work of art, of beauty. It was a stone that had been polished. Once, it was just a rough piece of rock lying on the ground. People were walking over it and never paying attention to it. The person who thought to pick it up saw its beauty. They saw that this rock could symbolize something positive. That’s what I get from the rock when I hold it. I think positively. I think beauty, strength, and of determination and endurance because this rock has endured all types of climatic changes. This rock is unmovable. It has stayed unbroken. It’s whole. It’s something that people can identify with if they would just take the time to look at it in a positive and beautiful way, as I did.
I feel that this rock also show us that anything can be refined, restored, finished and processed with layers and layers of effort, in this case, lacquer. First, it was painted black. Black is a color or strong power and strength. This black-colored rock that I held in my hand had been painted black and then coated with layers of lacquer. Lacquer was applied to the stone to make a finished product. I would never have thought of this rock as being inanimate, something that had no power and no sense of history. I would have just overlooked it. Now, when you look at it, it’s beautiful. It symbolizes a gemstone. It is a stone that has been through many types of obstacles and troubles, even times of war. Perhaps someone had fallen upon this rock, or someone had rested there to take a drink of water, but never taken time to look at it and say, I’m going to take this rock and make a difference. This rock symbolizes change. We can all be made to be something different, something more beautiful if we just apply time.
Someone took the time to recreate and restructure the rock. It had several coats of lacquer applied until it shined. It was not something that was just done over night. It was a process. After it was coated with the lacquer, it had to dry for a long period of time before one can go back and apply more lacquer. So, when we think about the rock, it’s something like creative writing. It’s a process. It’s not something that’s done in one application. It is a continuation of work, work, work, work, until you have coated it several times. You have to wait a period of time and go back, set it down, come back to it at a later date and pick it up again and apply another coat of lacquer until, in the end the finished rock is glistening and beautiful.
Afterward, the artist began to put different images on the rock. On this particular rock, it shows two fish going in a circular motion. That circle symbolizes unity that is an unbroken bond with no exit point. As students in the classroom, we are united into groups. The setting was similar to the rock because we formed our own family. In our circle we learned about each other.
When I sense the rock, it indicates strength, power, and connection to me. We are symbolic of a rock because, in the Bible, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail.” So, I look at this rock as something where no harm will come against it because it’s unbreakable. In the class, as people, we should be as the rock. This rock, to me, symbolizes that I am strong, I can endure all things, I can conquer all things. I am beautiful just like this rock. I was empowered from the moment that I held this rock in my English 119 class. I felt the strength and the energy that poured into me from that rock. That is what writing was to me. It’s hard at first, but as I hold it and connect with it, my writing and creativity begin to flow. As I held on to that rock, I began to become energized and empowered, and I enjoyed the story that was told.
As I leave to go to other classes, I will always think back about my experience with the rock that was from Vietnam that traveled through countries to make it all the way to Michigan. Not only to Michigan, but to end up in Detroit at Wayne County Community College District, in an English class that was about creative expository writing.
Creative writing symbolizes strength, power, work, and application upon application, the same as the rock with its layers of lacquer. It had to be coated. That’s the same as writing. It’s not just a one-time process. It’s not a one-moment process. It’s not instantaneous. It’s something that takes time. You have to go back over it and over it and over it again, until you have created a masterpiece. The beauty of the rock symbolizes strong, unwavering power and unbroken strength. That was what this rock was to me. I am like that rock. I will endure because of my connection with that rock.