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Thursday, June 02, 2011

USI summer institute boosts skills in teaching writing

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Betty Vawter
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Area teachers will learn how to improve the teaching of writing across all age levels and disciplines in the second annual Invitational Summer Institute sponsored by the River Bend Writing Project at the University of Southern Indiana.

The professional development program for teachers will be held June 6 - July 7 at USI. Participants will meet from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

Dr. Jaclyn Wells, USI assistant professor of English, is director of the River Bend Writing Project. The 2011 institute fellows represent a wide range of teaching levels from kindergarten through college. Several are English teachers while others teach science, mathematics, or humanities.

Participants will read the book The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, a young adult fantasy novel, and incorporate it into teaching demonstrations during the institute. They will have the opportunity to design and present a lesson and get feedback. They also will have opportunities to tailor their colleagues' presentations to the grade levels they teach.

The author of The Demon King will visit with the group June 21 via Skype videoconferencing.

The curriculum also will include the books Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools by the National Writing Project and Carl Nagin and Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Writing Project by James Gray.

"Our goal is to have teachers interacting with one another about the teaching of writing," Wells said. "By the end of the five weeks, they will have new ideas for teaching and inspiration from other teachers."

USI provides the River Bend Writing Project in its capacity as a host site for the National Writing Project (NWP), which includes more than 200 sites anchored at colleges and universities across the nation. USI was selected as a site in 2010. The programs are co-directed by faculty from the local university and area schools. Each site holds an annual invitational summer institute. Several thousand teachers throughout the nation participate each year.

This year's institute at USI includes 14 participants representing USI, seven schools in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, and two schools in the Catholic Diocese of Evansville.

Wells joined the University in fall 2010. She teaches composition at all levels. Her dissertation at Purdue University involved college and community engagement.

"When this opportunity with the River Bend Writing Project came up, it seemed like a good opportunity to continue to engage," she said, "I'm interested in how teachers can help one another develop professionally. As a teacher myself, I have found the best opportunities for professional development have been when I've worked with other teachers. They know what the classroom is like."

At a pre-institute meeting in April, teachers selected for the 2011 program discussed common threads important to the teaching of writing at any level. These included motivating students to write and helping them learn to do research or find sources of information.

"We also want to help them think through their writing and understand it not just as a final product but as a way of shaping their thinking and helping them learn," Wells said.

Paula Harmon, English teacher at Reitz High School in Evansville, is co-director of the River Bend Writing Project for the second year. She said new groups of summer fellows at local institute sites have described their experience as "a space for critical reflection so essential to good practice,""causing a noticeable and great shift in all of my teaching," and "the best professional development I have had in all my years of teaching."

"Recent research has shown," Harmon said, "that students who write about what they read are more likely to score higher on reading and writing sections of standardized tests."

The National Writing Project indicates on its web site that national research studies have confirmed significant gains in writing performance among students of teachers who have participated in NWP programs.

Johanna Rusk, USI lecturer in English, joins the River Bend Writing Project this year as continuity director. She will coordinate activities to keep the fellows engaged in sharing ideas throughout the school year.

"Our goal," said Wells, "is to have a network of teachers working together to improve teaching."

The River Bend Writing Project is supported with a National Writing Project federal grant and matching funds from USI.



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