National Writing Project

Rural Voices, Country Schools

Using writing to document and celebrate student learning, NWP teachers from 88 rural sites designed a three-year Annenberg Rural Challenge program (1996-1999) to strengthen "genuinely good, genuinely rural" education. Its major initiative, Rural Voices, Country Schools, brought together teams of teachers in six states.

Each RVCS site created unique programs and learning activities with elements that engage the public, foster new ties between schools and communities, and forge collaboration among teachers and school districts. By opening their classrooms, rural teachers and students have enlarged the conversation about rural school reform in ways that attract public attention, moving away from nostalgia toward a picture of current rural realities.

RVCS teachers used an array of technology and media to connect school and community members and forge ties across districts, and throughout the nation. Many RVCS projects may be readily shared or used as models to seed greater community involvement in student learning and school reform.

Rural Voices, Country Schools

Rural Voices, Country Schools was composed of 48 teachers from writing project sites in Nebraska, Michigan, Washington, Arizona, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. RVCS involved teachers across disciplines from grade K-university. Snapshot of RVCS classrooms—a Hopi reservation school in Arizona, an 18-student middle school in Whitefish Bay, Michigan, a Nebraska high school slated for consolidation in a 300-person town—reflects the rich diversity of rural America.

Each RVCS team studied the needs of their areas and worked with local institutions and organizations to strengthen community involvement in learning and educational issues. Sites tailored their efforts to the unique characteristics and cultural context of their locales.

The Pennsylvania team, for example, created a 7-room museum exhibit on literacy and language learning displayed at Indiana University. The exhibit begins with an introduction to teachers and teacher training, before following students from kindergarten to college. The process of child development and language learning is made real with life-size silhouettes of early learners leading ultimately to photographs of high school students. Video loops show students reading their writing, examples of teacher assignments and actual student work. The exhibit received more than 500 visitors and is being reproduced as a PowerPoint slide program.

Using place-inspired writing and teaching to connect students to their communities, teachers crafted exciting lessons that unearthed the deep roots of rural places. Beginning with the prompt, "where I'm from," students wrote in many genres about family, heritage, culture and landscape. The Michigan site team published "Home and Other Places," an anthology containing submissions from writers aged 7 to 102 years. The team hosted readings at unusual venues, including a retirement home, community center and hotel. At the conclusion of each public event, audience members spontaneously contributed poetic verse about their sense of place.

In Arizona students conducted oral histories. A Nebraska class researched and documented the history of their school building, and Navajo students learned about cultural context by interviewing elders about life 50 years ago. Teachers in Louisiana organized innovative community-wide writing events, including a murder mystery writing contest and day-long writing marathon.

Sites used technology, multi-media and writing to reach remote rural learners and to share best practices with teachers in small, very rural districts. Students in Pennsylvania and Louisiana corresponded about culture; reservation schools initiated email "key" pals; teachers developed PowerPoint poetry lessons for highly visual learners and several sites published student-written "chap" books on the Internet. Teachers developed videos depicting student peer revision groups and showing parents discussing the value of teacher-parent journals. Several sites created web boards to discuss and document learning.

Writing also provided a means to enhance teaching and address school reform. Pennsylvania teachers invited parents to dialogue in journals about student writing and teaching assignments. In Nebraska, community members, families and students shared writing with legislators about what keeping their small town school open meant to them personally and to their community.

"Our Washington Journal," was published in response to new Washington State Essential Academic Learning Requirements. The journal helps teachers; school district staff and parents understand the new standards and provide guidance for implementing the standards. In addition, the Central Washington team produced a video and prepared in-service workshops for teachers on EALR. Training materials provide real classroom examples of teaching strategies, student learning and assessment tools at all grade levels.

The growing chorus of voices engaged by Rural Voices, Country Schools—writers, learners and educators—is being introduced to the wider public through radio. With the expertise of a professional radio documentary producer, each site produced a "Rural Voices Radio" audio segment, which captures the sounds and stories of "genuinely good, genuinely rural" education. The features have been broadcast to local audiences over National Public Radio stations. In the Nebraska program, listeners experience the stillness of the prairie, the cries of migrating cranes, the closing call at livestock auction, and selections of student and teacher writing. The program begins with a student's poem:

"I am from bridal bushes and lilacs And flower crowns fit for queens..." I am from the cold hard winters And the hot dry summers I am from the land overseas To the farm in Dixon, Nebraska...."

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