National Writing Project

Finding Our Voices: Rural Sites Network Retreat Points the Way

By: Phip Ross
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 6, No. 3
Date: May-June 2001

Summary: The Rural Sites Network Retreat in Orange Beach, Alabama gave participants the opportunity to discover their voices.


"I cannot begin to tell how much this has changed my life--as a teacher and as a person in this world of stress and chaos. Now I write to relieve the everyday stress."
                           --Jackie Wesson,
                                    Mobile Bay Writing Project

Members of the NWP Rural Sites Network built more than their voices at the annual retreat, held this year at Perdido Beach on the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

This. For Jackie Wesson this was an experience with the Mobile Bay Writing Project (Alabama), but more specifically, it was an experience of epiphany, of discovery, of a time when voice finds a way from within. And that voice is not just allowed; it is nurtured, encouraged, accepted, and invited.

Stories like Wesson's flourished at the Rural Sites Network Retreat in Orange Beach, Alabama, March 1-4. With the theme "Finding Our Voices" as a starting point, writer and "teacher of teachers" Dick Graves, Friday's featured workshop presenter, urged Wesson and other preconference workshop participants toward a new understanding of the power of a teacher's own voice. "What is your name?" Graves pushed. "What is your essence?" Like a message blinking insistently from a computer screen, Graves asked the teachers to return to the moments in life where confidence and competence reside.

Dick Graves, featured guest presenter at the NWP Rural Sites Network Retreat, encourages NWP teacher-consultants to discover their voices.

For Wesson, the assignment was an easy task. Her voice has an urgency that is buoyant. It is part of the "essence" that Graves pushed teachers to define. But even before Graves's talk, Wesson and many others were well underway on this journey. Wesson writes songs and stories with her second-graders. "I help them to love writing as I do," she gushes. "I also write poems I publish on the stall doors in the ladies room at our school to encourage my co-workers or to make them laugh. I'm called the Potty Poet."

A persistence could be heard in the statements and verse of many of these teachers. Among them was Paul Epstein of West Virginia, who defined himself in broad strokes that were no less powerful than Wesson's. He wrote:

"I am many things in life; I teach; I lead workshops; I mentor people in writing and technology; I am a father, a husband--it's a long list, but I also have a creative outlet that will not be denied, will not be put in a closet or shoved aside, one that is somewhere between an avocation and a compulsion that describes me--I am a songwriter; through lyric and melody I express my deepest feelings; I tell stories; I share jokes; I inspire; I entertain."

No doubt many of the 145 attendees of the three-day conference took away an equally strong understanding of the importance of finding voice. As the 30+ workshops and sessions strove to show, it is the progress a teacher makes toward finding his or her voice as a writer that can lead to astounding teaching moments in the classroom. And, as NWP Executive Director Richard Sterling urged in Saturday's opening session, that voice must be shared. Calling literacy skills "the new civil right," he claimed that reading and writing determine the "haves" and "have-nots." Ironically, as Sterling pointed out, "In the midst of accountability coming down on teachers and administrators, no one asks us. If they did, we'd have some answers." He encouraged teachers to be prepared to respond to new challenges not only in their own classrooms, but also in a broader context of educational issues.

Still, South Carolina's Hannah Baker, who works with teachers to meet new assessment challenges, said that teaching voice to students is new to most teachers. In her Saturday morning workshop, she explained that "For too long, we have had the typical formula writing--'I am going to tell you about fact 1, fact 2.' Sound familiar? Well, it may have passed the old test, but it has no voice, is not authentic, has no awareness of audience, and, thank goodness, will not fly under the new assessment rubric." Baker added, "If we are going to improve the quality of writing that students are producing, then we must also help the teachers improve their writing . . . and provide them strategies for doing so."

Some of Baker's strategies for understanding voice were demonstrated through the examination of writing samples. Reading different newspaper accounts of the death of race-car driver Dale Earnhardt, for example, Baker and a group of teachers marked passages that illustrated strong voice. Contrasting writing perspectives, like those found in the mother/daughter poems of Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, was another strategy. Also, just reading aloud a writer like Rick Bragg was a simple method of experiencing the impact of voice in writing.

These exercises can be more difficult with students, but they have been shown to help students come to an understanding of voice. As part of the retreat, students from Camp Hill High School in Alabama demonstrated their understanding of the power of voice with a musical presentation they created through PACERS and the direction of musician Larry Long. PACERS, whose purpose is to sustain small schools and their communities, is an organization composed of students, teachers, administrators, and community members from 29 rural Alabama schools. Long began working with the Camp Hill High School students when they were in grade school. The students interviewed community elders and wrote music from what they learned. Ten years later, they haven't stopped learning and singing.

Through Camp Hill's work with the PACERS, teacher Jean Mosely has seen her students find motivation and, through that, evolve into community leaders. One special case was that of a current eighth grade student, Kimberly. Kimberly became editor of the student-run community newspaper that emerged from classroom work. Previously, Camp Hill had no community paper.

"With her work on the newspaper, she really freed her voice through her ideas and opinions," Mosely said of the young editor. "And I've seen that happen with a lot of others. They have more pride in writing, and they've improved tremendously. I've seen tremendous change all the way around--community interest increased; school is better; and the community's better."
Mosely offers quotes pulled from the newspaper's editorials as evidence of her students' new-found voices:

"Amid the publicity about test scores, let us remember that education is the key to our future and we must refuse to let anyone or anything deter us from reaching our goals."--Kimberly, Editor

"Voting gives you a chance to take a stand in who and what you believe in. However, if you never vote, your voice is never heard."--Lekilra, Assistant Editor

Just as the students and community of Camp Hill have found their voices, the Rural Sites Network Retreat was designed to give participants practice at discovering theirs. As participants of this year's retreat learned, each added voice brings greater strength to the whole, enriching the Rural Sites Network's efforts to support and share the essential and varied experiences of our rural communities.

About the Author PHIP ROSS is a member of the Rural Sites Network leadership team and is a teacher from Waverly High School, Waverly, Nebraska.

Read  pieces written during the NWP Rural Sites Network Retreat:

"Untitled" by Jeanette Hopkins

"Granny's Little Girl" by Jackie Wesson

PDF Download "Finding Our Voices: Rural Sites Network Retreat Points the Way"

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