National Writing Project

After the Summer Institute: Opportunities for Teacher Leadership

By: Linda Friedrich
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: The National Writing Project, along with Inverness Research Associates and Ann Lieberman of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has launched a study on the nature of teacher leadership developed through the writing project. This article, drawing on interview data from the study, highlights TCs' descriptions of how they contribute to their students, their peers, and their writing project sites, and how their connection with their local writing project nurtures them as teachers and leaders...

 

After the summer institute, I had the feeling that it was no longer good enough for me to just . . . teach in my own classroom. . . . The biggest change for me was that I needed to expand my world and . . . to start sharing with other people.

—My Linh Le, teacher-consultant, Central Los Angeles Writing Project

Following the intense weeks of the writing project summer institute, teacher-consultants (TC) echo a common refrain, "The writing project changed my life!" Part of this transformation is visible in TCs' classrooms; part of it is evident in an expanded sense of professional identity as captured above. Fortunately, the final day of the summer institute isn't the end—it represents the beginning of participation in a community of teachers who learn together, write together, and work to serve students, teachers, schools, and districts. In particular, the writing project offers teachers a forum for sharing their practice and provides ongoing support for developing their practice and their leadership skills.

Over the past two years, the National Writing Project, along with Inverness Research Associates and Ann Lieberman, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has conducted a study on the nature of teacher leadership developed through the writing project. We are learning about the roles writing project TCs play; the ways in which the writing project fosters TCs' leadership capacity; the content of TCs' work; and the influence of TCs' work in a variety of arenas (see "New NWP Study," The Voice, Volume 9, Number 1). This article, drawing on interview data collected from site directors and TCs at twelve sites during the first phase of the study in 2003–2004, highlights TCs' descriptions of how they contribute to their students, their peers, and their writing project sites, and how their ongoing connection with their local writing project nurtures them as teachers and as leaders.

Making a Difference for Students and Their Writing

I have always been dedicated to writing, but I have become driven by students' writing. I always taught writing, but I teach it zealously now. It was the writing project that got me into this.

—Jean Plummer, teacher-consultant, Maine Writing Project

Commitment to students and dedication to supporting their development as writers is central to all writing project TCs' work. Therefore, their teaching of writing becomes their first leadership role and also serves as an ongoing source of authority for their many roles. Jean Plummer, a Maine Writing Project TC since 1998 and a high school English teacher for more than four decades, offers this perspective: "Needless to say, just being a teacher is probably the most important leadership role I have . . . , just being able to teach students all year long." Following the summer institute, she worried that the two-and-a-half-hour drive from her home to the site would make staying connected with the writing project impossible, so she collaborated with other TCs to develop and facilitate an on-campus camp for young writers. For six years the young authors' camp has offered her the opportunity to work both with students and with writing project colleagues on the university campus, which also helps "keep [herself] alive academically." Through this leadership role, Plummer expresses her dedication to students' future success. "For me, one of the reasons [the camp] is important for our students is that they get onto a college campus for upward mobility, motivation, and the inspiration aspect of it, not to mention the wonderful writing."

Serving Teachers and Building Community

To me, if I work with a teacher, they can reach their students.

—My Linh Le, teacher-consultant, Central Los Angeles Writing Project

TCs describe a direct connection between their work with other teachers, their commitment to students, and their own teaching. Through the writing project, many TCs realize the importance of contributing to the teaching profession and identify a particular area of their practice that they want to make public. For example, My Linh Le now regularly shares her method of setting up and facilitating writing workshop with her second and third grade students—most of whom are English language learners. She demonstrates to other teachers how she creates a classroom where "every single one [of her students], regardless of what level they are [and] what language they speak, are all being effective writers and helping each other." Her success with getting her students to write well and independently forms the basis for her leadership.

Writing project sites facilitate the sharing of practice by identifying opportunities for TCs to present their work. In Le's case, the writing project's site directors asked her to identify her interests at the close of the summer institute and then established multiple opportunities for her to lead. They invited her to lead project-sponsored Saturday seminars, engaged her in leading workshops for schools and districts that requested professional development about writing workshop, and sent prospective teachers to observe her classroom. As she gained experience, Le was encouraged to present at national conferences and was invited by her site to colead a ten-hour summer course.

Writing project TCs also build community and seek ways to strengthen the teaching of writing inside their schools. Gail Setter, a TC with the Oakland (MI) Writing Project and the department chair for her high school, sees her largest contribution as building "community among teachers that has led to a change in culture that ultimately improves student achievement." With other writing project TCs in her school, Setter facilitated a process through which the 16 teachers in her department collaboratively developed, administered, and scored a pre/post writing assessment for all 1,600 students in the school. Through this process, Setter and her colleagues not only developed as teachers of writing but created a situation "where there is equity and . . . teachers are having the same conversations with students across the building, with a shared understanding of what the standards are."

As Le and Setter's stories indicate, involvement in the writing project is not one-dimensional, nor is it a one-time event. The experience of D.C. Area Writing Project TC Azalie Hightower, a veteran high school English teacher, illustrates the range of roles that a single TC might play over many years of involvement. In the ten years since she participated in the summer institute, Hightower has, in her own words, "done a lot of hard work." She lists her numerous roles:

I have done workshops.

I cofacilitate the summer institute, and I have done . . . little things at the pre-institute luncheon.

I have participated in our spring [fundraising] gala for the writing

project. . . . We are honoring Ishmael Reed this time [Spring 2004], he is going to come, and I have helped with that.

I have helped with the New Teacher Initiative Institute.

I mentor teachers during the summer institute.

I have written some poetry that I put on the E-Anthology a couple of years ago and I have written articles for our [site newsletter].

I have gone into the office and just been a gopher.

The students have a summer [writing] camp and I have helped edit the poetry [from that].

These roles, sponsored by her writing project site, include opportunities to share practice, facilitate the growth of other teachers, publish her own writing, provide administrative support for the site, and foster student writing. While not every TC plays this many roles, the breadth of Hightower's work highlights the range of opportunities available to TCs.

Fostering the Development of Leaders: Participating in a Community of Like-minded Professionals

Writing project sites not only establish opportunities for TCs to share their expertise and to do meaningful work; they also facilitate access to the knowledge and resources, and connections to colleagues, that help TCs to deepen their practice and succeed as leaders. Sites facilitate powerful, informal networks through which TCs can exchange ideas and prepare to take on leadership roles. The D.C. Area Writing Project (DCAWP) illustrates how TCs support other TCs who are preparing to take on new tasks. Geraldine Meredith, an early childhood teacher, describes her induction into making presentations:

When I first started, I would really work with a partner, just for the safety. But I have gained a lot of confidence and I am able to go out on my own and present. They have taught me how to conduct a workshop, how to gather my materials, and even the handouts that I might present. . . . We are taught to bring our gifts with us.

Meredith's experience highlights some strategies sites use to ease new TCs into new roles, including partnering them with more experienced TCs and encouraging them to engage in work with peers.

Support doesn't disappear after the first presentation. Judith Kelly, the site director, keeps a record of each presentation made by a DCAWP teacher-consultant and typically recommends whom TCs might turn to for assistance. In turn, the TCs not only offer concrete resources and materials, but also provide guidance on effective presentation strategies, support each other in designing sessions, and even listen to rehearsals of presentations. This system works. As Meredith notes, "I have yet to call anyone and be turned down."

Sites also offer more formal opportunities for TCs to deepen their knowledge and hone their presentation and leadership skills. For example, since 1990, the University of California Irvine Writing Project has sponsored an annual program called Writing Project II, which meets for three hours once a month during the school year. Each year the group selects a new area to study, such as refining skills for making presentations, moving from scaffolding students' writing to facilitating self-directed student writing, and exploring the implications of genre theory for classroom practice. Writing Project II emphasizes the importance of gaining new knowledge and structures its meetings so that TCs share their practice through demonstrations, conversation, and the exchange of resources. Angie Balius, an elementary teacher who completed the summer institute in 2001, describes Writing Project II as an opportunity "to continue the camaraderie and the level of dialogue that you got during the summer writing project." Participating in both formal and informal learning opportunities with colleagues who share a common philosophy supports TCs in honing their teaching practice and deepens the connection between classroom practice and leadership.

Building Your Writing Project Site

Q. What does that mean exactly, to be a teacher-consultant? What do you do?

A. Continue to support your site and you try to bring other people into your site. You try to use the skills that you have learned from other teachers and you try to help other teachers.

—Teacher-Consultant Focus Group Interview, NWP Annual Meeting, San Francisco, November 2003

TCs experience the writing project as a forum where they are encouraged to grow personally and professionally. Further, TCs appreciate how the writing project supports them in doing meaningful work that builds on their expertise and contributes to students' learning. Because of this, TCs seek to serve other teachers by inviting them to become part of the writing project. In fact, many of the TCs interviewed told stories about taking responsibility for bringing other teachers into the writing project, after explaining that they were recruited by other TCs.

In addition to leading writing project work and identifying prospective TCs, teacher-consultants play a wide range of background roles that contribute to the overall growth and health of their writing project sites. Site directors often turn to veteran TCs to help them keep new TCs actively involved in doing work for the site. For example, Susanne Conklin, who has been a TC with the Connecticut Writing Project-Fairfield for the past six years and is now an assistant principal, tells how another TC encouraged her to make the transition from attending events for her "own personal enrichment" to becoming "a leader of groups, rather than just a participant in groups."

TCs also generate inservice work for their sites. Now that Conklin, a member of her site's leadership team, is an administrator, she sees part of her role as building a writing project presence in schools. "Because I am in a new district, I have to bring the writing project to them now. I see that as my work [for] the next few years." Directors encourage TCs to make their affiliation with the writing project visible and to serve as "ambassadors" for the work.

TCs view this behind-the-scenes work as a key part of their role. Sustaining the site means sustaining a professional conversation among colleagues and contributing to students' learning by reaching their teachers. Marie Blake, now a retired teacher and co-director of the D.C. Area Writing Project, expresses the motivations that fuel many TCs in this way:

I have learned so much to bring to teachers, because so many don't get a chance . . . to go to conventions and that is a motivation. One other motivation, I think for all of us, is that we know that the children don't get the writing that they should. . . . So one thing I try to do is to encourage the teachers in different ways to do writing.

By building their writing project sites, TCs contribute to students' learning, serve other teachers, and create a vibrant professional home for strengthening the teaching of writing. The teacher leadership study will offer additional insight into the writing project's support for teacher leadership in future NWP publications.

About the Author Linda Friedrich is a senior research associate with the National Writing Project.

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