National Writing Project

New-Site Directors Tell Their Stories

By: NWP Staff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 1
Date: 2006

Summary: The Voice introduces the directors of five new sites that have recently joined the NWP network: Bruce McComiskey, Red Mountain Writing Project (Alabama); Lucy Stanovick and Lesliee Antonette of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writing Project; Nanci Werner-Burke and Richard Heyler of the Endless Mountain Writing Project (Pennsylvania); Bobbie Solley and Trixie Smith of the Middle Tennessee Writing Project; and Cheryl Hines of the Pearl of the Concho Writing Project (Texas).

 

Bruce McComiskey

Bruce McComiskey, Director

Red Mountain Writing Project
University of Alabama
Birmingham, Alabama

Bruce McComiskey fell in love with teaching writing as a nineteen-year-old sophomore in the English department at Illinois State University (ISU) when he was recruited to work as an undergraduate teaching assistant for freshmen students who needed extra help in first-year composition. Working with these students on their drafts, and assigning and grading journals, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. And even then he was learning lessons that would years later prove invaluable to him as a writing project director.

"Writing teachers can go only so far in addressing any class as a whole. Some of the most valuable teaching we do happens when we are sitting right next to our students with their papers in our hands, discussing with them ways to support an argument more effectively or express an idea more vividly."

Having recognized he wanted to be a teacher of writing, McComiskey enrolled in the English Education program at ISU in the early 1990s. In that program he was required to perform a series of 20-minute laboratory lessons. "And how could I teach invention or revision or development, the aspects of the composing process about which I really cared, in twenty minutes?" he wondered.

This interest in the more creative aspects of the composing process led McComiskey to enroll in the Ph.D. program in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University and eventually led to his current position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

When Maryann Manning recruited him to share her directorship of the new NWP site at the university (Manning, who teaches in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the university was profiled in The Voice, 2005, Vol. 10, no 3), McComiskey "jumped at the chance. Something I've never tried before? Sign me up."

Red Mountain has now held two summer institutes at which they have taken on the special challenge of the state writing assessment test. According to Manning and McComiskey, "Our effort in each of our summer institutes has been, in part, to help teachers whose students are struggling with this test to more effectively teach the modes of description, narration, exposition, and persuasion required by the test. Although there is far more to our summer institute than test preparation, we realize that we cannot ignore this high-stakes test."

The Red Mountain site also works with teachers whose interests lie more in learning how to extend students' writing abilities beyond the test's limited requirements. This mix of teachers makes it possible for each participant in the summer institute to learn a lot from the others, "whether their aims are modest or grand."

As a site director McComiskey sees himself "not as an authority, but as a manager, a person who helps organize and maintain a `safe house' where teachers can energize their minds and go back to their own classrooms ready to write—and teach writing. Real writing."


Lucy Stanovick

Lucy Stanovick, Director
Lesliee Antonette, Program Coordinator

Northeastern Pennsylvania Writing Project
East Stroudsburg University
East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania

The Northeastern Pennsylvania Writing Project began with Lucy Stanovick. She says she was responding to the expressed needs of the local educational community. "A K–16 council composed of area superintendents, deans, and teachers had an interest in bridging the gap between college and public schools. Council members got the idea that a writing project might go a long way toward achieving this goal. The dean of professional studies and chair of the K–16 council was a Bay Area teacher-consultant who encouraged me to apply."

At this point Lesliee Antonette, who now serves as program coordinator for the site, came on board. "Every site needs someone who knows the bureaucracy," says Antonette. "I took on the job of paperwork manager so my colleagues could focus on the development of the project."

As the site has evolved, a three-person leadership team emerged, with Susanne Rasely, a high school teacher of English and Spanish, serving as co-director. Antonette says of Ralsey, "She is interested in developing critical conversations among her peers. She's done a magnificent job of providing a model of the benefits of participation in the project."

Lesliee Antonette

As the team has immersed itself in the work of the project they have derived some larger lessons. According to Antonette they have learned that site leaders do not necessarily need to see eye to eye 100 percent of the time. "Lucy and I come from different disciplines, I from English, she from education, so we tend to get caught up in the jargon of our respective fields, and sometimes this makes it difficult to figure out that we actually agree on many ideas. We have come to the recognition that we are growing and changing in our relationship to this project and to one another. This is also what we hope for our summer institute fellows and teacher-consultants. We want them to be able to grow in their relationships with themselves and others. However, we must recognize as well that growth is not always comfortable. We hope to model for them the paradoxical situation of being comfortable with the discomfort of personal growth."

Stanovick also has stories that she casts in a large context. "Vanessa Brown from the Philadelphia Writing Project and Pat Fox from the National Writing Project were scheduled to visit our site a year ago January. We had two and a half days of meetings scheduled back to back with everyone from the university president to our newly appointed graduate assistant. The logistics were ready. Then at midday the snowstorm hit and the best-laid plans went astray. Pat experienced a treacherous car slide; Vanessa's two-hour drive turned into a four-plus-hour trek through whiteouts. As the hour we were supposed to meet with the president approached, Lesliee sent her husband over to take my kids to school, and she held down the fort until I arrived."

Once the snow flurries settled, Stanovick was able to wax philosophical about what this incident meant in terms of the writing project's big picture. "To me, this was symbolic of the project: It is learning that you are not in it alone, and that nothing is so dire that it can't be revised. It is the spirit of taking risks, having faith, and working together."


Nanci Werner-Burke

Nanci Werner-Burke and Richard Heyler, Directors

Endless Mountain Writing Project
Mansfield University
Mansfield, Pennsylvania

When the superintendent of the Athens, Pennsylvania, school district passed on to middle school teacher Dick Heyler some information about the National Writing Project, Heyler's thought was "this is something we need here in North Central Pennsylvania." He had gone through the summer institute at Penn State about ten years earlier and been converted to the value of writing project work.

Probably the reason the superintendent chose Heyler was that he was "kind of the writing guy" in his school district. He had, a few years before, received a $25,000 Milken grant (from the Milken Family Foundation, which funds innovation in education).

Heyler believes that this recognition came to him because of his special interest in involving students in oral history. ("Our oral history program systematically covers all the state of Pennsylvania's literacy standards.") Heyler has been responsible for organizing a program that annually brings 1,200 visitors to an oral history fair at his school.

Learning there was a Milken fellow in the community, Nanci Werner-Burke, assistant professor of education at nearby Mansfield University, had contacted Heyler to see if he would do some sessions with the teachers she works with. Heyler agreed, and the two had become colleagues.

Heyler understood that if the writing project was to put down an anchor in this community he would need to find a university sponsor, so he contacted Werner-Burke, the only person he knew at Mansfield.

"Dick came in and showed me a map of NWP locations," says Werner-Burke. "Our geographical area was conspicuous for its lack of representation." So the two decided to forge ahead.

Dick Heyler

In 2005 the new site graduated its first 20 summer institute fellows, representing all five school districts in its service area. Some came a great distance to participate. "One of our teachers drove 85 miles each way, each day," Heyler says.

Werner-Burke offers evidence of how this first group of teacher-consultants came together. "One of our TCs moved to a different state shortly after the conclusion of the institute. When the time came for our first inservice, he found himself far from the area with a car that chose that time to break down. Due to the expenses of relocating he was financially strapped and sent his regrets. The rest of the TCs mobilized and pooled funds so that he could get transportation. To me, this was evidence of the community we had formed."

Given the expanse of their service area and the fact that the site had only had a chance to sponsor one group of teacher-consultants, Heyler and Werner-Burke devised a creative way to get started with inservice offerings. Heyler says, "On one day in Athens, we brought 18 of our teacher-consultants together to do what we called a `consortium' with the district. Every one of the district's teachers cycled through four sessions with our TCs. Administrators told us teachers were reporting that this was about the best inservice they had ever had."

Werner-Burke highlights the consortium, which was organized and implemented by first-year teacher-consultants, as an accomplishment "because it really shows how committed our people are in that they are still going strong after the summer institute is over." This spring the teacher-consultants will replay their consortium in another nearby district.

What keeps all of this momentum going? The site directors note, "It's a boost every time one of our folks sends an update on how their students are doing good things with writing."


Bobbie Solley

Bobbie Solley and Trixie Smith, Directors

Middle Tennessee Writing Project
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

A writing project director needs to know writing. A writing project director needs to know education. So what is the most appropriate background for a person who takes on this job? Though Bobbie Solley and Trixie Smith both have expertise in each of these areas, they do have different specialties. And that's one reason they decided to share the directorship at this new writing project.

Solley, a former teacher of fifth- and sixth-graders, is a professor in the Department of Elementary and Special Education at Middle Tennessee State University.

Smith, a former middle school and high school teacher, now teaches in the English Department at Middle Tennessee State and directs the university's writing center.

Solley, who some years before had participated in the Sunbelt Writing Project, conceived the idea of a writing project site at the university. The Sunbelt experience had motivated her to return to graduate school to pursue an Ed.D. with an emphasis on writing. "Until the writing project, I had spent years in the classroom struggling with helping students become better writers, but I had never found a really effective way. After the writing project I used what I had learned at the summer institute in the workshops I was doing with a small liberal arts college, but I knew I wanted to learn more." So she went off to graduate school at the University of Georgia, where she took up studies on topics such as the relation between kids' self-talk and their writing.

Solley wanted someone to share leadership of the proposed writing project site, and Smith, as director of the university's writing center, seemed like just the right candidate. But, being the member of the team less familiar with the NWP, Smith wanted to get up to speed before applying for a grant. So she attended the NWP Annual Meeting, where she learned about such things as university/school/community collaborations, young writers' camps, types of NWP grants, and NWP networks.

Now that she has taken on the writing project work, Smith is drawing the connection between working in the university writing center and working with the writing project.

"Working with the writing project has renewed my commitment to having tutors write at our staff meetings each week. If they are going to work with writers on a regular basis, they need to see themselves as writers too—no matter what major they are from."

It is perhaps a very good thing that the Middle Tennessee Writing Project has two directors, as they have taken on a very large task, which Smith describes as "changing the culture of writing in Middle Tennessee." That culture, Smith says, is test driven, and it is also negative, in that there is lots of blame being passed around instead of celebrating strengths and using them to build new skills.

Trixie Smith

"What we would like to see is more people writing and more valuing writing as a process, not just as a product. We'd especially like to see more teachers and school administrators view themselves as writers."

Solley explains what their fledgling project is doing to move toward these ambitious goals: "The dean of our college just hosted a luncheon for our site, to which we invited principals and superintendents. We talked to them—some one-on-one—about what we can do for them and what they can do for us."

Solley admits to some resistance: "Some administrators believe they should get free inservice programs because it is `only' teachers who are presenting."

What is her response? "What I tell them is that these teachers are professional educators with specialized expertise in the teaching of writing. I talk to them about the hours these teachers have spent in school gaining more knowledge. I feel very strongly that the teachers who went through our first institute are as good as any I've ever seen. They are fantastic presenters and have enthusiasm that is infectious. That's what I try to get across to administrators."


Cheryl Hines

Cheryl Hines, Director

Pearl of the Concho Writing Project
Angelo State University
San Angelo, Texas

Because we are only now profiling Pearl of the Concho Writing Project Director Cheryl Hines, who took on the new site job in 2004, she is able to comment on her experience from a perspective not available to first-year directors: she can reflect on two summer institutes.

"We have an every-other-month meeting of our teacher-consultants beginning in September, and in September of last year the 2005 summer institute participants showcased their writing for our 2004 group. I thought that would be a good way to `blend' the two groups."

This talent for community building may be one of the qualities that Liz Stephens, director of the Texas State Writing Project Network, noticed when she met Hines and recruited her to lead a writing project site. Hines had no previous experience with the writing project, so Stephens decided to ease her into the network by asking her to conduct a satellite institute through Stephens's Central Texas Writing Project. The experience hooked Hines. "I saw that in this area the need for writing ideas and strategies was overwhelming, and these enthusiastic teachers wanted more."

Hines's personal passion has always been children's literature, and although she understands that a good part of the summer institute is dedicated to giving teachers a chance to teach teachers, she can't help but bring her own expertise to her work with the project. "I feel I'm a good resource to teachers. I share new titles with them in the newsletter we send out every other month. And I keep my own children's lit library available in our office. It's a good resource."

As a second-year director, Hines is a little older but a lot wiser. Of recruiting she says, "I knew we wanted to get teacher-leaders. One way we accomplished this was that I required a letter of recommendation from the teacher's principal."

Hines was able to move confidently in this recruiting effort because she had experienced firsthand the success of her first summer institute. "As our first institute convened, everyone in our building—professors, other students, the dean—seemed to sense the institute had brought a new energy to the environment. They asked `What are you doing? Everyone seems so excited.'"

In making these approaches, Hines had at her back memories of her first summer institute, an experience that, while exciting, some found a little daunting. "When on the first day we explained that a feature of the institute would be author's chair, in which everyone had a chance to read to the group, one participant, a high school algebra teacher, responded, `Well, you will never see me in that chair!' That afternoon her writing group had her writing a poem about algebra. The next morning she was the first one in the author's chair. That was a moment everyone will remember."

If Hines's voice conveys an unlimited abundance of enthusiasm, it may be that, as she says, she "doesn't see problems, only solutions." Case in point: "This summer, with the price of fuel up, teachers, many of whom traveled long distances to get to the institute, were paying a lot for gas. We had enough money budgeted that we could provide them a stipend to help with the cost. Next year I'll need to budget for this expense as well."

So no problem.

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