National Writing Project

Professional Writing at the Core of Oklahoma State University Writing Project

Date: March 2008

Summary: OSUWP's professional writing retreats transform teachers into competent writers of professional articles.


When Eileen Simmons, a teacher-leader at Oklahoma State University Writing Project (OSUWP), attended a Project Outreach Writing Retreat in 1999, she could not have known how the experience would transform her professional life—and later, her site.

In spite of her extensive writing—everything from columns in the local newspaper to articles in English Journal and NEA Today—and editing the Oklahoma English Journal and the OSUWP newsletter, Simmons didn't consider herself a writer.

"I've always thought of myself as a teacher," she said.

Guided by the NWP facilitators at the Project Outreach retreat and at two of NWP's professional writing retreats, Simmons began to think about her teaching experiences from a professional perspective. The facilitators led her to understand that professional writing has, at its base, solid research and an understanding of why a teaching strategy works.

But she was one of the lucky ones; not all site leaders can take advantage of one of NWP's annual professional writing retreats. So Simmons began to ask herself how "the time, the space, and the gentle coaching" that she needed to focus on her writing could be replicated for others at her site.

Helping Teachers Become Professional Writers

NWP's national retreats are actually designed not only to further professional writing, but to support participants in thinking broadly about how professional writing can be supported at their local writing project site as part of a rich set of continuity programs for teacher-consultants.

Did they view themselves solely as teachers, or as teachers and professional writers?

Simmons helped spearhead efforts to bring the NWP writing retreat model to her site's professional development work. Over the years, she and other OSUWP site leaders have made teacher inquiry and professional writing more central both to the site's programs for teacher-consultants and to the open institutes supported by NWP minigrants or through long-term partnerships.

In fact, today all OSUWP professional development proposals include a budget for writing retreats.

While OSUWP's retreats proved to be successful, OSUWP leaders found that many of their participants faced a challenge similar to the one Simmons faced at her first retreat—delving deeper into a teaching strategy to understand why it works and pushing it to a level beyond simple narrative.

Often retreat participants were more interested in writing memoir, description, or children's stories, and if they had a teacher story, it tended to be a narrative with no research base. As with Simmons, did they view themselves solely as teachers, or as teachers and professional writers?

OSUWP site leaders were frustrated with their lack of success in getting these writers to publication. Many writers came to the retreats, but few articles resulted, and even fewer of them were professional articles.

Long-Term Commitment Essential for Publication

When OSUWP received a Professional Writing Retreat minigrant, the site decided to try something new—to host a sitewide writing retreat that brought together writers who had participated in previous retreats. It invited teacher-leaders who had participated in site retreats focusing on such programs as NWP's New-Teacher Initiative and the site's partnership with Tulsa Community College. Emerging OSUWP leaders were also invited to participate.

There was one requirement to attend the retreat: as with NWP's Writing Retreat B, Editing for Publication, writers had to submit as their application a draft of the article they would work on. The retreat planners were clear in their expectation that the writers would be published, but only if they met the criteria.

Each article had to reference not only a classroom strategy, but the research that grounded the strategy. In one draft, for instance, a community college instructor wrote an initial draft about his use of video games in his composition class. This early draft was primarily a teacher narrative. To qualify for inclusion in the sitewide publication, he had to find research that supported his classroom practice and integrate it into his subsequent drafts.

The retreat generated strong professional writing that was ready for publication. Why? When OSUWP site leaders analyzed the writing retreat experiences, they realized that personal narrative is a comfortable starting place for many teacher-writers, but being part of the NWP's professional learning community can lead them to go beyond narration to reflective, research-supported writing about their teaching practice.

Teachers who have taken part in our programs discover that their classroom intuition has a solid basis in pedagogical research.

The site discovered that getting new teacher-writers to publication takes a long-term commitment from the site. The writers have to build trust, attend many meetings, and go to as many writing retreats as the site can fund. For those who have stayed with the process there have been significant results. Teachers have used their work for National Board Certification and have published in local statewide publications. They have also used retreat pieces in their dissertations and at conferences.

Britton Gildersleeve, OSUWP's site director says, "We hope as part of our long-term plan to encourage teacher-consultants and others at retreats to send site-published pieces to off-site publications such as NCTE's English Journal. However, we've had to move them to site publication first—almost without exception, none of these teachers had published previously."

"Teachers who have taken part in our programs discover that their classroom intuition has a solid basis in pedagogical research," Simmons said. "As a facilitator, I try to be gentle but persuasive in insisting that research be incorporated into the writing. The NWP facilitators who coached me gave me a powerful model for my own coaching."

The benefits of integrating professional writing into the core work of the OSUWP have far outweighed the challenges, according to Simmons, especially as the site has learned how to better coach first-time writers toward becoming professional writers.

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