National Writing Project

Writing Project Partners with Denver High School for Six Years and Counting

By: Elizabeth Radin Simons
Date: March 24, 2009

Summary: Just as they have for five years, Northglenn High School teachers left "The Reading/Writing Connection," offered by the Denver Writing Project, with a bounty of new ideas about how to use writing to stimulate learning in their classrooms.


Annamaria Archuleta and Marc Vidulich participate in "The Reading/Writing Connection."

At the first meeting of "The Reading/Writing Connection," put on by the Denver Writing Project (DWP) at Northglenn High School in Denver, Molly Huffman had an epiphany after hearing Jessica Keigan's presentation on pitching stories "Hollywood style" as a way to engage students in writing.

"I teach health in my physical education classes and one of our units that's really hard to get kids to buy into is birth control," said Huffman. "I'm going to have kids do a sales pitch on `Why Birth Control?'"

A social studies teacher also had an ah-ha moment when he thought about having kids do a book report as a movie pitch.

In a former life, Keigan, a fellow at DWP's 2008 summer institute, pitched scripts in Hollywood, and her workshop offered ideas for pitching scripts as an innovative way to use writing.

Moments of relevance and excitement occurred throughout the first meeting of DWP's "The Reading/Writing Connection"—heading into its sixth year with Northglenn High School—as teachers of all disciplines learned how they can use writing to foster learning.

Toward the end of Keigan's presentation, the group discussed other possible uses of writing across the curriculum.

Rich Argys, co-director of the Denver Writing Project and a teacher at Northglenn, mentioned an effective strategy that Bob Tierney describes in his article "Let's Take Another Look at the Fish: The Writing Process as Discovery" in NWP's 2002 publication Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching Writing. Tierney, a science teacher, had his students keep their textbooks and their notes in the classroom, and for homework they had to think about, recall, and summarize everything they remembered about the lesson that day.

Many of the teachers in the Saturday workshop cited Tierney's idea in their exit cards at the end of the day as a strategy they were going to try. Throughout the five years of the course, participating teachers have reported changes in their practice after attending the presentations that Denver Writing Project teacher-consultants conduct.

The catch phrase would be ‘adaptability and meeting school needs.’

Meeting the Needs of the School

Argys and Alice Smith, a DWP teacher-consultant, are coplanners of the series. When Argys started the DWP/Northglenn partnership with a study group in 2003, he had a vision of staffwide professional development at his school. His vision took only a year to be realized.

The first writing across the curriculum course was offered in 2004 and the annual series has continued ever since. In the last five years, and through two principals, the school has supported a multisession workshop series, redesigned each year to meet the specific needs and interests of Northglenn teachers.

Why has the series of courses lasted and thrived? "The catch phrase would be `adaptability and meeting school needs,'" says Argys.

When Argys attended the DWP summer institute, he learned about the NWP inservice model of making effective practices available and helping teachers adapt them to their contexts, a model that has met the needs of Northglenn teachers.

The agenda for this first session of "The Reading/Writing Connection" (PDF) is a fine example of the model: The day opens with writing and sharing writing, followed by a presentation by a teacher-consultant, then an hour for professional reading and discussion, followed by lunch. After lunch is a period of guided writing, and the workshop closes with time to share ideas and personal writing, especially writing geared toward how to adapt the presentations for one's classes.

The Northglenn administration continues to financially support the partnership because they see results. "The word of mouth," Argys reports, "is that the classes are good . . . really good."

Enthusiastic participants share what they learn with colleagues; strategies and materials are disseminated. School administrators value the quality professional development and find a way to fund it year after year.

That’s what real professional development looks like: teachers growing in a community of learners and writers.

Adaptability in Challenging Times

With a cohort of teachers who regularly take the course (this year three science teachers, the special education department chair, and a former English department chair, are veterans of the course), Argys designs the content anew each year.

As co-director, he attends the summer institute and coaches new fellows. "During the summer institute, I am coaching presenters and looking for good presenters. I need math and science presenters. I need teachers with expertise in ESL. Each year I've got a short list from the past summer of people I'll invite. The upshot is my focus each year depends largely on what demonstrations develop during the course of the summer institute."

Logistics also call for adaptability. "This year the school's gotten busier. I have to be careful when I schedule. For the first time, instead of after school, we're offering a series of Saturday sessions."

Argys feels fortunate to have been in the same school for a long time, to know the needs of the school, and to have established a good reputation for his professional development, but it's not a cakewalk.

"In this day and age everyone wants a quick fix because we are all under fire from many different directions. More is being asked of teachers, who have less time for professional development."

Undaunted, Argys, now with his colleague Alice Smith, moves forward. He has good reasons. "A lot of my motivation is just to give back to the writing project because I got so much out of my summer institute."

Smith agrees. "I don't think most people realize it, but that's what real professional development looks like: teachers growing in a community of learners and writers. It's not just a collection of new strategies, research, and data to pile onto a teacher's already-burdened to-do list. That's why I plan to continue the Saturday retreats next year and will be working with Rich and the DWP to scope out demonstrations and writing activities from the 2009 summer institute."

In fact, Argys is mentoring Smith to take over facilitation of the series next year. She will inherit the good will and respect that Argys has built on behalf of DWP with their Northglenn High School colleagues.

The Reading/Writing Connection Session Agenda

PDF Download "The Reading/Writing Connection Session Agenda"

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