National Writing Project

NTI Models Help University of Mississippi Writing Project Mentor New Teachers

Date: June 10, 2009

Summary: Drawing on the models developed by sites participating in the New-Teacher Initiative, the University of Mississippi Writing Project has implemented successful programs for new teachers in the state.


When looking at new and preservice teachers in Mississippi, the University of Mississippi Writing Project (UMWP) saw what many writing project sites across the nation have witnessed.

"There is a huge need in our state to retain new teachers, especially since new teachers are often dropped into grades that have high-stakes writing tests, and have received little formal writing instruction in their preservice classes," says Ellen Shelton, director of UMWP.

Adding to the problem, many of the state's teachers are going to retire soon, and, according to Shelton, teacher education programs are not attracting enough students to replace them.

The University of Mississippi Writing Project knew it could help address this challenge. Teachers needed more support and training—more empowerment—if they were going to stay in the classroom and be successful.

Drawing on the expertise of the NWP network, site leaders explored the ideas and models that other sites participating in the New-Teacher Initiative had developed, and applied those lessons to the needs of new teachers in Mississippi.

Shelton mentions one particular session at NWP's 2005 Annual Meeting, "The Apprentice: Supporting Professional Identity in New Teachers," that helped site leaders conceptualize their approach to new-teacher programs. The session emphasized supporting new teachers through learning communities that included both new teachers and experienced teacher-leaders.

At the heart of our programs is giving teachers time to talk and look at their own inquiry stance.

In developing an approach to working with new teachers, the site drew on its learning from other NWP programs as well, Shelton says. The Directors Retreat, for example, is structured to give attendees time for their own inquiry and also provides someone to guide and facilitate the process. "It's an effective approach for any programming," says Shelton.

Beyond Classroom Writing Strategies

The site's Teacher Mentoring Program , now in its fourth year, partners mentor teachers with new teachers at the same grade level.

"We partner teachers with mentors who work in the same sort of situations, such as grade level, school size, and community characteristics," says Shelton.

The mentors make presentations on four main topics—writing to build community, writing through nonfiction, writing to promote thinking, and writing across the curriculum—and then break these large topics into individual classroom activities for discussion.

Mentors aren't just mentors, though, but facilitators of conversations. "At the heart of our programs is giving teachers time to talk and look at their own inquiry stance," says Shelton. "Conversations don't focus on teachers' complaints, but on how to help each other with challenges. Our mentors give advice about what teachers might try in their classrooms, and then the teachers try it out and share. We give them a base for their own search."

One new teacher clearly benefitted from this approach: "As a new teacher I find it's sometimes hard to motivate writers. This workshop really prepares teachers for teaching writing and the writing process.  It also gives many wonderful new and fun activities to get students in the 'writing mood.'"

Another teacher said, "Overall what was most helpful to me was breaking into small groups with our designated mentors and having them share ideas on how to help students learn to write across the curriculum."

The mentoring series is similar to a summer institute in that teachers bond not only with their mentors, but with the writing project network—and with other new teachers.

"Sometimes a new teacher might be more interested in talking to another new teacher, so each session always has a focus on community building and sharing ideas to reinforce the network."

The program continues to evolve. The site received grants to partner with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and extend the series to preservice teachers.

"We target preservice teachers who are going into impoverished schools, and we focus on issues of race and poverty," says Shelton. "It's a similar format to our mentoring program, but we've added discussions."

Now the site plans to extend the program to veteran teachers who expressed a need for similar mentoring. You might say that a teacher is always a new teacher, at least in part.

From New Teacher to Future Mentor

Some teachers don't stop with the mentoring series, but apply to the site's invitational summer institute. "What I love about this program is that we get to help new teachers and even tap a few to be future summer institute participants," says Shelton.

And those teachers might become future mentors, says Shelton, noting how the mentoring program helps build teacher-consultant leadership and develop the site's bench strength for inservice leadership.

"We've found that teachers who might not enjoy working with large groups are often excellent mentors, so this program helps us build our teacher-consultant core. Some of the teachers who started off with us are now coordinating other programs and partnerships, so they mentor other folks into their positions, which makes our inservice leadership two or three deep."

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