National Writing Project

Tampa Bay Tech Institute Guided by Wisdom of NWP Network

By: Joe Bellino
Date: May 19, 2011

Summary: The Tampa Bay Area Writing Project's inaugural advanced technology institute benefited from the expertise of teachers in the Technology Liaisons Network and the NWP network.


The Tampa Bay Area Writing Project knew it needed to build capacity to deliver technology-related professional development when they had to turn participants away from technology sessions at their local annual conference. They did not have enough teachers to lead the sessions.

"With technology, people are just hungry for it," said Elisabeth Denisar-Babin, a member of the Tampa site's technology team.

To meet the demand for technology-related professional development, the site decided to hold an advanced technology institute. But because its members had no previous experience organizing such an event, they knew they needed to tap into the expertise of fellow National Writing Project teacher-consultants.

"The resources we have in our NWP community are much richer than trying to go out and do it all on our own," Denisar-Babin said. "It became vital for us not to try to work at this on our own."

A Simple Query to NWP's Tech Community

Denisar-Babin and fellow tech team member Janell Marmon first turned to the very active Technology Liaisons Network (TLN) listserv, which is open to any member of the NWP website. Members discuss a broad range of topics related to technology and the teaching of writing.

Denisar-Babin's question to the list was straightforward: "In preparation for this institute, we would like to know what other sites have done in regards to technology institutes." Within hours, she received emails from experienced colleagues that began to influence her thinking. She had originally envisioned an institute focused on technology tools—"I had over 100 cool tech tools I thought teachers could use"—but as she read the responses filling her inbox, she realized it wasn't just about the tools.

"Do workshops around technologies that the facilitators/presenters are actually using in their classrooms," replied Paul Allison from the New York City Writing Project. "Teachers need a lot of time to play."

Troy Hicks, now the director of Michigan's Chippewa River Writing Project but speaking from his many years of technology experience with the Red Cedar Writing Project, wrote, "I think that a balance between new tools, time to reflect, time to play, and active inquiry will be your best approach."

Firsthand Perspectives from Other Sites

Not long after contacting the listserv, Denisar-Babin and Marmon joined teams from twelve other NWP sites at the TLN Resource Development Retreat in Tahoe City, California. The teams created resource materials to help advance the use of technology in the teaching of writing at their individual sites.

At the retreat the women continued to get beneficial advice from colleagues, particularly those from the Nebraska Writing Project, the Prairie Lands Writing Project in Missouri, and the Red Clay Writing Project in Georgia.

"All three of their models were very different," Denisar-Babin said. Some were ongoing over the course of the year—one day a week, for instance—and some were held over consecutive days. But she and Marmon knew that whatever model they decided on should not be a "one-shot deal." They decided to plan for an event that would last a sustained period of time and allow participants to build upon each other's work.

Because of their colleagues' input, the women shifted from their original "cool tools" model to an inquiry approach relevant to the participants' individual teaching situations. "This makes for a much deeper conversation," Denisar-Babin explained.

After the retreat Denisar-Babin and Marmon, using a model similar to the Tampa site's invitational summer institute, decided on an eight-day event in July 2010 for teacher-consultants to learn, research, and experiment—with time for writing, inquiry, and creating a "demo" (a final presentation on a specific application of technology that could be used with classroom teachers). Each day would focus on a different topic: typography and text, images, audio, concept mapping, high-tech versus low-tech, and social networking.

"Then we chose tools based on those topics," Denisar-Babin said, "and we started to experiment in our classrooms." Both women felt it was important to get practical experience with a few new tools that might be discussed at the institute.

We want to build, nurture, and encourage others to really look at technology in their classrooms.

Teachers as Technology Leaders

Amy Omeara, a writing resource teacher at Crestwood Elementary School in Tampa, Florida, and Asimina Mobley, an English teacher at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida, felt compelled to attend the Advanced Institute on Technology and Writing. Since many students are already spending time away from school in a digital interconnected world, they reasoned, learning digital literacy skills is important for today's teachers.

"It's like entering their world rather than forcing them to enter ours," Omeara said.

Omeara's objective at the institute was to create a professional development session for teachers in her school. "I need it to be easily transferable in the classroom," she said.

Omeara's final presentation demonstrates ways to teach the craft of writing using video clips. "Fourth-graders have a hard time elaborating," she said, "so students watch a silent clip of a setting, and then they describe the setting." That basic format is repeated for other writing skills like describing an action or adding dialogue.

Mobley believes that proper use of digital tools enhances student learning. Her inquiry focused on how to help her Advanced Placement language and composition students grasp the basic concepts of her course.

"If they have a good foundation, I'll be able to teach them more effectively," Mobley said. Her demo illustrated how students can use video and other digital tools to apply what they're learning about rhetorical styles.

As the institute drew to a close, Denisar-Babin and Marmon talked about how this was only the beginning of their commitment to help teachers use 21st-century literacy skills to improve their practice. They were already planning future meetings during the school year.

Their first advanced institute on technology and writing produced a core group of enthusiastic, knowledgeable teacher-consultants to help with their site's invitational summer institute and young writer's camp.

Said Denisar-Babin, "We want to build, nurture, and encourage others to really look at technology in their classrooms."

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