National Writing Project

Creating Relevance Across Grade Levels

By: Elinor L. Michel
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 3
Date: May-June 2003

Summary: Although a diversity of grade levels is a goal for directors putting together a cadre of colleagues for the invitational summer institute, it doesn't always work out. In spring 2000, Elinor L. Michel of the Northwest Inland Writing Project (Idaho), found herself with a large gap between teachers' grade levels. Here, she outlines strategies she used to create a relevant experience for all the participants, kindergarten through university.


As a writing project director and veteran of many summer institutes, I can say with authority that some aspects of the summer institute model are more difficult to pull off than others. Consider, for instance, the model's commitment to drawing in teachers from different grade levels and a variety of content areas.

Although participant diversity is a primary goal of the National Writing Project, it can also overwhelm summer institute facilitators. In a typical institute of the mostly rural Northwest Inland Writing Project (Idaho), we'll have a couple of veteran teachers with over 15 years' experience each; a couple of beginning teachers, sometimes with only student-teaching experience; a college composition instructor, often a part-timer; several teachers from rural schools where they have five preps a day in a single junior/senior high school or elementary classes with 16 students; and teachers from cities with populations of 20,000 to 30,000 people with two high schools, three middle schools, and elementary classes with 25 to 30 students a day. While in theory we recognize that teachers of writing from all grade levels have much to learn from each other, we know that it will not necessarily be clear to a first-year elementary teacher that she has much to say to the experienced senior high teachers, nor will it be clear to the senior high teachers that they have any reason to listen to the elementary teacher as she presents her workshop.

In spring 2000, I suddenly faced a diversity problem we'd never had: Out of 13 fellows, 6 were first- and second grade teachers, and 7 taught at the eighth grade through college level. None came from the intermediate grades. I knew the potential difficulties this could create for each fellow as he planned and presented his workshop. Each one could lose the attention of over half the group since those fellows might not see the relevance of that workshop to their teaching situation. As a result of this unusual situation, the facilitators and I generated several strategies that we continue using to help all our teachers realize they can learn from each other.

Brainstorm in Mixed Grade-Level Groups

At our initial preinstitute meeting, we have the fellows meet in mixed grade-level groups to brainstorm the problems they are having in teaching writing. We generate a whole-group list of about 35 problems, many of which we are able to categorize under 10 to 12 topics. These include lack of student motivation for writing, student disinterest in revision or editing, lack of time for holding conferences with students, inability to teach students how to respond effectively to peers' writing, ways to handle the paperload, and ways to teach usage, mechanics, and punctuation. Fellows jot down 3 to 5 activities or strategies they currently use that address some of these problems.

After sharing these in small groups, most fellows see that strategies they've been using over the years, and assumed others already knew, are not automatically understood or practiced by other teachers. A primary teacher may also realize that an activity she employs is easily adaptable by a secondary teacher. Judy Bieze—a National Board certified teacher, an Idaho teacher of the year, and a second grade teacher—realized that a workshop describing how she helped her students add details to their writing could be useful to a college teacher faced with the same problem. Bev Wolff, a first grade teacher with a background in drama, discovered that teaching others to facilitate script writing using their subject matter content was highly interesting to and usable by secondary teachers.

Identify Traits of Effective Inservice

After the institute begins, we use another strategy. On the first day, as we build on emerging understandings of cross-grade level connections, we ask fellows to identify the characteristics of effective inservice workshops. This usually results in categories such as preparation, delivery, the activity itself, the presenter. We then go on to develop subpoints. From these, we create a feedback rubric incorporating the categories, making sure several points relate to techniques necessary to connect with a diverse audience. These include the adaptability of the strategy to different grade levels, the presenter's ability to respond to audience questions, and the presenter's efforts to address grade-level adaptations.

We then model presentations directed at a diverse audience of teachers. For example, when our co-director Brenda Kneeshaw presents a workshop on teaching nonfiction organizational patterns, she includes text samples from high school science and social studies texts as well as those she takes from her fourth grade texts. When I present on responding to student writing, I include samples of student writing from kindergarten through college for discussion. In this way, fellows see ways that they too can provide for grade-level differences in their workshops.

Coach for Diverse Adaptations

Finally, when facilitators coach fellows about their workshops, they look for specific adaptations for a diverse audience, making certain the presenter allows time for the audience to brainstorm adaptations at their own grade levels. When Shelley Gammel, a sixth grade teacher, discussed the various types of conferences she holds with her students, she made time for everyone to brainstorm ways that secondary teachers, who have anywhere from 80 to 150 students a day but for only 50 to 55 minutes each, could structure their class periods to allow for conferences. When Eric Louis demonstrated literature circles and the roles that his high school students play during the discussions, he had the audience discuss ways that elementary teachers, whose students might not be ready to discuss literature without teacher guidance, could still use literature circles.

After filling out the feedback form for each presenter, we identify and discuss strategies used by the presenter that indicate she has considered grade-level adaptations.

These specific strategies, used in response to a problem, have helped fellows in all our summer institutes meet the diverse needs of their audiences and create relevant workshops for each other. In institute evaluations, the fellows' workshops always receive the highest marks:

"These are very usable workshops. I think it's great that college-level strategies can be used in my first grade."

"At first, I was worried about primary, elementary, secondary, and college teachers learning together—but a lot of ideas can work across grade levels if tweaked a bit. It was great—I got a lot of new ideas and strategies." (high school teacher)

For the Northwest Inland Writing Project, the time we have spent helping teachers direct their presentation to all the fellows in the room has helped to create demonstrations relevant to all.

About the Author Elinor Michel is director of the Northwest Inland Writing Project, University of Idaho, Moscow.

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