By Jane Miller
After attending the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project’s Summer Institute for Teachers, Franklin Regional reading specialist Valerie Piccini says she “became on fire for writing.” She had spent four weeks in July 2011 on the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus studying best practices to teach writing, with an emphasis on teachers writing alongside their students as they explore a variety of genres.
She brought that torch of knowledge back and started a literacy lab at her school. The lab–or laboratory–is intended to be a collaborative space to read, reflect, demonstrate, and research reading, writing, and speaking with students and their teachers. In front of the class, with students on the floor and their teachers at the tables behind, she brainstorms, organizes, and creates a draft of a collaboratively written essay. When a student gets stuck generating points he would like to make on his topic of choice, Val says, “Ask Mr. Buffone for ideas. He chose that topic with another class last week.”
Mr. Buffone, the building principal, flips back in his writer’s notebook and makes a couple of suggestions, and the student eagerly writes down ideas he would later expand, rewrite and edit into an informative essay, a genre on which students are tested each year. Having the support of an administrator is crucial to success, and Mr. Buffone, who is writing his dissertation for his doctoral studies, says he struggles, too, with writing in a different genre. Across one year, each elementary class, grades 1 – 5, will visit the lab on a monthly rotation, exploring nine genres and formats.
Teachers and administrators from surrounding districts come to Franklin Regional’s Heritage Elementary School to observe methods to take back to their districts. When encouraged to seek further study through the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project in Pittsburgh, many said it was “too far.” So Mrs. Piccini brought a taste of the regional National Writing Project site to them by founding a satellite, the Writers of Westmoreland, or “WoW,” as many of the 70 teachers who have attended like to say. The project is entirely supported through tuitions paid by schools and teachers, with trainings through workshop, as well as its own summer institute held at the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.
“It is simply to inspire both teachers of writing and students writers to explore multiple genres of writing in a supporting and stimulating community,” says Mrs. Piccini. “It’s a contagious collaboration and the number of teachers jumping on board continues to grow.”
It is through these kinds of connections that the philosophies of the National Writing Project are spread, as more teachers nationwide are returning to the vision and methods of a project that began as a grass roots movement among teachers in the 1970’s, says Laura Roop, director of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project. “We have an opening with the common core in limbo. Let’s think about what is actually beneficial to the schools, cultures, and not be buffeted by policy,” she said.
WoW can lead to WPWP
One teacher drawn to these networks is Carol Aten Frow, an eighth-grade teacher in the Belle Vernon School District, who has taught for 29 years. After attending almost every WoW workshop for the past two years, she attended 2016 Summer Institute for Teachers, along with her friend, Lauren Spang.
“I was familiar with writing and reading workshops and thought I implemented them, but working with Val taught me much better ways. It reinvented how I teach writing,” she says. She shared her enthusiasm with fellow district elementary teacher Lauren Spang, inviting her to attend a Writers of Westmoreland workshop.
“Teaching writing was outside of my comfort zone, and Carol reached out to me and said, ‘Hey! Can I help?’” said the third-year teacher at Rostraver Elementary School.
These two friends now present together throughout their district. Recent workshops included the three modes of writing—informational, narrative, and opinion/argument–tested by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments. They share their own examples, based on their interests, such as Mrs. Spang’s passion for long-distance running.
Belle Vernon superintendent John Wilkinson says the National Writing Project methods have become the district’s “training model.”
“The teachers who are going through this training say their kids are having fewer struggles as writers. What Carol and Lauren do in their writing workshops in Belle Vernon is amazing. The principal and teachers that have worked with them have remarked that their students’ abilities to write have gone over and above.”
In 2016, the pair decided to make the trek to the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project’s Summer Institute for Teachers. In addition to ideas for new classroom lessons and projects, the writing intensive experience shaped their own words on paper. Mrs. Frow recently submitted an article for a professional journal.
“I had never attempted to write for a professional journal before and probably would not have if it not been for the confidence gained through SIT. I’ll be the first to admit that it was wrenching. My piece is about the death of a former student, an eighth grader who died of cancer. What makes the piece amazing is that it is co-written with another former student, the cancer victim’s best friend,” she said.
This upcoming summer, the Literacy Lab at Franklin Regional will come full circle as Mrs. Piccini and Mr. Buffone will present the Heritage Elementary School Literacy Labs idea to teachers attending the 2017 Summer Institute for Teachers on the topic of “Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Writers.”
As Val Piccini argues,
“As writing advocates we must be relentless in sharing our vision and passion for authentic writing and writing instruction within our teacher communities. The best teachers of writing are the teachers who write. We are not blessed as educators to simply be blessed; we are blessed to be a blessing to others.”
Click here for more, in the words of Carol, Lauren, and Val, about their experiences and views on writing and its teaching.