July 25, 2009


Teachers explore writing

Month-long seminar examines how to better teach writing

WritingJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Marilyn Mayer, a teacher from North East Elementary in Ithaca, reads a short narrative called “Our Father’s Bounty” to a group of fellow teachers Friday at the Blue Frog Coffee House in Cortland. The teachers are studying and discussing the writing process as part of the Seven Valleys Writing Project.

Staff Reporter

Nick Bessett joined SUNY Cortland’s Seven Valleys Writing Project because he needed six credits of graduate study. He also saw a chance to delve into how writing is taught.
Every weekday this month, the English and theater teacher at Union Springs High School has driven to the Beard Building in downtown Cortland from his Auburn home. There, he and 11 other teachers spent the day writing, critiquing each other’s writing, doing research into education and listening to other teachers’ anecdotes.
“I knew the project would just be this wealth of ideas,” said Bessett, a sixth-year teacher. “In the preliminary meeting, I saw there were so many bright, experienced people, yet they were willing to admit they didn’t always have the answers.”
The project, in its second year, brings together veteran teachers not just from English but from other subject areas. Some want to write better. Some want to understand how writing fits into their teaching team at school.
The participants teach at a range of grade levels, and drive to Cortland from as far away as Binghamton, Sodus or Syracuse.
For an hour Wednesday morning, Bessett and 16 other teachers, which included guests and facilitators, debated issues they wrestle with during the school year.
Could a teacher grade reading, not just writing?
Should a student’s writing be graded on quality or the amount of work the student put into it?
Should writing always be evaluated, for a grade or not?
The teachers grow as writers and educators, and are invigorated for the coming school year, said project co-director David Franke.
“They could be teaching summer school, and I’m sure they need the money, but they give up their whole July for this,” said Franke, a SUNY Cortland writing professor.
The college provides the rooms, a laptop computer for each participant to use though not to keep, writing materials, books for research, and the tuition that pays for Franke and co-director Brian Fay, a teacher at Cortland Alternative High School.
On Friday, the teachers read their work-in-progress at an open microphone at Blue Frog Cafe at 64 Main St.
They will continue to meet during the school year, pursuing their research as they connect to other teachers through a national network.
They earn six credits of graduate coursework through the program.
Franke said the project is funded by a $92,000 federally funded matching grant through the National Writing Project.
This is the local project’s second year.
The teachers begin each day with 8:30 a.m. breakfast that one of them brings. On Wednesday, they laughed and exchanged stories as they set up their laptops.
Next they had a five-minute writing exercise based on a question, then a discussion about a question.
The rest of the day was divided among small workshops of each other’s writing, research updates by two people every day and more discussions.
Franke’s question Friday began as “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” He changed it to read, “If a student writes in a forest and no teacher is around to grade it, what has the student done?”
The teachers read their responses, seven written longhand, the rest on the laptops.
Kathryn Cernera, who teaches seventh-grade English at Ithaca’s DeWitt Middle School, did not like the question and ended it by saying, “What has the student learned?”
Cernera had brought two members of her teaching team as guests, a math teacher and a social studies teacher.
Another woman said writing could be the learning process and a teacher does not need to be there.
After several other people read their responses, Deborah Rielly, an English teacher at Auburn High School, said she wondered what a grade means and whether writing should always be graded.
She said she appreciated students’ effort but school was partly about competing for college admissions and scholarships, so she needs to push for the highest quality.
Maine-Endwell teacher Shannon Dawson said her eighth-grade students are focused on their own lives more than anything in class, so she uses that in getting them to revise. She started a side discussion of how students resist revising or even proofreading, yet must learn how because the state assessment tests do not allow time for revision.
Fay asked if reading could be graded, and how teachers can motivate students to read more. One teacher shared a book she has found helpful in understanding why some students do not grasp the meaning of texts.
“We may be from different backgrounds and levels of experience, but we all start out fresh in this process Brian and David have made,” Bessett said.
At the Blue Frog, facing his fellow project members, Bessett read a piece Friday about growing up in the Thousand Islands. Rielly read a long piece about working as a nurse, dealing with illness and death. Homer teacher Joe Cortese read poems and an essay about his family’s bar.
Franke said the project emphasizes respect in how teachers disagree with each other.
“They look for points of productive conflict,” he said. “They say they come away feeling their lives have changed. This revitalizes them and keeps them in the classroom longer.”


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