July 30, 2011


Writing seminar teaches literacy

Teachers explore how to teach new standards at annual event

WritingBob Ellis/staff photographer
June Bedore, a second-grade teacher at South Seneca Elementary School and Jerry Masters, of Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES, work on a writing assignment Wednesday afternoon during the Seven Valleys Writing Project in the Beard Building.

Staff Reporter

Danielle Sullivan asked her fellow teachers to write briefly about what argument is, how to use it in class and whether it should be emphasized in school literacy programs.
Around the second floor of the Beard Building in downtown Cortland on Wednesday afternoon, teachers and a few guests — including SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum — wrote longhand or on laptops. Then they shared their ideas, guided by Sullivan, a Candor Central School special education teacher who was demonstrating a way to use writing in class.
The national Common Core State Standards in literacy and math, for what students need to succeed in college and the workplace, will take effect in the next three years in New York state, which adopted them in January. The English literacy standards will demand that students write more and learn complicated concepts at a younger age than they do now.
Adopting them allowed New York to receive federal education funds through the Race to the Top competition, a challenge from the U.S. Department of Education and President Obama two years ago for states to move toward national education standards.
The standards for literacy — and how to handle them — are one focus for the fourth annual Seven Valleys Writing Project’s Summer Institute, where teachers from across grade levels and subjects alternately write and discuss ways to use writing in class.
Led by SUNY Cortland writing professor David Franke, the teachers explore writing itself and learn to be “teacher consultants” who can direct professional development sessions for colleagues, which can save money for school districts who might otherwise hire outside consultants.
The institute covers two weeks, July 25 through Aug. 5. This year’s seven teachers come from Tioga, Tompkins, Broome, Seneca and Onondaga counties. They pay a tuition fee, which is partly reimbursed by their school districts. Franke said some received small scholarships from the institute.
They are joined by teachers who have taken part in the institute in previous years and serve as leaders, such as Sullivan and Lansing Middle School teacher Todd Howell.
The institute has had funding from the National Writing Project, a federal program that has had its funding cut along with about 22 other literacy programs. Franke said the institute has returned to getting funding mostly from school districts.
This year, the teachers want clarity about what the core standards are and how to use them, especially because they are connected to the state’s new evaluations of teachers that begin this fall, Franke said.
The literacy standards require students to write in three methods: argument, narrative and expository, which is explanatory. So the teachers wrote about and discussed the pros and cons of using argument in writing, for all grades.
The teachers and Wednesday’s guests, including a writing tutor from SUNY Cortland and a technical writing teacher for a BOCES, met in groups of three to read an explanation of why argument matters and why New York students need to learn about it, to be better prepared for college and the workplace. Then they listed why that could be true and why it might not be. And they wrote about it, in short bursts.
They said they were glad students can discover in elementary school that having an opinion means supporting it with examples and facts.
“Eighth-graders have learned that opinions are important and all opinions should be respected, but not how to support those opinions,” Howell said.
Asked for pros and cons of teaching argument, the teachers said students will need the skill in both college and the workplace, and need to learn how to research. But they felt argument could be given too much weight and that colleges really should teach it.
Howell then led a discussion of how argument will be taught, starting in primary grades. Studying comparison charts for all 13 grades, the teachers said they were surprised at how quickly elementary students would be learning complex concepts.
First-graders will learn how to form an opinion. Fourth- and fifth-graders will learn about logic. From there, students will use more examples and facts, and will examine opposing views.
Lyndsey Weiner, a Manlius Pebble Hill School elementary teacher and master’s student in literature, said she worried that students from lower socioeconomic circumstances might struggle, since they might receive less help from parents.
Jen Drake, a SUNY Cortland academic advisor and writing tutor, told the group that some college freshmen would not meet the new standards for sixth-graders.
Franke told the group he was pleased with the standards, since as a student he rarely knew what teachers expected. Some teachers, who still do not offer much explanation to students of what they expect, will have to change their ways, he said.
Howell said the institute changed how often he asked students to write in class and how they discussed writing.
“I’ve been writing again — memoir, poetry, all kinds of genres — and the kids see that,” he said. “As eighth-graders, they like seeing an adult write and hearing what I’ve written.”
Amy Riemenschneider, a third-grade teacher at Fayetteville-Manlius, said she thought the institute would help her writing. She said her students will need to write paragraph responses to the questions on the state assessment tests, where in the past one or two sentences would have been enough.


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