UA-Assisted Writing Project Gets Local Teachers Fired Up
By providing professional development and collaborative learning, a summer institute helps local teachers become more effective writing instructors.

By Lori Harwood, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
July 11, 2016

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Middle school teacher Ryan Robinson and high school teacher Valerie Thaler deep in writing mode
Middle school teacher Ryan Robinson and high school teacher Valerie Thaler deep in writing mode (Photo: Anna Augustowska)

On a blistering June day, teachers voluntarily sat in a University of Arizona classroom to learn how to be better writing instructors.

The group of 11, mostly from Tucson middle and high schools, is meeting for six hours a day, four days a week, for five weeks as part of the invitational summer institute offered by the Southern Arizona Writing Project, which has a 30-year history at the UA.

The summer institute is offered at no charge to teachers, thanks to a two-year, $15,000 grant from the National Writing Project, along with funds from the UA colleges of social and behavioral sciences and education, the Department of English and UA South.

The institute, housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' Department of English, focuses on teaching pedagogy and three kinds of writing: professional, personal and reflective.

Participating teachers conduct research on a topic and do a 90-minute teaching demonstration for the group. The teachers also read from a common text and from a book they select about the writing life. This year's book, Lisa Delpit's "Other People’s Children," critically explores power relations in the classroom. Activities include daily writing and peer sharing and field trips to places such as the Poetry Center and the World of Words in the College of Education.

Stephanie Troutman, who joined the UA in fall 2015 as an assistant professor in the Department of English, is the new director of the Southern Arizona Writing Project. Troutman is attending this year's institute in a dual role — as leader and student.

She said that one of the reasons the institute incorporates personal creative writing into the curriculum is that it can help teachers relate to the struggle many students have with writing — and, in turn, help them to teach the craft more effectively.

Teachers who complete the summer institute often become leaders in future institutes and serve as mentors to other teachers at their schools.

"I consistently hear from teachers who participated that it is life changing," Troutman said. "It changes their teaching practice and makes them better writers and leaders in their classrooms and schools."

When Christina McGee attended the institute in 2012, she was struggling with student apathy during her first year of teaching English at Rincon High School.

"The students didn't seem to care about learning," said McGee, a leader at this year's institute. "It was such a difficult teaching year for me."

For her teaching demonstration, McGee researched student apathy. Now she intentionally tries to build a sense of community in her classroom.

"It led me to completely change who I am as a teacher. My students care about being there now," McGee said. "This professional development was extraordinarily transformative for me as a teacher."

One of the most important things Diane Drury learned when she attended the institute was that she needed to give students the opportunity to discuss the writing process.

"Talking is huge for the students to develop what they think and to be able to take someone else's opinions and skills and use them to improve," said Drury, an English teacher at Rincon High and a team leader at this year's institute.

The institute is intentionally collaborative, providing plenty of time for the teachers to learn from one another.

When Sarah Etters first attended the institute in 2012, she was an elementary school teacher. She is now training to be a speech pathologist, and she returns to the institute in the summer as a co-director.

"Teachers need to be validated and to be trusted to do what they do best, which is know their students and know how to teach," Etters said. "Unfortunately, the climate now is that teachers are not really respected in that way. We joke that coming here feels like teacher therapy. We are respected and validated."

Beyond the summer institute, SAWP offers programs throughout the year, such as a spring writing marathon, salon nights and "Second Saturdays" where teachers meet on the UA campus to stay connected through writing and to support one another professionally. These events are intended to provide continuity, recruit new teacher participants, and cultivate a community of reflective practitioners and school leaders.

"Teachers need time to teach other teachers and to be with other teachers in a professional setting that is outside of their schools," Troutman said.

Extra info

In her new role as director of Southern Arizona Writing Project, Stephanie Troutman plans for the project to be a space that not only enhances writing and pedagogy, but also fosters the type of critical, professional growth that empowers teachers as change agents in local matters of schooling and education. Troutman is in the process of updating the project's website, planning a retreat with the advisory board, meeting with directors of the other National Writing Project sites in Arizona, and developing events to reach out to schools that have not traditionally participated in SAWP to get more diversity among the applicants. She will incorporate her research expertise into the curriculum. "I want to do more in terms of talking about race, culture and identity among students," she says.


Resources for the media

Stephanie Troutman

UA Department of English