In mid-September, as most of the Department’s staff was focused on closing out the federal fiscal year, a group of more than 10 employees from a number of department offices, including Teaching Ambassador Fellows, took a hiatus from “end-of-the-fiscal-year mode” to learn about innovative and effective ways of teaching writing that are being used throughout the nation’s classrooms.
Staff from the National Writing Project (NWP) presented a two-part seminar that highlighted the organization’s cutting-edge work in the fields of digital writing and digital writing instruction, as well as information on successful initiatives that integrate writing across the curriculum at all levels of instruction. The seminar was organized by the Office of Innovation and Improvement’s Teacher Quality Programs Office.
As most readers of this blog are familiar, the goal of the NWP is to improve student achievement by improving the teaching and uses of writing in the nation’s schools. Headquartered at the University of California – Berkeley, the NWP serves teachers nationwide through a network of more than 200 local sites hosted by colleges and universities. The Department has supported the NWP for many years, most recently as a recipient of the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program. The NWP received SEED grants in Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013.
Universal authorship, not just literacy
The recent seminar was divided into two parts, and the first presentation was on the NWP’s Digital Is project. The presentation was led by Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Ph.D., NWP’s director of national programs and site development, and a former teacher and teacher educator. Launched in 2010, Digital Is serves as a forum for teachers to share and engage with other educators in the field of digital writing. After an interesting history lesson on the development of writing technologies during the last 50 years, Eidman-Aadahl led a discussion on the changing perception of “authorship” and what it means to be an author and have a voice in the year 2013. She shared a graph that demonstrated visually the dramatic changes affecting the field of writing and the inescapable interconnectedness between writing and emerging technologies.
As the participants explored the many manifestations of this new reality, Eidman-Aadahl shared an interesting quote that strengthens, I believe, an understanding of how the notion and forms of writing have changed — and will continue to change — in our classrooms and in society at large: “Nearly universal literacy is a defining characteristic of today’s modern civilization. Nearly universal authorship will shape tomorrow’s [civilization].” With this reality imprinted on our minds, the need for flexibility and “real-time” relevance in the classroom relative to writing and other forms of learning become critically important.
In addition to the lesson plans, blogs, and other resources available through Digital Is, Eidman-Aadahl also shared with the group other ways in which the NWP engages its constituencies and the public using different media, such as through its NWP Radio; its Twitter feeds, Facebook, and Flickr pages; and Educator Innovator video clips on YouTube. Additionally, as part of its first SEED grant, NWP created 12 on-line learning modules covering topics as varied as “Global Conversations,” “Professional Development to Support Argument Writing,” “The Unfamiliar Genre Project,” and “Content Area Literacy Practices and the CCSS.”
Writing across the academic content areas
The second presentation addressed NWP’s writing across the curriculum efforts. In this portion of the seminar, Tanya Baker, Ph.D., NWP’s director of national programs, focused on the intersection of writing and history and used as examples projects that were developed in collaboration with classrooms that had received Teaching American History (TAH) grants. This presentation was especially meaningful to me as I have served as a program officer for the TAH program for more than eight years. Specifically, it allowed me an opportunity to appreciate the interdisciplinary skills and approaches essential to effectively teaching history content while simultaneously providing instruction in content-area writing.
One approach to interdisciplinary learning centered on the development of the vocabulary of historical thinking. In a history lesson on the abolitionist, John Brown, students were asked to examine the differences between content vocabulary, conceptual vocabulary, and disciplinary vocabulary. For instance, while analyzing the causes and aftermath of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, students considered the issues of slavery and abolition, the effects of the Compromise of 1850, and the impact of Brown’s raid on the timing of the Civil War, all while organizing these subject content data into manageable learning pieces to be used in reflection, discussion, analysis, and reporting.
As the seminar drew to a close, several participants commented that the session was particularly helpful to them as former teachers who still held to the “old idea” of literacy being the domain of English teachers. They said it was very helpful to have a new framework to think about literacy in the content areas and the specific skills, dispositions, and knowledge needed for different subject areas.
Margarita Meléndez is an education program specialist in the Teacher Quality Programs division of the Office of Innovation and Improvement.