Project helps SWVA school districts boost students’ writing prowess

Mike Still • Apr 24, 2019 at 9:30 PM

WISE — Whether it’s Shakespeare, a sitcom, Post-it notes or a tweet, much of communication through the centuries has depended on writing.

For UVa-Wise communications professor Amy Clark and teachers across far Southwest Virginia participating in the college’s Appalachian Writing Project over the past two decades, their challenge has been finding ways to encourage elementary through high school students to embrace writing.

Clark and several local educators are completing the second of a four-year project to put that experience to work in helping the Buchanan County school system boost student writing performance.

Clark, director of the AWP, said that teachers trained through the project, years of best practices, and training materials developed through summer writing institutes are the building blocks of the College, Career and Community Writers Project, or C3WP. This program brings together several years of AWP teachers’ training and collaboration to work with teachers at the fourth through 10th grade levels to go beyond just writing papers.

“Our primary goal is to support the professional development of teachers, particularly in the areas of writing, but writing in all subject areas and not just English,” said Clark.

A four-year grant from the National Writing Project gave C3WP the chance to see how that teacher development could be applied to helping other school systems improve student writing skills.

“One of the mottos of the National Writing Project is ‘teachers teaching teachers,’ ” Clark said. “We knew that our mission, by virtue of the grant, would eventually be to go into the Buchanan County school district.”

C3WP, while aiming to help teachers help students, is also a research project to see how applying teacher training will work in high-needs school systems, Clark said. The results of the four-year effort in Buchanan County will be compared to neighboring Dickenson County, and the experience and efforts that work will also be used on a large scale in the latter.

Clark said the program makes use of AWP experiences and teacher training resources along with National Writing Project resources to train Buchanan County teachers, show them how to implement what they learn and to assess how their students are doing as a result.

“Starting in grade four, students are learning how to write persuasive papers and back up their opinions with research from credible sources,” Clark said. “It’s not just what Mom and Dad are saying. … It’s not just that. You have to find credible sources and you have to use them.”

C3WP teachers from the Wise, Lee, Scott, Dickenson and Washington county and Norton school systems bring their experience from summer writing institutes held over the project’s existence. Those teachers observe classes and constantly review and mentor with the Buchanan teachers, Clark said.

“We are there for them all year long,” Clark said.

Buchanan County teachers participating in C3WP agreed that the program is showing worthwhile results. Stephanie Cassell, a facilitator of professional development under C3WP, said that eight teachers who already had experience working in the AWP have helped mesh the program with other teachers.

“We have been impressed with the close rapport and family atmosphere that we notice between BCPS teachers and students as the year has gone on,” said Cassell. “We have also been impressed by the way teachers have embraced this program and demonstrated leadership by reflecting on their own practice as teachers.”

Cassell said that students who have disliked writing before are showing interest because of “text sets” of sources and different opinions they need to read and understand before writing on a particular topic.

Teacher Lisa Ward said the C3WP program and practices help expose her students to a range of opinions on different topics and to think and learn before writing.

“Often, I find students are so bombarded with information and technology that they really do not take time to form an opinion about some of the most important topics of our time,” Ward said. “This is scary and appalling to me. Young people need to care. C3WP helps them learn their opinion matters.”

Buchanan teacher Amy Presley said that C3WP has given her a new perspective on preparing students for writing.

“By the time some students get to (freshman college) English … they are unprepared for writing strong arguments that include source material,” Presley said. “With C3WP, I now have age-appropriate and high-interest materials to use with even my ninth-graders.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of writers this group will be by the time they get to dual enrollment English 12,” Presley added.

The experience after two years has been good, Clark said.

“We’ve done initial assessments of the Buchanan County students, and student writing has improved in all areas,” Clark said.

“Standards of Learning test results will be coming in soon, and we expect to see improvements there too. This program gives students agency, a voice,” Clark said.

“It shows them how to find information. Students are excited about debate.”

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