Pam Forbush remembers well that day in 1996 when she was given 45 minutes to write about anything she wished.
Forbush had been a teacher for 25 years, yet she had never been in the position of her students — unsure of herself and her skills, not knowing what to say or what voice her writing should assume.
“I didn’t consider myself a writer,” she says, “yet I was supposed to be teaching students how to write.” The contradiction hit her right between the eyes and changed her approach to teaching forevermore.
Now, Forbush has assumed leadership of the Puget Sound Writing Project at the UW, which reaches out to K-12 teachers, enabling them to become better teachers of writing. Not so incidentally, her “Aha” experience occurred at a writing project workshop.
Forbush, who recently retired from Eckstein Middle School in Seattle, had taught fourth grade through high school, special education, study skills, reading, language arts, and English as a Second Language. Those experiences, combined with six years of applying the insights gained through the writing project, convinced her that there is great deal to be learned about the teaching of writing — and much of that wisdom already is in the hands of skilled teachers.
A guiding principle of the project is that teachers who write are the best teachers of student writers. In addition, the best people to teach teachers are … other teachers.
So the project encourages teachers to become writers themselves, and trains them to become teacher/consultants who return to their schools to help their colleagues incorporate effective techniques.
The project has been in Washington since 1976, and it proclaims that it is “the University of Washington’s premier humanities-based partnership program for K-12 education.” The project came into existence long before standards-based education came into vogue. But that does not mean that the project’s methods, or its results, are in conflict with statewide standards.
Forbush recently participated in a three-year investigation with California teachers, comparing state learning standards with principles of good writing. They found that Washington standards actually correlate pretty closely with what panels of teachers would judge as examples of good writing. California’s did not fare as well. “For some reason California did not include any teachers when it set the state standards,” she says, “and that affected the standards that were developed.”
Teachers who are alumni of the project have enjoyed much success in preparing their students for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). About two-thirds of those teachers who write at least one hour a week — a practice encouraged by the project — have seen their students’ WASL scores in writing increase; about the same percentage have seen increases on other writing achievement tests.
The Puget Sound Writing Project is one of 175 sites that are part of a network known as the National Writing Project. National studies show that graduates of the project spend more time on writing instruction, with strong results: 89 percent of third-graders and 81 percent of fourth-graders of writing project teachers were rated adequate or better in the effectiveness of their persuasive writing; 83 percent of third-graders and 73 percent of fourth-graders demonstrated good control of usage, mechanics and spelling.
“What the Puget Sound Writing Project taught me,” Forbush says, “is that if you experience the struggle of writing, you will be more supportive of the struggle that your students will go through learning how to write. I believe that all kinds of kids can be successful, but they each have to find their own way and their own voice. One size really doesn’t fit all when it comes to writing. Our project is about teaching teachers sound practices.”
And the project is not just for teachers of English or language arts. Virtually all teachers are writing teachers, Forbush says. To that end, she plans to build stronger relationships with the College of Education, which already is a partner.
After more than 25 years, the necessary components of a good writing program are pretty well known – give students choices, discuss ideas in class, show students how to plan what they’re going to write, use peer review and/or self-evaluation in the writing process, allow papers to be revised again and again until the final product is achieved. It’s a thoughtful process that leads to the desired result.
What do the project’s alumni say? In a recent survey, the most common comment was, “The Puget Sound Writing Project was the most significant professional development experience of my teaching career.”
The UW Department of English and the National Writing Project fund the project. Partners include the UW College of Education, Seattle Arts & Lectures, Richard Hugo House and Powerful Schools.