UW News

May 22, 2003

K-12 teachers flock to UW classes on teaching writing

News and Information

Writing and the teaching of writing are drawing record numbers of school teachers to classes and seminars here.

The venerable Puget Sound Writing Project at the UW, which has been in existence for 25 years, offers a prestigious summer Invitational Institute and is turning away applicants. And the project’s Open Institute, a two-week program available to any teacher who applies, just had to add an additional section. Together, the programs have grown by more than 50 percent this year.

This is occurring despite a stagnant economy, teacher salaries that may not increase, and school budgets that are resulting in a growing number of layoff warnings.

What’s happening here?

At least three factors are at work, according to John Webster, UW associate professor of English and university director of the Puget Sound Writing Project. First, there is a growing emphasis on the teaching of writing in subjects other than language arts.

“It used to be that writing was more or less ‘quarantined,'” he says. “But the demands of public education have made it clear that, if writing is going to be taught effectively, the burden needs to be spread. It’s a simple matter of time. A teacher who has many as150 students every day is hard-pressed to assign, and then read, that many essays every week.”

If the work is spread beyond the lonely language arts teacher, then increasing the amount of writing that students do in school — a goal supported by many national studies — becomes possible.

The other clear stimulus for increased emphasis on writing is the new state performance standards. The state’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements in writing require students to write clearly and effectively, for a variety of different audiences and purposes; students also need to understand the basic steps of the writing process and must be able analyze the effectiveness of written communication, including their own.

“One effect of the standards,” Webster says, “is the creation of a common vocabulary for talking about writing. This is very important. Formerly, if you asked students to comment on writing, they didn’t even have the words to express themselves. At best they would simply tell you that effective writing ‘flowed,’ and that ineffective writing didn’t. But what’s ‘flow’? We’re giving students and teachers a vocabulary for understanding the elements and attributes of good ‘flow,’ and this vocabulary is now much more common in all grades in the teaching of writing. It makes discussion of writing much easier and more effective.”

Webster is encouraged that many teachers of writing in Washington are not responding by “teaching to the test.” “They are dealing with the intellectual effects of these new standards, and our program can help them do that.”

The Invitational Institute is a four-week program designed to build the expertise of already highly qualified teachers who can return to their schools and become leaders and mentors. The Open Institute, which is open to teachers at all levels, is more nuts and bolts. But both emphasize one of the core principles of the writing project: teachers who write, regularly, are better teachers of writing than those who don’t. Accordingly, while there are conversations about good ways to teach writing, and exposure to the latest research on the teaching of writing, both institutes require the participants to do a good deal of writing themselves.

Both summer institutes are seeing dramatic increases in participation from teachers across the academic spectrum and not exclusively from language arts. Webster thinks another factor is at work in the increased demand:

“Kids who write learn more deeply and with greater retention than those who don’t. Things that you write about you will remember for years. A greater emphasis on measuring what is actually learned makes writing more interesting for non-language arts teachers.”

To address this increased demand, the UW is partnering with Central Washington University’s writing project to offer professional development seminars in school districts throughout the state. These “Writing-to Learn” classes will emphasize the use of writing assignments for teachers outside of language arts.

The Puget Sound Writing Project is part of the National Writing Project, whose mission is to improve the teaching of writing and learning in our nation’s schools.