The workings of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project

I spent a good part of the day yesterday at a leadership retreat for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. We worked in collaborative groups to explore the varied programs we are offering for teachers and students, and then began to lay the foundation for a vision for the future of our site. The writing project is always looking ahead (not withstanding concerns about funding at the federal level, of course) and the visioning process is often done as a group, and not by an individual. It’ s so heartening to be in a room of such smart people, particularly as we discussed strategies for creating leadership opportunities for even more people in our network.

On the chalkboard, our site director had etched out all of the work of our site from last year and it covered the entire chalkboard. I jotted down what she had written because I am working on a redesign of our website and it seemed like very useful information.

See for yourself:

Invitational Summer Institute

Co-directors: Joanne and Dawn

(A four-week intensive summer program that includes writing, research and inquiry, sharing of ideas and connecting with other teachers in many content areas.)

Orientation

Post-Invitational Summer Institute Inquiry Groups/Projects

Invitational Summer Institute Inquiry Task Force

Continuity
Co-director: Sherill

(Programs and offerings that allow teachers to remain connected to the work of the writing project site.)

Digital Is technology resources developed by WMWP Technology Team

Massachusetts Writing Project

New England Writing Project

Executive Board

Teachers as Writers

Writing Response groups

Writing Contest (annual)

iAnthology online network

Writing Mini-Marathons

Summer program: Teachers as Writers

Retirees network

Newsletter (twice a year)

In-Service
Co-director: Tracy

(Programs that support teachers through professional development sessions to learn more about literacy and writing instruction.)

English Language Learners Network

Technology Spring Conferences

Content-area Literacy Inquiry

School/district-based in-service/Professional Development

Department of Youth Services Initiative

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Summer Institutes

Literacy/ Non-fiction Seminar

Expository/Persuasive Writing Seminar

MTEL Test Support Group

Best Practices Fall Conference (annual Fall event)

Certificate in Writing Program at UMass

Living Holyoke Institute

Youth and Family Outreach

Co-director: Joanne

(Programs that reach young writers and connect with families through writing, technology and literacy).

SummerWRITE for Youths

Smith Voke (Claymation/Comics)

UMass SummerWRITE

Springfield YMCA digital storytelling

Springfield Housing Authority digital storytelling

Peace (in the reach),
Kevin

Our No-Cost Tech for Teachers event

If you are part of the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts and you want to have a little “play time” with technology tools that don’t cost a dime, then consider joining us in a few weeks for a few hours.

The flier and registration form is here.

We’ll be exploring sites like Glogster, Wallwisher and more and reflect upon the possibilities for the classroom. We’ve kept the cost low and there is room for all technology users — from beginners on up.

I hope to see you there!

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

Supporting Writing in Content Areas

(This is an edited version of a blog post I wrote yesterday for another site)

A roomful of teachers in various content areas — ELA, Math, Science, Social Studies, Technology, etc. — came together this evening to talk about ways that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project can support writing across the curriculum. This meeting is part of a grant that our site has received around Writing Across the Curriculum. We had a nice dinner and then worked in small groups on a number of questions before sharing out what we were discovering from each other.

In my small group, we identified a few areas of concern with our students:

  • Non-fiction reading and writing seem to be an overall area of weakness and our students need more support in interpreting non-fiction text and then, analyzing and reflecting on that text;
  • Our students need to do a better job (or we teachers need to do a better job) of transferring the skills they are learning in the ELA classrooms around writing skills in the other content areas. They don’t leave their “writers’ hat” on the hook when they leave the ELA classroom, but students need to be taught to remember and use those skills;
  • Our students need more help with interpretative skills, going deeper with their writing in all areas, and really tapping into the “writing to learn” mentality.

We also talked about how our writing project can help teachers in these areas:

  • Develop strategies for content-area teachers who are afraid of correcting writing (or don’t see the value in writing skills in their content);
  • Refashion the identity of our writing project so that it is welcoming to all teachers, not just ELA teachers because we have “writing” in our title;
  • Show the connections of reading and writing skills in the “real world” or marketplace for students;
  • Showcase more digital media and use of technology to engage students in all content areas, and get them writing and composing even when they don’t quite realize that is what they are doing.

And this was just a tip of the discussions around the table.

Peace (in the talks),
Kevin

Dear Senator Scott Brown: Support NWP

Some of you may know that we have a new senator in these parts — Republican Scott Brown to replace Democrat Ted Kennedy — and this is the first time I am going to be contacting his office (Sen. John Kerry is next). This comes as the National Writing Project is concerned about the reorganization of funding for educational programs. NWP receives substantial funds from the federal government for its work with teachers across the country. There’s a worry that the reorganization may cripple the NWP.

So, I composed this letter to my new senator:

Dear Senator Scott Brown,

First of all, congratulations on your election. I hope you get settled soon and act in the interests of all your constituents in our state in your work as our United States Senator.
I am writing to you today as a sixth grade teacher and as a constituent with three young boys in the public school system. I am writing to you also as someone who cares deeply about the children who come to my classroom every day. I am a member of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, which is based at the University of Massachusetts and a site of the National Writing Project network. The National Writing Project is an organization that I have been part of ever since I began teaching seven years ago and it has changed the way I approach my students as learners in countless, positive ways. The Writing Project has become a second home to me as I continue to develop my skills as a teacher of writing and literacy, and of technology, and its support of my endeavors have been invaluable over the years.
In case you are not familiar with it, the National Writing is an organization with teachers at the center of its work and it empowers us teachers to share our best practices with other educators, to network with each other, to learn from each other, and to make share classroom research around what works best to teach students in all the content areas. We strongly believe that writing is a  crucial way that students learn, whether it is in the Language Arts, the math or the science classroom.
Here in the Pioneer Valley, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project provides professional development for schools by tapping into the expertise of teachers themselves. Our writing project hosts a four-week Summer Institute where teachers conduct research, examine the teaching of writing and become writers themselves. We host numerous conferences for teachers and we have established ourselves as a leader in emerging technology in the Pioneer Valley.
I am writing to you because of proposed changes in the federal educational budget that could negatively impact this work. As you may know, President Obama and his administration are proposing a revamping of the educational funding system. The National Writing Project has been consolidated in the administration’s budget proposal with five other education-related projects as part of a proposed competitive funding stream directed toward State Education Authorities. Money would flow from the states to organizations that the state’s deem worthy.
My concern is that support for the National Writing Project could be in danger under this umbrella plan for block grants. While our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has worked hard to forge connections and partnerships (and run joint programs) with our Massachusetts Department of Education, not all states and not all writing projects have the same bonds. I worry about the competitive nature of the block grant concept and question whether the approach is the right one for educational organizations that work directly with teachers.
If  funding dries up for National Writing Project sites, then proven initiatives that improve instruction and put effective tools of literacy learning into the hands of students might be in jeopardy. The mission statement of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project centers on access and diversity issues for all students and teachers. We work hard to reach those classrooms in urban and rural areas, places where resources are already limited. The strength of an organization like the National Writing Project is that we, the teachers, and our students are tied together with a desire to use literacy for authentic learning.
Let me give you an example of a project that the National Writing Project funded here in Western Massachusetts.
A few years ago, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project launched an initiative known as Making Connections. The goal of our venture was to use technology (weblogs and podcasting) to create an online writing space for middle school students in urban (Holyoke, Chicopee) and rural (Athol) and we had about 20 teachers in a half dozen school districts involved over the three years that we were funded by the National Writing Project. More than 200 students wrote about, and learned about, what it means to live in a rural community or an urban community. Some classes did shared science experiments and collaborated on scientific abstracts. Other students wrote poems and stories. High School students in Chicopee were mentor writers with elementary students in South Hadley. The NWP grant also funded a free summer writing camp for students in Holyoke and Athol. These were opportunities that many of these students would never had had without the vital support of the National Writing Project, and that support began with funding from the United States government.
Here is another example. In the past year, I have helped launch an online social networking site for teachers in writing projects in the New England and New York area. Our aim is to find ways for teachers to connect through tools that break down the geographic barriers. We now have almost 200 members on our site and teachers are using this technology to share lesson plans, to ask questions about classroom activities, to share their own writing and to connect with other teachers. This project is funded directly from the National Writing Project. Without that support, our site might never have gotten off the ground.
The National Writing Project provides numerous other opportunities for teachers right here in our state to to conduct research on the best methods for teaching writing, to write for professional publications, to interact with experts in the field as well as expert teachers from all 50 states. This active network of teachers allows us to share and learn innovative and improved ways of teaching, and I fear that the loss of funding under President Obama’s plan will, at the least, make those opportunities for connections much less likely.
Senator, I am asking for your support in efforts to continue direct appropriations for the National Writing Project and to support the work of teachers in classrooms across the state. By supporting the National Writing Project, you are showing support for teachers and for children. Even teachers who are not part of the National Writing Project benefit, through exposure to best practices at conferences and through discussions with colleagues. If improving schools is a goal, then the National Writing Project deserves your support. Please urge your colleagues in Congress to support the National Writing Project.

Sincerely,

Kevin Hodgson

I also created this quick video for Sen. Brown:

Peace (in the future),
Kevin

Planning a No-Cost Tech for Teachers Conference

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is in the midst of planning our third Spring Technology Conference and each year, we try to find a theme. One year, it was Tech Across the Curriculum. The next, it was Digital Storytelling. This year, we are trying to provide time to explore some of the free platforms that are available for teachers and students. We are calling it Unlock the Power of No-Cost Tech Tools for Teachers.

For us at WMWP, this easily falls under one of our main missions of providing access to resources to as many students and teachers as possible. Our hope is that teachers will play and explore, and then reflect on the possibilities for the classroom.

Here are the tools we intend to showcase during the conference, which takes place in late March.

  • Voicethread, for digital storytelling and sharing ideas;
  • Glogster, for creating multimedia posters;
  • Wallwisher, for brainstorming;
  • Open Office, for an alternative to costly software suites;
  • and a few more things here and there.

If you live or work in Western Massachusetts and are interested in more information, leave me a note here and I will contact you. Or you can keep an eye out at our WMWP website for an upcoming announcement.

Peace (in the free stuff),
Kevin

Building a teacher/writer network

Bonnie and I (and a few others) are about three months into a project funded by the National Writing Project to create an online writing community for NWP teachers called the iAnthology. It’s been pretty exciting. We are using a Ning and we have created it to resemble another online network that all NWP folks use during their Summer Institute (a four week professional development that will change the way you teach and connect with others … guaranteed).

Although we began with folks in New England and New York (our home turf, so to speak), we have slowly opened up the doors to teachers from other parts of the country. It’s a closed site with a public face, but we want to reserve the space for teachers who are connected with NWP.

We were looking at some raw numbers the other and I was amazed at the amount of activity it shows.

We now have 165 members

15 Writing groups

Total amount of posts: 173
Total amount of comments: 1,510

Combined total (amount of writing on site): 1,683

(Note: in late September, we had 443 pieces of writing on the site)

Some things I’ve noticed:

  • Our site follows the mathematical power law data tail that Clay Shirkey talks about in his book — Here Comes Everybody — in that we do have a large pool of teachers, but most are either lurkers or joiners, with a select group doing most of the writing and connecting. This a common trend for social networks. What we want to do is entice those in the middle of the data tail to remain engaged and join us from time to time.
  • We’ve set up the iAnthology site to resemble the site most of our folks used during their own Summer Institute (called the eAnthology — get the connection?), so that the interface will seem familiar to folks. Of course, there is not a direct correlation, as they are different platforms. But we used a lot of the same language for peer feedback and created groups with similar names to the other network. We want the hurdles low. We don’t expect the teachers in our network to be tech specialists.
  • We have places (groups) for people to develop longer pieces of writing (creative writing and professional writing) but Bonnie made the smart move early on to set up a weekly writing prompt. We have found that this simple activity brings a lot of folks to the site for some writing, and then connecting. Again, a low hurdle is key.
  • Our site has been used by folks writing for publication, for sharing ideas for the National Novel Writing Month and more. It’s a sounding board for review and revision of pieces of writing, and a supportive place to hang out, too.
  • We are all part of a common experience — the National Writing Project — and that common identity binds us together in really cool ways, so that geography is not so important, even though we bring our localized experiences to the online environment. I see this sense of identity as crucial for the life of any online social network.
  • It’s vital that a small group of people be the face of the site, welcoming new folks in and providing frequent feedback to any writing. The last thing we want is for someone to be excited about our site, post some writing and then receive nothing but a gaping maw of silence. So, we have a team of moderators who go in periodically to comment and respond, and to model commenting and responding for others. It did not take long, though, for members to take over themselves, which is what we want.
  • When Bonnie and I started, we did not know if anyone would come or want such a space. They do. And we know teachers are busy people — there is no right time to launch such a site — September is busy, then you are into the holidays, etc. — so we did it and then have been nurturing periods of growth.

We’re excited about what we set in motion and wonder where it will be heading. If you are part of the National Writing Project and want to join us,  leave a note in the comment box here, and we’ll send you an invite.

Peace (in the connections),
Kevin

Me and the National Writing Project

I shared this over at our iAnthology site (an experimental online writing space for teachers in the National Writing Project) but I thought I would share it out here, too. I’ve been trying to create some sort of timeline (this is an idea that my friend, Susan, has talked about — documenting points of entry into the NWP) with digital tools of my life with the National Writing Project.
I worked for some time with Photostory, but the project just stalled out on me. And none of the online timeline makers seemed to do the trick. Yesterday, it dawned on me that my recent infatuation with Prezi might be worth pursuing for this project.
I’m still tinkering with it (there is too much text, I notice, and so viewing it full screen is best).

Peace (in the presentation),
Kevin

Young writers and technology

A study from Britain by The National Literacy Trust looked at young writers and technology. It’s worth a reading.

One of the findings that stuck with me — the idea (again) that writing outside of school is more meaningful to many young people than the writing we are doing in school. How engaged are they?

Young people are ambivalent about their enjoyment of writing. 45% of young people surveyed said that they enjoy writing. However, enjoyment of writing is related to the type of writing being done. When young people were asked to rate their enjoyment of writing for family/friends and their enjoyment of writing for school separately, some differences emerged. Young people enjoyed writing for family/friends more than they enjoyed writing for school, with over two-thirds of young people enjoying writing for family/friends and only half enjoying writing for schoolwork. Most young people agree that they enjoy writing more when they can choose the topic (79%).

You can access the whole report or just the executive summary.

It does seem that we should be doing more inquiry-based research around the questions of students, writing and technology. But how? And what questions do we ask? How do we move forward to review whether technological tools can improve writing? I need some guidance here, if you have any thoughts on the matter. (Because, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project site is considering a research endeavor on these very issues).

Here, the study’s objectives were: to explore how much young people enjoy writing, what type of writing they engage in, how good at writing they think they are, what they think about writing and what the role of technology is in young people’s writing. This is all fine, but it is subjective, isn’t it? It’s opinion of the students and perceptions, not real data.

Peace (in the question),
Kevin

The National Writing Project Annual Meeting

It’s that time of year: the Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project. Next week, I’ll be heading off to Philadelphia to join my fellow colleagues in celebrating and exploring the art of teaching writing, and the art of writing, in a variety of sessions.

My hope is to blog and tweet about my experience there, including the exciting Digital Is conference on Wednesday that comes from an incredible new partnership between the NWP and the MacArthur Foundation. The work, which I am part of, helps take a look at where writing is going in the digital age. We’re in the process of developing online resources but this conference will bring together a lot of people to look at, discuss and then consider the implications of digital composition. I am presenting a piece of student work — a digital science book.

That same night, I am going to a a conference entitled: The Power of Youth Voice: What Kids Learn When They Create with Digital Media. I can’t wait for that!

My only other presentation at NWP this year is on Friday, when I am joining a number of other people in roundtable discussions about how to use an online social networking site to discuss books. A friend and I are focusing on a section of the online site where we talk about graphic novels and comics. We even had an interesting online book talk about a graphic novel that was fascinating and a bit frustrating, and shows the possibilities and the drawbacks of an online discussion site.

I am planning on going to three other sessions while in Philly:

Writing in a Digital Age

This workshop explores the evolving nature of writing and literacy today. Participants will examine students’ digital writing from a range of classrooms and consider the digital and physical environments that support such writing practices. Participants will have opportunities to discuss the implications of what they observe for their own classroom and writing project site work.

21st Century Literacy and the Graphic Novel

This session will focus on the prevalence and permanence of the graphic novel. We’ll examine its integration of multiple literacies as well as its impact on youth culture, youth identity formation, and the development of students as readers and writers. Participants will examine the graphic novel as a format and as a specific mode of communication and written self-expression and will explore its potentialities in the classroom as a tool for fostering the developing literacy of diverse student populations. Through discussion, participants will develop rationales for the increased use of graphic novels in 21st century classrooms.

Reading the Research: Living and Learning with New Media

This Reading the Research session examines a research report titled Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of their digital media and learning initiative, this report emerges from a three-year study carried out by researchers who explored the ways that the interaction with and use of new media impact the lives and learning of youth today. Facilitators and participants will explore implications for their local writing project work and applications for local programming.

Plus, all of the other fun stuff — like social gatherings, the big morning address to all NWP folks in attendance (a great way to see how many people are there at the conference), with guest speaker Billy Collins. (wow!) I wonder if I can get him to sponsor me with my 30Poems 30Days project. Ha!

And of course, my work over at the NCTE meeting on Saturday (presenting and then book signing. See yesterday’s post)

And, to top it off, I am hoping that we can gather up a bunch of folks from my Tech Friends networking site — where NWP technology liaisons like me come together online to chat, share and connect. We usually try to convene for a dinner and face time.

I hope to see you there!

Peace (in the City of Brotherly Love and losers of the World Series to the Yankees!),

Kevin

Today .. I Get to Write

I’m excited. Today, I found some time in the weekend schedule (thank you, honey) to join the first of a series of Writing Marathons being sponsored by my Western Massachusetts Writing Project. We’re gathering over at Smith College for a few hours, just to write, share and connect.

What am I going to write today? I have a whole list of ideas and am struggling with what to focus on (a common problem — thus, Kevin’s Meandering Mind).

Here are some ideas:

  • More Boolean Squared. I have a handful of potential stories and ideas for my comic and it would be nice to have time to write them and begin putting them together.
  • Our new bike path in Leeds. I love it but people are already leaving trash along the edges. That drives me nuts. And it lends creedance to those who advocate AGAINST bike paths. I’m thinking of a letter to the editor on this one.
  • I started a piece about how I write for myself, but in a public sphere (such as this blog) and what that means. I’m not sure what that means and the piece needs a lot of work.
  • This year, I am co-teaching an inclusion classroom for the first time (well, I piloted it a bit last year) and I would love to write about how that is going and what we are learning along the way. It’s been a day-to-day navigation, made easier by the fact that we get along so well. But, I wonder, what if we didn’t get along? This so-called system we have right now would just fall apart.
  • Short stories and poems. Got a head full of possibilities there.

Oh well, we’ll see where it goes. If you live in Western Mass and want to join us, we’re meeting at the Smith College Art Museum at 11 a.m. Bring a lunch, something to write with and a $3 fee to cover some costs.

Peace (in the words),
Kevin