“Powerful Continuity”: Leveraging Lessons of the LSRI Experience
By: Marilyn McKinney
Date: September 1, 2009
Summary: The Southern Nevada Writing Project's research of its Family Writing Project revealed three different areas that could have implications for the future of all of its continuity programs: developing a culture of writing, developing community, and developing professional efficacy.
The NWP's call to submit proposals for the Local Sites Research Initiative (LSRI) in 2003 presented the opportunity to explore a highly successful continuity program at the Southern Nevada Writing Project (SNWP): the Family Writing Project.
The Family Writing Project was originally conceived by SNWP teacher-consultant Arthur Kelly, a teacher in the nation's fifth-largest school district, located in the highly diverse and transitory Las Vegas, Nevada (see "No More Fear and Loathing: The Family Writing Project in Las Vegas").
Family Writing Projects, held outside of the school day at elementary, middle, and high school sites across the district, offer opportunities for students, parents, and teachers to write together about topics that are important to their lives. Here participants build and nurture meaningful and respectful relationships through writing and community-building projects such as creating gardens or murals.
These teachers found the Family Writing Project a way to continue their summer institute experiences.
We have come to frame these occasions as third spaces (Bhabha 1994; Moje et al. 2004; Soja 1996),which are not necessarily physical spaces such as schools or other institutions (typically referred to in the literature as second spaces) or home (first spaces). Rather, these are in-between or hybrid spaces that allow participants to interact so as to recognize, draw on, and validate knowledge and discourses from both the first and second spaces—and to do so in ways that do not privilege one over the other.
We anticipated that we would be able to investigate questions about the impact of the Family Writing Project on teacher practice and leadership as well as to gain insight into our ongoing conundrum around how to keep teacher-consultants involved over time.
Foci of the LSRI
We focused one part of the study on the impact of the Family Writing Project on student achievement and attitudes toward writing. Those data showed greater improvement in the writing scores of students in classrooms of Family Writing Project teachers than those in the comparison group of non–Family Writing Project teachers, an important finding that helped to affirm writing project practices.
The second part of the LSRI study centered on teacher practice and grew out of our interest in the notion of "powerful continuity" and what it could mean for developing capacity at SNWP. Our leadership and research teams had conversations around questions such as these:
- What is it that keeps teacher-consultants coming back?
- What are the elements of involvement with the Family Writing Project that seem to tap teachers' energy and gain commitment in ways that other programs may not?
- What is powerful continuity and how does it look?
- How do we create opportunities for powerful continuity at our site?
To address these questions, we collected individual and group interviews, videos, and observational data from four middle school teachers (whose students and classrooms were part of the study) as well as from several other teacher-consultants who have led Family Writing Projects at elementary schools and high schools.
In this piece, we revisit our findings and focus on three that are especially relevant to our ongoing interest in components of the Family Writing Project that could have implications for the future of all SNWP continuity programs: developing a culture of writing, developing community, and developing professional efficacy. (For more, see the Southern Nevada Writing Project's LSRI results [PDF].)
People want to be involved when they are viewed as important members of a community.
Developing a Culture of Writing
First, teachers revealed ways that the Family Writing Project influenced teaching practices by allowing both teachers and students to develop a culture of writing that nurtured engagement, authenticity, process writing, and more democratic practices. In Family Writing Projects, teachers wrote alongside students and parents, often using this safe space to experiment with ideas that they later implemented in their classrooms.
In a sense, these teachers found the Family Writing Project a way to continue their summer institute experiences, where they saw themselves as writers in a community of writers. They thought more deeply about the teaching of writing and developed confidence in themselves and in their voices. This stance is in contrast to regimes of accountability and on-demand writing of the NCLB era.
The Family Writing Project is also a reminder that the enactment of writing project values and tenets provides the means to engage teacher-consultants in work that matters, an essential element of continuity.
A second finding relates to changes in teaching practices as a result of relationships forged between and with students and parents in the Family Writing Project that carried over into classroom interactions.
Writing and the sharing of writing created bonds within these third space communities and fostered respect for students as individuals. In turn these practices strengthened beliefs that all students are capable. Moreover, parents developed confidence in themselves and became more involved in school and the larger community; their children developed interest and pride in their histories and cultures.
Bhabha (1994) suggests that interacting in a third space allows people to define themselves and their identities in productive ways. They can explore more fluid notions of teaching and interacting in extended, more open social networks.
Surely there is a lesson about continuity here: people want to be involved not only when they see that the work they are doing is relevant and real but also when they are viewed as important members of a community.
Developing Professional Efficacy
The third finding connects to descriptions of how teachers' sense of professional efficacy—both as teachers and as teacher-leaders—was strengthened through the Family Writing Project. Teachers spoke about feeling rejuvenated through the energy, passion, and appreciation that emanated from the students and families.
They also recounted how they developed confidence in their teaching, and in the process renewed their commitment to the profession. Teachers who were tentative about seeing themselves as leaders discovered that they were indeed leaders who had benefitted through the mentorship of more experienced teacher-consultants.
This is another key lesson in building continuity: we should program opportunities to develop leadership through mentoring, nurturing, celebrating, and supporting new learning and risk-taking.
We are appreciative to have had the opportunity to participate in the LSRI study. We experienced firsthand ways that the process of conducting research forces us to look at our teaching and ourselves as teachers and learners in new ways.
In reviewing several of our key findings, we learned that our original questions about powerful continuity look and feel different now, with the power to build on the past. We rediscovered important truths about the teaching of writing and the development of teachers as leaders through exploring the Family Writing Project.
We can apply those insights to understanding the role SNWP needs to play to sustain our site. The NWP model of how to come together and support writing project sites really works: providing resources, time, expertise, and opportunities for people to work together to learn from each other.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.
Kelly, Arthur. 2004. "No More Fear and Loathing: The Family Writing Project in Las Vegas." The Quarterly 26 (2). http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/nwp_au/938
Kelly, Arthur. 2006. Writing with Families: Strengthening the Home/School Connection with Family Scribe Groups. Gainesville, FL: Maupin. http://www.familywritingprojects.com
Moje, Elizabeth Birr, Kathryn McIntosh Ciechanowski, Katherine Kramer, Lindsay Ellis, Rosario Carrillo, and Tehani Collazo. 2004. "Working Toward Third Space in Content Area Literacy: An Examination of Everyday Funds of Knowledge and Discourse." Reading Research Quarterly 39: 38–70.
Soja, Edward W. 1996. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.