National Writing Project

Writing Equals Advocacy for West Texas Writing Project

Date: February 10, 2009

Summary: Jonna Perrillo's summer institute op-ed project brought teachers' classrooms and educational opinions into the community's homes. Perillo points to the range of creative work that can be supported by the time and strategies the New-Site Leadership Institute provides.

 

It’s not often that one opens a local newspaper’s editorial section and sees columns on such topics as teaching grammar, building vocabulary, and using writing to teach math.

In the summer of 2008, however, readers of the El Paso Times got views into these topics—and teachers’ viewpoints—because of an editorial-writing project that has become a vital part of the West Texas Writing Project’s summer institute.

Each year, teachers write a professional article about a classroom issue at the writing project’s summer institute. Now teachers reframe and extend this professional piece into an op-ed that functions as a companion piece on the same topic.

“This editorial project is a way for our teachers to speak directly to the lay public and also to other educators about issues of practice in their classrooms,” says Jonna Perrillo, director of the West Texas Writing Project, who shared this work at the 2008 Annual Meeting in a site development workshop, “Self-Representation and Site Identity,” sponsored by the New-Site Leadership Institute (NSLI).

It’s like we were taking back the night—we were taking back our profession by representing our opinions about educational issues.

A History of Teachers’ Writing and Professional Advocacy

Perrillo has a passionate interest in teachers’ writing: Her dissertation, “Reforming Teachers: The Politics of Professionalization in the New York City High Schools, 1919–1969,” focuses on teachers’ writing as a tool for professional advocacy.

In particular, she’s inspired by Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, who wrote a weekly column called “Where We Stand” in the New York Times and 60 other papers nationwide for 25 years beginning in 1970. The column tackled a panoply of controversial educational issues, and Perrillo was struck by how it helped change the public image of teachers—something that she thinks is still necessary.

“I thought about writing and advocacy issues a lot in terms of our current educational climate and especially in terms of the voicelessness of teachers in light of NCLB,” said Perrillo. “Because the real work of successful teachers is largely invisible to much of the public, it is critical to make this work known and accessible, not just to individual students and parents, but to entire communities that fund, depend on, and benefit from public schools and their teachers.”

The project supports NWP’s goals and model of professionalism: it puts both intellectual work and commitment to education at its center—and uses teachers’ writing as an avenue for professional development. “The project is bottom-up rather than top-down in design; teachers’ work and ideas are represented in their own words,” says Perrillo. That’s especially important, she says, because the editorial project works better when the summer institute participants are politically engaged, strong, and confident writers.

“As we have become more selective in our admissions and made the invitational summer institute truly invitational, we’ve been able to make it into a place where something like the editorial project can live.”

Perrillo credits NWP’s New-Site Leadership Institute with helping her expand the site’s strategies for recruitment. She also credits the NSLI as being “the beginning of my education into team building.” The site’s summer institute is now run by a team of three teacher-consultants and Perrillo, and even though the editorial project came out of Perrillo’s own scholarship, the whole team is excited by it and has participated in it.

Seeing the fellows published immediately brought a whole new tenor of importance to our work.

A New Genre: The Op-Ed

The first summer Perrillo included the editorial project in the institute, in 2007, it was optional and only half of the participants submitted their pieces, with two of the six getting published. Last summer she made it a requirement that everyone submit an op-ed.

“In the first year, seeing the fellows published immediately brought a whole new tenor of importance to our work,” says Perrillo. “I decided that the next year everyone just needed to throw themselves into it and not be intimidated.”

The editorial component of the summer institute isn’t a separate writing project so much as it is another form of writing, “a different way of approaching and arguing the question,” says Perrillo.

Writing in a different genre helps teachers stretch their writing skills, and the two different writing projects inform each other.

“Writing an editorial helped me think about my topic from different perspectives and for different audiences,” says fourth grade teacher Chrissy Beltran, whose piece was titled “Building Vocabulary Promotes Thinking, Enhances Communication.” “I really had to consider how what I was writing about was relevant to the rest of the world, especially an audience of administrators and parents.”

Since the genre was a new one to institute participants, Perrillo had teachers study different models of editorials to see how they were constructed, discover how authors used their voice, and learn other principles of editorial writing.

Beltran notes that successful editorials tend to have the problem stated at the beginning, discuss repercussions and solutions in the middle, and then end with a call to action.

Writing workshops in the summer institute helped teachers hone their editorial-writing skills, and teachers also submitted their pieces to the E-anthology for feedback.

Participants were excited, Perrillo said, not only by the writing, but because “the project helped them think more tangibly about the publishing process.”

Publishing, of course, is the end goal. Perrillo contacted the opinion editor of the El Paso Times and asked him if he was interested in considering the pieces. He was eager to see them, with the caveat that he would decide if they were good enough to publish.

Nine of the ten pieces ended up being published in the El Paso Times.

“It really helped that we dedicated more time to writing and revising the editorials this year,” said Perrillo.

Changing Perceptions of Teachers and the Writing Project

“It was a pretty powerful experience for teachers to get published,” says Perrillo. “The editorials showed that teachers have a lot of important things to say.”

That’s significant because teachers are often represented, and sometimes misrepresented, by others.

“It’s like we were taking back the night—we were taking back our profession by representing our opinions about educational issues,” says Beltran. “Our pieces weren’t based on whining or complaining, but show the inquisitive nature of our field.”

The principal at Beltran’s school was so excited when she read Beltran’s piece that she called her immediately to congratulate her and then had the piece copied so that other teachers at the school could read it.

“I’m definitely seen as more of a teacher-leader at school as a result,” says Beltran. “People look at me as someone who can do something.”

Teachers’ bylines in the newspaper included their affiliation with the West Texas Writing Project, which helped support the site’s PR efforts.

Perrillo hung the editorials outside the door of her office. She was not only excited to see people she didn’t know reading the editorials, but also gratified to get such positive responses from her colleagues in academia.

“Some people think the writing project is about teachers writing poetry or writing about their feelings all day in journals. This project showed that this perception was inaccurate. I don’t get those comments anymore.”

One teacher told Perrillo that teachers are often treated as “professional enough to solve problems in the classroom, but not professional enough to have a role in making big education decisions.”

The El Paso Writing Project’s editorials are one step in elevating the public’s perception of teachers’ viewpoints, so that their experience and knowledge factor into the “big education decisions.”

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