National Writing Project

DC Area Teacher-Consultant Blogs for Family Literacy

By: Art Peterson
Date: September 8, 2009

Summary: A Washington, DC area teacher-consultant establishes a newspaper-supported blog that promotes both family literacy and the writing project.

 


Ginny Kochis makes literacy a family affair.

It's summer. Adults everywhere are looking for ways to keep vacationing kids fit, healthy, and smart.

Fortunately for parents living in the area of Washington, DC, there's Ginny Kochis. Kochis, a teacher-consultant with the Northern Virginia Writing Project, writes a blog, Family Reading and Writing Examiner , for the Web version of the Examiner, the local edition of the national chain of newspapers by the same name.

Her blog, which takes up literacy-related matters for a family audience, has directed families to a myriad of topics, including children's theatre, writing camps for kids—including those sponsored by local NWP sites—and poetry contests for the young.

Kochis provides year-round help for families interested in promoting literacy in their households. Some of her advice is relevant to parents of toddlers—she has one of her own. She'll ask, "Why should we read to babies, and what is the best way to go about it?"

Writing is a way of bringing families together.

But most of her advice is appropriate to parents of kids of all ages: "Keep your family writing by instituting a family notebook—a versatile creative outlet and tool for communication."

Kochis's status as a parent gives her credibility with her audience. Much that she has to tell parents is personal: "Once the little one made her appearance, traveling anywhere became an event . . . it wasn't pretty. Now that our daughter has gotten older, long car trips have grown easier. This is mostly thanks to our discovery of toddler and pre-school books on CD."

Tutoring, Blogging, Parenting

When Kochis's first child arrived in 2006, she left seven years of full-time teaching. Now, in addition to her blog she has launched a company, The Writing Well —a one-person workshop and tutoring service to guide young people in the crafts of reading and writing.

Her work with young people, which ranges from analytical writing to book discussion groups to computer-assisted writing, is guided by some first principles: "I believe that writing is thinking," she asserts.

She considers effective writing and critical reading to be part of all school subjects. "Most students inherently know what constitutes quality composition," she says. "I see myself as a guide, rather than a teacher. I strive to uncover what students already know and apply it to their efforts."

A Writing Project Transformation

Surprisingly, however, Kochis held none of these progressive views before 2005. But that summer, while studying for a master's degree at George Mason University, she attended the summer institute of the Northern Virginia Writing Project. "This experience changed everything I thought I knew about writing," she says.

"Before the writing project my teaching of the essay was formulaic in the extreme. We wrote almost exclusively literary analysis. Every composition had five paragraphs. Every statement was supported by a quote. Every quote followed by an explanation of what it meant. Deviate from this structure and you were graded down.

"What the writing project showed me was that writing is a thinking process, and as you write your thought process can change. What I was doing was not encouraging thinking, but rather asking students to fill in the boxes."

Ironically, during this time Kochis and her students started communicating on a blog she developed. "But that was just for fun," she remarks. "I didn't consider that 'writing.'"

After that summer institute, Kochis's approach to teaching writing took a 180-degree turn. "Now when my students write about literature, it becomes much more about what writers are doing. I developed what I called a 'writer's tool box' as a way of getting students to look at their own writing and the writing of others. Style and voice, for instance, were part of the tool box. Writing became more than just words on the page. We looked at connotation and denotation of words and how writers create character."

What the writing project showed me was that writing is a thinking process.

Revision was now important. "I came to understand a piece of writing is never finished. I began working with Peter Elbow's concept of the Golden Line. 'Find the line you like most,' I would tell students, 'and make it central to a new draft.'"

Spotlight on the Writing Project

Now, blogging to the world, Kochis has plenty of opportunities to give her writing project colleagues exposure. In one blog she credits Northern Virginia Writing Project colleague Suzanne Fackner with inspiring a collaborative writing activity. In Kochis's version the activity becomes a way for family members together to generate a story.

In another blog, Kochis recognizes Angela Trefethen, a teacher-consultant at the Tidewater Writing Project, as the creative force behind an activity called "Photograffiti." Here the idea is for a writer to find an object important to him or her, one that generates memories—say, an old tennis shoe. Then draw on these memories to create a brief piece of writing, which is then etched with a permanent marker on the object.

Kochis illustrates her suggested activity with photos from works created by her students: writings on a pair of pointy shoes, a dollar bill, and, yes, an old tennis shoe.

"Publish your piece by displaying it prominently in your house," she suggests.

It then becomes a piece of writing to be enjoyed by all, and this gets to the heart of the matter: "Writing," says Kochis, "is a way of bringing families together."

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