Three Teachers of the Year, One Writing Project Site
By: Tiffany Chiao
Date: February 29, 2012
Summary: Three North Star of Texas Writing Project teacher-consultants were Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts teachers of the year at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Additionally, NWP board member Liz Stephens was also given a Lifetime Service Award, and Sharon O'Neal, of Texas State University and from the Central Texas Writing Project, was honored as the College Teacher of the Year.
North Star of Texas Writing Project teachers Donalyn Miller, Heather Cato, and Molly Adams
Heather Cato, an eighth grade language arts teacher with the North Star of Texas Writing Project, is more interested in finding ways to showcase her students' writing to the public than drawing attention to herself.
She uses different types of online spaces, from a classroom blog to a wiki, so that her students can post their writing. They in turn are thrilled when they see responses to their work.
"I had one student—a pastor from somewhere in the state of Kansas read her blog and posted a comment on how one of her posts had refreshed the way he thought of heroism and the way he thought it meant to be a hero," Cato marveled.
What she never expected was that her achievements in the classroom would lead to her winning the prestigious Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (TCTELA) Teacher of the Year Award at the middle school level.
Even more unexpected was the fact that two other winners of the award also happen to be North Star of Texas Writing Project teacher-consultants: Molly Adams and Donalyn Miller, the respective winners of the high school and elementary school categories with similarly powerful classroom practices.
"It's just a miraculous thing, that we all came through the same Writing Project," said Miller, who is author of the popular Education Week column and book by the same name, The Book Whisperer . "We're very proud of our local site and the fact that it clearly produces strong leaders in our state."
The Writing Project gives you that fundamental belief that everyone has value, everyone has a voice, everyone has something critical to say, everyone is a writer...
Additionally, Liz Stephens, current National Writing Project board member and founding director of the Central Texas Writing Project, was given a TCTELA Lifetime Service Award the same night the three North Star teachers stood to receive their honors, and Sharon O'Neal, of Texas State University and also from the Central Texas Writing Project, was honored as the College Teacher of the Year .
The North Star of Texas Community
Miller, Cato, and Adams each agreed that they couldn't imagine what their lives would be like without the Writing Project, describing the profound impact it's had on not only their teaching in the classroom, but on themselves personally.
"The Writing Project gives you that fundamental belief that everyone has value, everyone has a voice, everyone has something critical to say, everyone is a writer that writes," Miller explained.
"In a lot of ways, the Writing Project kind of redefined me as a teacher," Cato added. "I was ready to quit the profession; I was very self-conscious about my personal writing. But the Writing Project gave me the courage to allow people to read what I had to say."
Part of the reason she gave for her attachment to and investment in the North Star of Texas Writing Project was because of the many passionate teachers she had met and befriended, a sentiment the others shared.
"I know anything I do I can send to one of my colleagues from that [summer] institute, that I can send it to any of them and know that the feedback they give is honest and kind and corrective," Adams said. "And that's the kind of community of professionals you just don't always find in your workplace. They're not just colleagues; they're like a family to me."
From technology trainings to writing workshops to other professional development opportunities, the three have learned much from their Writing Project experiences that they're eager to share with others.
"We're trying to raise other schools' awareness of what we're doing to advocate for what we're able to provide as teacher-consultants," Adams explained.
Everyone Has a Voice
The greatest opportunities to share their knowledge occur in their classrooms, where each of the three put into practice their beliefs about writing, teaching, and literacy learning.
Miller, for instance, makes it a point to engage her students as readers by setting goals for them of reading 40 books a year, having her students participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and participating in social media to discuss and celebrate reading. Similar practices take place in Cato's and Adams' classroom, both of whom found encouraging their students to share their stories through writing crucial.
"One of the main things I use writing for this year is building self-confidence, so they have something to say. That's the problem with every child I see—they don't think they have anything important to say. If I can get them past that I can work with them," Adams said.
Despite their accomplishments and their newly appointed titles of Teacher of the Year, none of the three are resting on their laurels. Miller has another book in the works while Adams, a strong advocate for project-based learning (PBL), hopes to find like-minded colleagues who are interested in understanding the intersections between PBL and writing. All three can also be found on Twitter continuing to learn from and give back to the community from which they emerged.