National Writing Project

Asking the Right Questions

By: Kenneth P. Farizo
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 3
Date: May-June 2002

Summary: A survey of teachers conducted by Kenneth Farizo of the Louisiana State University Writing Project shows that teachers feel a personal and professional connection to the writing project.

 

During the upcoming summer months, teachers in all 50 states will once again gather to participate in the writing project pièce de résistance: the invitational summer institute. If matters run true to form, the overwhelming number of these teachers will leave the experience with the impression that the institute has changed them in ways both professional and personal.

Kenneth Farizo, teacher-consultant with the Louisiana State University (LSU) Writing Project and now, after 12 years of teaching middle school, a curriculum specialist in the St. Charles Parish Schools, decided to probe deeper by researching more specifically the ways that newly minted teacher-consultants change. He devised a survey that he sent to all of the teacher-consultants in the St. Charles School District. He then used the results of the survey as the basis for in-depth interviews with the respondents. The 36 surveys that were completed and returned were a representative sample from teacher-consultants who had gone through the LSU Writing Project Summer Institute during the 14 years of the project's existence.

Because of space limitations, we are able to present here only an abbreviated version of Farizo's extensive study. But those who are now participating in the summer institute will have a chance to consider his conclusions and to think about and test his questions against their own experiences as they return to their classrooms.

The survey focused on five themes: 1) impact on instruction, 2) practical applications to the classroom, 3) collaboration with peers, 4) personal writing, and 5) professional and personal perceptions.

Theme 1: Impact on Instruction

Survey Questions and Results

How often do you implement reading or writing instructional strategies learned in the institute?

  daily  14

weekly  16

occasionally  4

seldom  1

never 0

no response 1

Since the institute, do your students write:

  more  26

about the same  7

less  0

never  0

no response  3

Has there been a significant positive change in your students' attitudes toward writing since the completion of the institute?

  yes  29

no  4

no response  3

Analysis
The surveys show that teachers are implementing strategies learned in the institute. Most teachers report that they implement reading or writing instructional strategies daily or weekly, with students writing more after the institute than before the institute. Teachers also report a significant positive change in their students' attitudes toward writing. In the interviews, teachers were specific about which strategies work for them. All teachers interviewed referred to the writing process as a central component of their instruction. Teachers reported that they use all stages of the process, from prewriting through drafting, revision, and sharing. In connection to the writing process, teachers reported using reading and responding groups, writing workshops, and reading workshops in their classrooms. Teachers also spoke of the "permission" the writing project gave them to try new instructional techniques in their classrooms. One teacher spoke of this permission as empowering her with freedom:

The writing project gave me permission to write and conduct workshops with my students, to change my approach, and to conduct writing and reading workshops as described by Atwell and Graves. I felt I had the autonomy and freedom to create a classroom environment I like to be in, to grow and to change. And my students responded to that, to experiencing language arts and writing in an active way. I don't teach English in isolation any more. I teach it through writing.

Theme 2: Practical Applications to the Classroom

Survey Questions and Results

How well did the institute prepare you for the realities of the classroom?

  very helpful  17

reasonably helpful  10

somewhat helpful  5

not very helpful  2

no response  2

How helpful was the institute in preparing you to implement writing in your classroom?

  very helpful  27

reasonably helpful  5

somewhat helpful  3

not very helpful  1

Analysis
The surveys revealed an interesting perception among teachers. While the majority thought the institute was very helpful in preparing them to implement writing in the classroom, fewer teachers thought the institute was very helpful in preparing for the realities of the classroom. I probed this question in the interviews, and teachers reported the writing process, and writing and reading workshops, as very successful when implemented in the classroom. The conflicts, however, included teacher research and presentations. In the interviews, teachers cited the lack of time for these activities. In one teacher's words:

Teacher-research has not worked for me. I don't have the time for it, and I don't have the time to prepare presentations and present like I want to. I would like to have more of a reading and responding community at the school as well, but there's no time or interest among the faculty.

Presentations consume so much time. It's hard to fit it all in, and we focus so much on presentations in the institute, but when the school year starts again, there's little time to devote to presenting.

Theme 3: Peer Collaboration

Survey Questions and Results

How often do you collaborate with other writing project teacher-consultants?

  daily  1

weekly  4

occasionally  24

seldom  6

never  1

How often do you share your institute experiences with other teachers?

  daily  0

weekly  10

occasionally   22

seldom  4

never  0


Analysis
Responses to these two questions from the survey show that teachers only occasionally collaborate and share their experiences and expertise with their colleagues. Again, most of the teachers referred to time constraints as the greatest obstacle to collaboration. "I would love to collaborate more," one consultant wrote on the survey, "but there's not enough time in the day." In the interviews, teachers indicated a desire to collaborate and share with their colleagues:

We really don't have time to continue the writing community we start in the institute. Reading and responding groups of teachers hasn't worked although we've tried. Teachers are focused on standards and their curriculum, and not many have the time or inclination to form groups just to read and write.

Theme 4: Personal Writing

Survey Questions and Results

Since the institute, do you write for your own purposes (aside from job-related writing):

  more  22

about the same  9

less  3

never  2

Since the institute, do you share your writing with others:

  more  20

about the same  11

less  2

never  2

no response  1

Analysis
The institute had a definite positive impact on teachers' personal writing and the amount of writing taking place in their classrooms. In fact, the institute seemed to encourage "closet writers" to pursue and publish their works:

Before the institute, I wrote now and then when I really felt strongly about something, and I never shared what I wrote. I think I was just afraid that I wasn't a good enough writer. The institute showed me that I can write, and that writing is more than an activity. It's a way of thinking and living and creating. I write more now because I know I can, and I think the institute gave me that confidence.

Theme 5: Professional and Personal Perceptions

Survey Questions and Results

How often do you think about your experience in the institute?

  daily  10

weekly  9

occasionally  15

seldom  2

never  0

Has there been a significant positive change in your attitude toward teaching since completion of the institute?

  yes  27

no  7

no response  2

Did you benefit professionally from your participation in the institute?

  yes     36

no     0

Did you benefit personally from your participation in the institute?

  yes  34

no  0

no response  2

Analysis
The survey data strongly suggest that teachers receive positive benefits from their participation in the institute. Teachers feel both a professional and personal connection to the institute experience. In interviews, teachers often referred to the "writing project community" or the "community of writers." They spoke of their fellow teacher-consultants as "friends" and looked forward to opportunities to connect with their colleagues through district meetings and the three annual LSU Writing Project meetings. One participant summed up the power of the personal connection:

There's a power in being intimate and vulnerable with a group, and writing brings this out. The writing project gave us a support network and a positive experience that people remember. After five years, people still like to talk about it; it's like you can still feel this power, and it was all through the writing. The LSU Writing Project was the most enjoyable and meaningful professional development experience I've had as a teacher.

Conclusion

As I collected data through surveys, and interviews, I also paid attention to the activities of writing project teacher-consultants in St. Charles Parish. These teachers are involved in numerous writing activities in their schools, including Young Authors' Contests, Young Authors' Celebrations, Young Writers' Camps, Letters to Santa, Family Write Night, Open Mic Poetry Nights, Reading-Responding Groups, and bringing writers into the schools as guest speakers. Their motivation to facilitate writing and writing instruction goes beyond any small stipend they may receive for their extra effort.

The findings from this study support continued involvement in the LSU Writing Project. The model of the writing project, teachers teaching teachers, lives on in the daily lives of the teacher-consultants. Teachers feel a personal and professional connection to the writing project, and this connection contributes to their successes as writing teachers and facilitators of writing instruction in the district. As one teacher-consultant told me, "We are the guardians of creative thinking." Indeed, in the current environment of high-stakes testing and accountability, programs like the writing project offer us enriching opportunities to extend the experiences of teachers and students.

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