National Writing Project

NWP Teachers at Work: Sydney McGaha

Date: October 6, 2016

Summary: Presented at the SRI Education and National Writing Project briefing Professional Development That Makes an Impact: Proven Results of NWP's College-Ready Writers Program (March 2016). Sydney McGaha is an English teacher at Pontotoc High School in Pontotoc, Mississippi.

 


I have watched many facets of my teaching craft transform.

I am currently a 9th grade English teacher at Pontotoc High School which is located in a small rural community in northeast Mississippi and serves 620 students. I want to describe both my journey as a relatively new teacher and what my students and I have gained through the College-Ready Writers Program (CRWP).

I descend from a long line of educators, and I was determined to not become a teacher. However, after graduating, I pursued alternate route certification and found myself entering a middle-school classroom. Although I had received an exemplary public school education, my first teaching position was in a school in a rural community where 99% of the students received free or reduced-price school lunch. There was an enormous amount of teacher turnover and student test scores were consistently dismal.

When I began teaching six years ago, writing and reading were taught as separate subjects. Only students in grades 4 and 7 completed a standardized writing assessment. For the past two years, due to curricular shifts and changes in state assessment programs, I have taught students who have never taken a standardized writing assessment as Mississippi public school students. As a young teacher, I love literature and engaging my students in class discussions, but I had few strategies and approaches for teaching writing at the beginning of my career due to my alternate route certification and lack of district funding available for intensive professional development.

After teaching in a scenario like this for my first three years, I attended the University of Mississippi Writing Project Summer Institute and joined a professional network of teachers. As that summer came to a close, I was asked by our Writing Project site director to join the leadership team that was forming for the CRWP.

As part of this work, I have watched many facets of my teaching craft transform. As resources were constructed for use and ideas were shared among teacher-leaders as a part of this collaboration, I became armed with the tools that I needed to address the curricular changes being addressed in Mississippi.

In my 9th-grade classroom, as the teacher of the course immediately preceding the course with an exit exam required for graduation, I have had the unique opportunity to immerse my students in informational text. The CRWP has equipped me with the confidence to select informational text sets of relevance to supplement the literature that is common in high school classrooms. For example, my students read, viewed, and analyzed informational text about the teenage brain, then applied that newly acquired knowledge to argue how much of a role it played in the timeless text, Romeo and Juliet. The students also took knowledge garnered from analysis of informational texts surrounding reality TV and desensitization and discussed potential effects reality television might have had on the quintessential literary pair of teenage angst, Romeo and Juliet.

Not only are they able to discuss, but they are also showing a growing competency in academic writing. I have maximized the value of formative assessment in my own classroom by using the CRWP Sources Tool in my own classroom and in professional development with other teachers. I am able to think more concretely about what skills need to be explicitly mentioned in conferencing with my students about their writing or taught through direct instruction.

Through the professional learning opportunities and resources provided by the CRWP my role as an NWP local site teacher-leader working with teachers at other schools has not only revolutionized my teaching practice, but also solidified my life purpose.

In short, CRWP has revolutionized my teaching for years to come. The resources developed through this local and nationwide collaboration have strengthened student engagement. My classroom is not one of lecture, but of discourse that resembles the society in which my students live. It has torn down my classroom walls and given my students a view of the world outside the immediate rural context in which they live.

Sydney's story was featured in the 2015 NWP Annual Report.