National Writing Project

NWP Teachers at Work: Amy Sippert

Date: October 2017

Summary: First grade teacher and Fox Valley Writing Project teacher-consultant Amy Sippert shares the impact that personal and professional writing—alongside talented, supportive peers—has had on her own professional journey.

 


The institute was filled with authentic professional and personal writing as well research about our craft. I met peers who pushed my thinking and believed that all children were capable of incredible things.

The wise Don Graves stated, "The teacher is the chief learner in the classroom." I believe this is the heart of all National Writing Project work. Teacher-consultants are agents of reform and classroom innovation because they strive to immerse themselves in continued growth as educators. An Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) is the perfect place to grow among colleagues and build capacity as an educator. Writing Project work is the most beneficial professional development I've encountered in my career. It's a pleasure to share this experience and its positive impact on my teaching, students and professional community.

For the majority of my 25-year career I have taught first grade in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Currently I'm at Merrill, a school that serves 230 students and includes about 25% special education. Approximately 75% of our students receive free and reduced lunch. We are a school-wide Title 1 building and share the property with an attached middle school. Since my first ISI, I've had the privilege of teaching about 240 students.

I began my journey with the Fox Valley Writing Project (FVWP) as an ISI participant during 2005 at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. It was my 12th year of teaching and I was looking for a literacy-oriented postgraduate course that would lift the level of my teaching. My principal and colleagues encouraged me to apply to the project, promising the experience would be life-changing. They were right; my whole philosophy of teaching transformed that summer. The institute was filled with authentic professional and personal writing as well as research about our craft. I met peers who who pushed my thinking and like me, believed that all children were capable of incredible things. Most importantly, I learned the value of inquiry-based learning for myself and my students.

Returning to the classroom that fall was exciting. I had new strategies for our workshop and a deep empathy for my students as authors. Thanks to the ISI, I knew firsthand writing was messy and personal; gratifying yet filled with stops and starts. The students and I grew together. We wrote and conferred, taking one workshop at a time. As the children selected their own topics and shared their lives with the world, they flourished. The same year I was asked to present my inquiry project about writing workshop for first-graders to a few nearby districts and another university. Sharing the success of my students with other educators was uplifting. I loved talking about our process and sharing the steps involved in workshop instruction. Before I knew it, eight years had passed and I was moving to Merrill.

As I settled into a new school, my work with FVWP unexpectedly began again. Nichole Ponzer, fellow teacher-consultant and FVWP leadership team member, asked if I'd be interested in being a teacher leader. When I met with Nichole and later Greg Kehring and our project director, Dr. Pat Scanlan, it was evident agreeing was the only option. They are smart, generous educators who lead by the finest example. Watching Pat, Nichole, and Greg coach peers and tapping into their expansive knowledge base was (and still is) a gift to me. They guided me in the new area of coaching and gently nudged me toward reflection and improvement. The work was challenging and rewarding.

We worked together for two Supporting Effective Educators Development (SEED) grants in the Oshkosh Area School District and presented about the inquiry model at three literacy conferences in Wisconsin. The SEED grants were implemented at Washington Elementary and Merrill Elementary consecutively. Both grants focused on serving high-needs schools by providing an institute experience for teachers centered on inquiry projects, embedded coaching from our team, and time to consult expert voices. Teachers designed inquiry projects specific to their needs and interests. Topics varied from effective conferring to creating a digital newspaper for the school. Each SEED project culminated with a celebration of learning at the close of our institute.

Soon I was invited to participate in a second ISI. That summer's inquiry project was a team effort. We proposed an ISI exclusively for our district to the administrative team and received the go-ahead to run an OASD ISI in 2014 and 2015. Participants grew as readers and writers, developed a stronger understanding of the workshop model, established a collaborative professional network, integrated technology into their instruction in purposeful ways, and used data to inform instruction. Teachers acted as researchers in their own classrooms as they developed and implemented their own inquiry project to address a need or a burning question about teaching that had arisen in their own classroom. Data from these projects showed that student learning was positively impacted.

Merrill school is quite diverse. Our building was fortunate to be the recipient of the Family Academic Literacy Project (FALP) through NWP and the Kellogg Foundation. The specific goal of this project was to honor the knowledge all of our families brought to the Merrill community. Once again I had the honor of working on a team of teacher leaders, We had the unwavering support of our principal, Sarah Poquette. Families participated in a monthly hands-on, content-area integrated experience that they could then talk and write about. At each meeting, after families came together to enjoy a meal, they rotated through three stations designed to provide them with time to engage in an activity together. In each station, we briefly shared some new information, modeled brainstorming and our own writing, and then gave families a chance to talk and collaboratively write from their own funds of knowledge. At our final session, families worked together to create an anthology by submitting some of their favorite writing from events throughout the year to the anthology.

Currently I am planning for two FVWP Kindergarten through Second Grade Young Writers Camps in the Fox Valley and completing my last year in a three-year cycle on the FVWP leadership team. Both of these experiences have proven to be rewarding. Working with students who love to write and are brimming with enthusiasm as authors is a teacher's dream come true. Brainstorming with fellow educators who have a shared passion for excellent instruction lifts you up and pushes you forward as a professional. Each time I attend a leadership meeting I come away refreshed and have new learning to share with my students and colleagues.

As my three-year term with the FVWP leadership team comes to a close, the feeling is bittersweet. Having term limits keeps the work of our project fresh and innovative. I applaud this plan and know it is best for our site. The tough part is knowing how I'll miss our collaborative meetings, shared readings, and insightful conversations. Thankfully, the relationships built through Writing Project work are long-lasting. I'm excited to see where our new leadership team takes the work in the future.

In her book Read, Write, Lead, Regie Routman compels teachers to remember that the work we do as educators is always connected to literacy. Therefore, if we want to see student learning increase we must teach reading and writing expertly regardless of our grade level, subject, or position. Writing Project work is the place to develop expertise. It compels me to reflect, design a plan, and consult experts. We are a community of learners growing together every step of the way.

Amy's story was featured in the 2016 NWP Annual Report.

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