Elm Lawn fourth-grade teacher Chris Conohan was one of six staff MCPASD staff members to attend a writing workshop in New York City in late June. He shared his thoughts on the trip recently:
“Today, more than 180 million blogs exist as people define their own ‘meaning’ through their words.”
Six teachers from the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District were among the 1,500 educators from around the world who packed into Levien Arena in upper Manhattan to hear that carefully crafted message at the end of June. They sat in the front row, listening to Lucy Calkins deliver her keynote address on the ways educators could improve the chance that their work has “meaning” -- thereby improving the chance that students will find “meaning” in their writing.
Lucy Calkins is the Founding Director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College of Columbia University, which hosts summer institutes for writing and reading instruction. Last year, all elementary and middle schools in the district adopted the research-based Units of Study for Writing developed by Lucy’s staff at Teachers College, which is hosted at Columbia University. Middleton’s attendees returned this summer for advanced training. Advanced writing instruction by teachers leads to stronger writing by students.
Each participant attended small group writing classes. Classes were led by professional writers, researchers and practitioners in the best practices of writing instruction. The purpose of the classes was to be an active participant in the writing workshop process while learning more about the architecture of writing units, lessons, assessment and setting writing goals.
Participants drafted narrative, informational and opinion writing. The writing was shared with a partner who provided “deliberate” feedback, leading to “deliberate” writing goals for a revised draft. Deliberateness, a key teaching point by Calkins in her opening keynote, became the practice in class, citing recent research showing that a professional plateaus after five years unless they seek out deliberate feedback on their work and set deliberate goals for continued professional development. By participating in the writing process, educators experience the challenges in revealing themselves through their written word. Plus, it raises the level of writing and instruction by teachers, which leads to stronger writing by students.
In addition to small group classes, participants attended breakout sessions. Topics included writing genres, differentiation, assessment, technology integration and writing tools. MCPASD's participants gathered as much information as possible. Information and training will be provided to all MCPASD staff through multiple professional development opportunities -- much like last year’s numerous development sessions offered by last year’s attendees at Teachers College. With abundant information and training, the levels of instruction by Middleton teachers rises. Again, that leads to stronger writing by students.
Every day, attendees listened to world-respected keynote speakers who spoke on a variety of topics meant to inspire, challenge and empower. Participants heard from author Sarah Weeks on the power of collaboration. Tony Wagner, author of the book Creating Innovators, addressed participants about how 21st century students must be able to use the information they learn in a variety of ways to be truly innovative. The end of the week featured poet Billy Collins and author Patricia Maclachlan. Both spoke of their inspirations and shared their work that seemed like words flowing in a stream, knowing their exact destination.
At the end of each day, MCPASD's attendees gathered together to reflect on the messages from keynote speakers and what they learned in classes and break out sessions. Ideas were shared like participants has just discovered gold. When teachers discover golden teaching strategies and share those strategies, student writing is raised to a higher level.
Ending the same way it began, Lucy Calkins addressed the participants. She encouraged educators to work together -- and not just inside the district -- but expand the networks outside the borders. Lucy urged educators to ask for help from others, but she also encouraged them to share what they know. After last summer’s experience at Teachers College, MCPASd educators hosted a two-day Writing Institute of their own to do as Lucy suggested, and shared what was known. This summer, as staff advance their writing training and begin training in reading at Teachers College, staff from MCPASD and southern Wisconsin will grow as writing teachers.
“It is hard work,'' Calkins said. "But it’s important work that will raise the quality of student writing and reading.”
Writing and reading that will lead students to share their own “meaning” through their messages.
To see photos from the trip, please visit the district's Facebook page.