Teachers share literacy tips and tricks at Hudson Valley Writing Project’s free seminars

Tom Meyer, Director of the Hudson Valley Writing Project, at SUNY New Paltz. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

In this high-tech era of texting and tweeting, how can our schools ensure that the ability to express oneself in writing doesn’t go extinct, and that our kids grow up prepared to meet the working world’s demands for literacy skills that transcend fluency in Instant Message acronyms? In a harsh economic climate, when politicians are under pressure to slash every tax-supported program that can be labeled a “frill” or an “earmark,” how can educators continue to expand their skills and learn from one another’s successes, so that our kids get the most out of their school years? It’s a challenging time, but the Hudson Valley Writing Project (HVWP) is continually morphing to meet today’s changing needs.

Much-loved by local teachers who attend its in-depth Summer Institutes and Saturday Seminars, and by children who participate in its Young Authors’ Camps for summertime enrichment, HVWP has such a low profile in the wider community that it’s surprising to many to know that it has been steadily at work in our neck of the woods since 2001. It’s one of over 200 such regional programs scattered across the nation, designed to provide ongoing professional development for teachers to enhance their ability to teach literacy skills at all levels, from pre-Kindergarten through college.

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The highly successful program headquartered in SUNY-New Paltz’s Old Main Building (OMB) is based on a “teachers teaching teachers” model, founded by Jim Gray at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, that grew into the National Writing Project (NWP). Using federal funding provided since 1991, NWP has provided seed grants to start up new chapters, with the ultimate goal of making the program accessible to every teacher in America. Ongoing support from NWP to the tune of about $45,000 per year has been HVWP’s main source of operational funding, enabling the regional group to offer between 7,000 and 8,000 hours of in-service training to teachers from throughout the Hudson Valley over the past five years alone.

But now that federal funding has been drastically cut: NWP was one of the casualties of the standoff in Congress in late 2011 over raising the national debt ceiling and keeping the US government in business a few months longer. Its annual support was reduced by two-thirds, from about $24 million to $8 million. The Hudson Valley chapter had its core grant cut to $35,000, and its co-directors, Dr. Tom Meyer, Dr. Mary Sawyer, Bonnie Kaplan and Jacqueline Denu, are now racking their brains for ways to keep its programs afloat. At a meeting of teachers involved in the program following the Saturday Seminar that took place in the OMB on Feb. 4, Meyer announced that the nominal (three-figure) stipends paid to teachers participating in the Summer Institute would be reduced yet further. Following the time-honored NWP model of sharing writing samples and seeking constructive feedback from fellow teachers, he also circulated a draft fundraising letter to be distributed among the community of educators who have benefited from the program in the past.

Judging by the enthusiasm and engagement of the teachers at the Saturday Seminar, there’s plenty of “buy-in” to be found — not only among English teachers, but also in other subject areas where the ability to write is crucial to success in the academic world and beyond. Workshops at the seminars are typically conducted by teachers who have participated in one or more of the Summer Institutes, and they always seem to be looking for new techniques for teaching literacy skills — including hands-on methods that work better for kids who are “visual learners.”

For instance, Edie Ash, who teaches at John Jay High School in Hopewell Junction, showed samples in her workshop of “logographs”: cartoon panels that her students drew to illustrate key motifs in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death.” Jamie Moran also uses visuals in her work with English Language Learners at the elementary-school level in the Marlboro Central School District. Kids learning about pollination in science class work in small groups to break down a complex lesson into individual scenes, collaborating to come up with a written sentence that summarizes each drawing. They also act out the lesson in skits, taking turns playing the bee or the parts of the flower, which helps them to internalize the verbal information at a physiological level.

In her workshop, Kim Sanders-Eachus of the Newburgh Free Academy shared her strategy of using letter-writing to engage parents of high school seniors more deeply in their children’s learning process. Her students write to their parents giving them a “homework assignment” to write back to the teacher, describing each child in “a million words or fewer.” Besides familiarizing the kids with the proper format for writing a letter, the role-reversal exercise has a hidden agenda: to help each child discover his or her own “voice” as a writer. “Seniors who have been Regentsed to death don’t really know their voice,” notes Sanders-Eachus.

In his first-ever outing as a HVWP instructor, Dennis Maher focused on ways for teachers to use social media and popular high-tech online tools to get students excited about writing. His middle-school students in the Newburgh School District use a site called pbworks to collaborate on a Wiki, which has a “chatbox” enabling real-time feedback. He projected pages from the Wiki showing student entries in a contest to write the best alternate ending to Frank Stockton’s short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” including a forum for critiques by fellow students. The site also linked to a PowerPoint presentation teaching the basics of how to do real research, which Maher noted tends to be an area of weakness for students in the age of the Internet.

Based on a visit to just this one Saturday Seminar — and they are given monthly during the school year — it becomes clear that HVWP is the go-to destination for really practical “tips and tricks” that have been clinically tested in real-life classrooms, not just for the latest in academic theory on literacy pedagogy. “This has become a lifeline for me,” said one participating teacher, Margo McLuhan. “I come here to share knowledge with people who really strive for excellence in the classroom.” Others talked about wanting to “get out of the bubble” of solo teaching and to “give the children a voice.” Watching the give-and-take that happens in these seminars, and seeing how it energizes the participants, is enough to make one want to lobby one’s own children’s teachers to make sure that they are taking advantage of the amazing training opportunities that HVWP has to offer, absolutely free of charge.

HVWP’s Saturday Seminars are open to the general public and college students pursuing education degrees, as well as to teachers in all disciplines at all grade levels from the ten-county Hudson Valley region. They run from 8:30 a.m. to noon on the second floor of the OMB on the SUNY-New Paltz campus, and the next one takes place on March 3. If you’d like to know more, make a donation to the program or help out in some other way, check out the website at www.newpaltz.edu/hvwp. ++

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