Dr. Liz Campbell Stephens believes in the power of teachers teaching teachers
From early humans painting pictures on dark cave walls to 21st-century youth texting each other at the speed of light, written language is a fundamental part of communication. But writing, education’s second “R,” is often neglected in schools, says the National Commission on Writing.
Every summer, across the nation, teachers assemble on college campuses to learn the best ways to teach writing. These summer institutes are part of the National Writing Project, a professional development network of kindergarten through college teachers. For four weeks, these teachers demonstrate their classroom practices, stretch their own writing skills, and above all, learn from each other.
A Model for Success “We all believe in the model of teachers teaching teachers,” says Dr. Liz Stephens, director of the Central Texas Writing Project on the Texas State campus, one of 12 writing project sites statewide and 200 nationwide. All are on college and university campuses and are funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Teachers who attend the summer institutes might teach science, social studies, math, special education — any discipline, in fact.
The Central Texas Writing Project is celebrating its 10th anniversary and its 11th summer institute in 2008. Stephens, a professor in Texas State’s educational technology program and also the statewide director of the National Writing Project, started the Central Texas Writing Project in 1998. She had first attended a summer institute several years earlier, as an English teacher in Houston.
“I talked to the dean and the chair here about starting a National Writing Project on this campus,” says Stephens, who came to the university in 1995. “They were very supportive and helped me launch it.” Their first grant was $8,000. In 2008, their grant was $86,000.
When Stephens started the Central Texas Writing Project, there were only four National Writing Project sites in Texas. Directors of those four met at Texas State in 2002 to talk about how to expand the program in the state. “We had a map of Texas on the wall,” Stephens says, “and said, ‘Here are our four. Where else do we need sites?’ We picked out several colleges and universities, and we now have sites at just about all of them.” Stephens visited each school and talked to the college of education or the English department, selling them on the idea.
Evolution of a Teacher Stephens was born and reared in Laredo, to parents who were born and reared in Mexico. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a journalism degree and a teaching certificate. During the next few years she worked as a newspaper reporter, journalism teacher and English teacher, moving frequently with her husband, who is in the oil business. The couple ended up in Houston long enough for Stephens to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Houston.
“And that’s when I met technology,” she says. With a great deal of apprehension, she signed up for a required computer course. “I resisted it,” she says. “I dreaded it. I had visions of throwing the computer out the window. But by the end of the course I had fallen in love with it, and I ended up majoring in literacy and technology.”
During their time in Houston, Stephens and her husband often drove to the Hill Country for the weekends. She says that every time they drove past Southwest Texas State University, as Texas State was known in the 1990s, she vowed to teach there someday.
Eventually she made an appointment with the curriculum and instruction chair. “I asked if he had a position open,” she says. “He said he didn’t at the time. I said, ‘If you hire me I’ll stay here until I die.’ So he hired me as a visiting professor, and the next year an opening came up.”
Evolution of Writing Stephens continues to teach educational technology classes in addition to overseeing the Central Texas Writing Project. She also serves on the advisory panel of the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges, which the College Board established to focus national attention on the teaching and learning of writing.
Writing is evolving, Stephens says, especially among those she calls digital natives. “Take text language,” she says. “Is it a valid form of our vernacular or not? Is it something we should accept in colleges or not? It’s a form of speedwriting that has emerged from instant messaging and text messaging by the digital natives, young people who are very comfortable and savvy with technology. So now they’re growing up and going to college and they are using text language in their freshman comp classes and in their essays. New Zealand even accepts it in their high school exit exams.
“Faculty have mixed feelings,” she continues. “Some people think text language is outrageous and ridiculous. Others embrace it and think it’s just a shift in the way our language works.”
Teachers Teaching Teachers Text language isn’t part of the summer institute yet, but most teachers find the institute to be an insightful experience. In one exercise, which unfolds during the four weeks, the teachers see how the teaching of writing develops.
“Each teacher presents a virtual visit to his or her classroom,” Stephens says. “The teacher brings the lesson, and the rest of us write like the kids in that classroom would write. We’ll be writing as kindergarteners one day and seventh-graders the next day. Some of the high school teachers roll their eyes when they think about writing like a kindergartner and listening to a kindergarten teacher explain what happens in her classroom. But they are blown away by the end of the presentation. They’ll say things like ‘I didn’t know that you had to put two fingers between two words within a sentence to teach them that this is one word and this is another.’”
Teachers attending the institute write every day. Among the assignments are an autobiographical re-creation to warm up their memory; an experimental piece in a genre they’ve never tried before, such as poetry or a script; and a research-based project. At the end of each institute, a selection of these pieces is compiled into an anthology and each teacher receives a copy.
After completing the institute, participants become consultants for the National Writing Project. “They become teacher leaders,” Stephens says. “They do professional development workshops, mentoring, study groups, whatever a school district needs. They also teach young writers camps in the summer.”
Stephens says teachers at the institute are amazed by what they can do. “What I call the magic of it is that they become writers,” she says, “They’re already writers, of course, but they become aware of themselves as writers. So they’re as much writers as they are teachers and as much teachers as they are writers. I can’t tell you how many times a teacher has told me, ‘This changed my life.’ Teachers teaching teachers is empowering.”
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