In an effort to improve the writing skills of students in Northern Virginia, a newly created five-year plan called the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP) will start by teaching "the teaching teachers how to write better," according to the project director.
George Mason University is cooperating with Fairfax County Public Schools and Northern Virginia Community College in the creation of the NVWP, a plan similar to one in the Bay Area of California that George Mason University officials say has helped raise verbal SAT scores in that area by about 50 points.
Funded by a $10,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant distributed by the California project, (known as the Bay Area Writing Project) and by private donations, the NVWP will focus its efforts on teaching area teachers how to be more effective teachers of writing.
"The best way to improve students' writing is to have teachers to do more writing themselves," said Donald R. Gallehr, GMU writing coordinator and director of the NVWP. "The basic concept of our project is that writing and the teaching of writing go together. We're aiming to teach the teachers how to write better."
He went on to outline plans for a series of summer institutes, the first to be held July 10 to Aug.11 at GMU, in which 25 Northern Virginia teachers, selected on the basis of their excellence in teaching writing as well as their ability to teach other teachers, will participate.
"The aim of the institute," Gallehr explained, "is to bring together the collected expertise of this area's finest teachers of written composition, and, through an intensive course of writing and study, prepare them to go back to their schools as inservice workshop leaders who then can spur their colleagues on to becoming more effective writing teachers." Inservice workshops are held reguarly in area schools for the purpose of teacher development.
In the summer institute, each teacher will be sharing his or her own skills as well as what Gallehr termed "his or her own 'magic touch' in the teaching of writing" with the other participants. Specifically, he went on to say, each teacher will be required to prepare an extensive written document in at least one area of teaching writing, such as teaching spelling or teaching composition to bilingual students. These documents will be shared with the other participants and then become the basis for the inservice workshops to be held throughout the coming academic year.
In addition , teachers will be completing formal, directed, creative and instructional writing assignments, including many of the same assignments they will be giving their students, Gallehr said.
"Writing teachers who don't write are often guilty of assigning to their students things they themselves couldn't do," he said. "This accounts for some pretty inhumane assignments. Unless teachers also write, they really have no appreciation of what they're asking their students to do".
In the experience of the Bay Area Writing Project as well as in Gallehr's own experience, students become more highly motivated to write when teachers take part in their own assignments, Gallehr said. "Teacher will be doing a lot more sharing of their own writing with their students," Gallehr said.
Gallehr also less emphasis will be placed on the relationship of grammar to writing. "We've known from studies that go back as far as 1906 that grammar is not necessarily helpful in the teaching of writing," he said. "But, while students touched by the NVWP may not know alll the grammatical labels their parents know, they'll write better."
"What the NVWP is ultimately aiming for," said Gallehr, "is for writing to become a natural part of an individual's activities, to be approached freely, as say sports. We want students who leave school to be able, 20 years later, to write confidently, as a form of expression".