For five weeks this summer, Fairfax County school officials - worried about their students' ability to write clearly and correctly - are trying a hold experiment: they're making the teachers write, too.
"I was never taught in College how to teach kids how to write," said Joyce Stoneham, an eighth grade teacher at Luther Jackson School and one of the participants in the program. "For many of us, this is the first time we've had to write about things that we want to write about."
A second teacher. Anne Wotring of Lake Braddock Secondary Shcool, said with delight: "I discovered this summer that I could actually write a poem. I really did.
Fairfax County's public schools, Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University are cooperating in the project.
"It's one of our major convictions that a teacher of writing should be someone who writes, but very few of them do." says Donald R. Gallehr, a professor at George Mason and director of the summer experiment. "We want to make the art of teaching writing alive. It's been dead for centuries."
Part of an overall campaign to improve writing skills in Fairfax schools, the summer effort being held at George Mason, is patterned after a program in the San Francisco Bay area called Bay Area Writing Project. In four years that effort has brought about significant increases in test scores at schools that have participated.
Like the Bay Area Project, the Mason program - called Northern Viriginia Writing Project - involves five weeks of intensive study by 25 English teachers at levels ranging from first grade through college.
The idea is that when it's over, the teachers go back to their schools and share what they've learned with their colleagues. Next summer another group of teachers will be run through the project at Mason.
Two afternoons a week, the teachers meet in small groups of four or five to read their own writing aloud to each other and then criticize what others have written.
One afternoon this week, Gallehr read aloud to his group a long account to the first battle of Bull Run, written from the point of view of a participant. But he wrote in the second person, and some of the members of his group found that troublesome.
Joce Stoneham, the teacher at Luther Jackson, wrote nostalgic vignettes of her childhood in Gastonia, N.C. Her colleagues liked what she had written, but they wanted some of the vignettes to be longer and richer in detail.
Anne Wotring was still struggling to find the risk last line for her poem.
Organized in response to mounting concern over declining test scores and increasing public complaints over the low level of writing ability of many students, the writing project had its origins in 1971 when a small group of San Francisco Bay area educators met to discuss declining writing skills in California schools.
They soon came to the conclusion that most teachers don't know how to teach writing because they've never been to trained to teach writing.
In most schools, they found,the English curriculum consisted of American or English literature with instruction in the rules of grammar, but there was little practical instruction on how to write clearly and correctly.
Three years after the original meeting, the University of California at Berkeley agreed to fund the initial writing project and 25 teachers were invited to the institute on writing there that summer.
Since then the effort has grown and similar programs are offered at nine California campuses and 30 campuses around the nation, of which George Mason is one.
At Mason, the program this summer came into being through a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a directive by Fairfax County School Superintendent S. John Davis to improve students' writing skills.
A year ago, saying he was distressed by he poor quality of writing skills of many students, Dave directed that all high school students in the county be required to produce at least one piece of error-free composition at least four times a year. He also ordered writing skills emphasized at every level.
Thus, at the writing project this summer, elemerty, secondary and intermediate school teachers and college teachers are thrown together in one group on the premise that "what's applicable for one level will be applicable for all," according to Gallehr.
When they're not sharing their own writing with each other, participants in the program take turns swapping information on how it is that they attempt to teach writing to the students they teach.
Wendy Emmett, a first grade teacher at Green Acres School in Fairfax City uses simple poetry because, she says, "I like it and I like it because it works."
At the first grade level, her students produce such couplets as "There was a girl who found a pearl," and "A mouse lived in a house." It develops an ability to work with words.
"It's not the poem that's important," says Emmett. "The real satisfaction comes when the children are able to express their feelings."
Paraphrasing Robert Frost, she adds, "There is no art to writing but having something to say."