Article by Jeremy Benson

While literature professors in ivory towers discuss whether writers are born or trained, the fact remains that everyone, from Joe the Plumber to John Grisham—even Kanye West—should at least be able to effectively and intelligently communicate ideas, plans and needs to other members of our society. "Everyone needs a common way to read and transmit information quickly and efficiently, and writing is the way," says Trisha Baker, the head of the Language Arts Department at Saginaw High School. Amber White, a literacy coach at Ruth Fox Elementary in North Branch, agrees. "I believe writing is one of civilization’s greatest accomplishments."

Baker and White, though miles and grades apart, have at least one shared experience: they are both active in the Saginaw Bay Writing Project. Since 1993, the Saginaw Bay Writing Project, or SBWP, has provided the training and resources for over 300 local educators to become better teachers of writing.

The SBWP is one of a dozen Michigan sites of the National Writing Project, a government-funded organization dedicated to "improving writing and learning in our nation's schools." The National Writing Project began in 1974 as a professional development program for educators of all subjects and grade levels in the San Francisco Bay Area. It sought to connect teachers in order to achieve a greater comprehensive look at education and writing as a learning tool. Based on a "teachers-teaching-teachers" model, the NWP believes that teachers, rather than academic theorists or government officials, are the experts, and their collaborative expertise and experience will best reform writing education. Currently, the NWP has over 200 sites anchored to universities across the country.

Based at Saginaw Valley State University, the SBWP each year hosts the Summer Invitational Institute, a four-week intensive post-graduate program that explores contemporary teaching theories in addition to the merits of tried-and-true classroom practices.

The Incredible Happens

"When teachers who are passionate about their work come together, incredible things happen," recalls Bay City teacher Beverly Matulis, in a newsletter celebrating 15 years of the Project locally. Matulis participated in the first SBWP Summer Institute, and she is now one of the group's many instructors. "Teacher-learners are required to construct their own knowledge, and this new understanding becomes anchored in their hearts and their minds." Often the experience is a transforming one.

One of the core principles of the National Writing Project is that the best teachers of writing are writers themselves. Built into the Summer Institute's daily schedule are "Sacred Writing Hours," during which participants must write a personal narrative as well as a piece of professional writing, to be published in an anthology at the end of the four weeks. Delta College professor Mike Somers calls the scheduled writing time a safe haven that provides the "space and freedom—permission—to write," permission not always granted to teachers with limited planning and free time.

An important part of the writing portion is the time spent reflecting and revising their work. "It's through this process of becoming a writer that you understand the struggles students go through when they are asked to write," explains Elaine Hunyadi, assistant director of SBWP. Bob Pawlak of Kolb Elementary in Bay City explains further: "By being able to recognize myself as a writer, I have a comfort level about the practice that transcends to my students. Writing is no longer a chore, but something that we have fun with and look forward to on a daily basis."

Going Beyond Teacher Training

Much of the Project's benefits go beyond pedagogical training, offering educators a chance to regroup and re-energize as writers and teachers. "It got me back to myself as a writer," Somers says. During the sacred writing time, Somers finished his graduate thesis and was inspired to write a sequel during National Novel Writing Month. Other fellows continue the habits formed during the Summer Institute by participating in the bi-annual mini writing marathons, joining one of three Project writing groups, or committing themselves to writing. "I actually make sure I set aside time to do personal writing," says Baker; a sentiment echoed by White: "Writing is a part of my daily routine," she says. "I find myself dabbling in professional pieces, as well as penning poems."

For Somers, the diversity of the Institute's participants provided an important insight into how he had been teaching his first-year writing students. "When you're a college teacher, you feel isolated. We spent a lot of time asking, What are they teaching them down there? With the Writing Project, I got a very deep education about where the students were coming from." Knowing students better improves the instructor's ability to individualize learning.

Hunyadi says that teachers at all levels can feel isolated from their peers, and one goal of the Writing Project is to establish lines of communication to ease the sharing of "best practices." Members of SBWP frequently collaborate on projects and present their findings in the quarterly newsletter or at regular leadership team meetings. Communication is not limited within Mid-Michigan, either; the SBWP trades notes across Michigan and National sites, as well as with other educational organizations, like the Michigan Reading Association, and an internet listserve shares news from across the NWP and educational agencies.

In addition to the Summer Institute and collaborative exchanges, the SBWP offers on-site professional development workshops to regional schools, an Advanced Institute for teachers wanting to continue conversations started in the Summer Institute, and a collection of resource materials on reserve at the SVSU library.

Whether they're sending a 144-character Tweet highlighting deals at Best Buy or composing a nonprofit's monthly e-newsletter, capable writers are becoming increasingly invaluable, as individuals and businesses alike adopt web-based forms of information-sharing alongside traditional print and audio/visual communication. However, more than giving their students marketability, members of the Saginaw Bay Writing Project work to provide the means for students to convey their own personality and intelligence. Bob Pawlak believes writing "can be as much of an identifier of an individual as a signature, or a fingerprint—and not simply in terms of 'the person is a good writer' or 'they have a unique style,' but that they can actually put thoughts on a page in some sort of coherent and understandable way. One does not have to be a 'good' writer, as much as a 'capable' writer to portray a reasonable amount of intelligence." Well said. Well written. Well done.

© Jeremy Benson, 2009