On a blistering June day, 11 teachers, mostly from Tucson middle and high schools, voluntarily sat in a classroom on the UA campus to learn how to be better writing instructors. The teachers are meeting for six hours a day, four days a week, for five weeks as part of the invitational summer institute offered by the Southern Arizona Writing Project.
The Southern Arizona Writing Project, or SAWP, has a 30-year history at the University of Arizona and is housed in the Department of English, which is part of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The institute is offered in partnership with the College of Education.
SAWP is part of the National Writing Project, or NWP, which serves teachers across disciplines and at all levels, providing professional development opportunities to improve the teaching of writing.
Stephanie Troutman, who joined the UA in fall of 2015 as an assistant professor in the Department of English, is the new director of SAWP and is attending this year’s institute in a dual role – as leader and student. Troutman is a feminist scholar who researches issues of race, gender and sexuality in relation to social justice issues in both popular culture and schooling, including educational policies, curriculum and pedagogy.
The summer institute is offered at no charge to teachers, thanks to a two-year $15,000 grant from the National Writing Project and funds from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the College of Education, the Department of English and UA South.
The institute focuses on teaching pedagogy and three kinds of writing: professional, personal and reflective. The teachers conduct research on a topic and do a 90-minute teaching demonstration for the group. The teachers read from a common text and from a book they select about the writing life. This year’s book, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children, critically explores power relations in the classroom. Activities include daily writing and peer sharing and field trips to places such as the Poetry Center and the “World of Words” in the College of Education.
Troutman said that one of the reasons the institute incorporates personal creative writing into the curriculum is that it can help teachers relate to the struggle many students have with writing and in turn help them teach the craft more effectively.
Teachers who complete the summer institute often become leaders in future institutes and serve as mentors to other teachers at their schools.
“I consistently hear from teachers who participated that it is life changing,” Troutman said. “It changes their teaching practice and makes them better writers and leaders in their classrooms and schools.”
When Christina McGee attended the institute in 2012, she was struggling with student apathy during her first year of teaching English at Rincon High.
“The students didn’t seem to care about learning,” said McGee, who is a leader at this year’s institute. “It was such a difficult teaching year for me.”
For her teaching demonstration, McGee researched student apathy. Now she intentionally tries to build a sense of community in her classroom. “It led me to completely change who I am as a teacher. My students care about being there now,” McGee said. “This professional development was extraordinarily transformative for me as a teacher.”
One of the most important things Diane Drury learned when she attended the institute was that you need to give kids the opportunity to discuss the writing process.
“Talking is huge for the students to develop what they think and to be able to take someone else’s opinions and skills and use them to improve,” said Drury, an English teacher at Rincon High School. Drury is a team leader at this year’s institute.
The institute is intentionally collaborative, providing plenty of time for the teachers to learn from each other.
When Sarah Etters first attended the institute in 2012, she was an elementary school teacher. She is now training to be a speech pathologist, but still comes back to the institute in the summer as a co-director.
“Teachers need to be validated and to be trusted to do what they do best, which is know their students and know how to teach,” Etters said. “Unfortunately the climate now is that teachers are not really respected in that way. We joke that coming here feels like teacher therapy. We are respected and validated. “
Beyond the summer institute, SAWP offers programs throughout the year, such as a spring writing marathon, salon nights and “Second Saturdays” where teachers meet on the UA campus to stay connected through writing and to support one another professionally. These events are intended to provide continuity, recruit new teacher participants, and to cultivate a community of reflective practitioners and school leaders.
“Teachers need time to teach other teachers and to be with other teachers in a professional setting that is outside of their schools,” Troutman said.
In her new role as director of SAWP, Troutman plans for SAWP to be a space that not only enhances writing and pedagogy, but also fosters the type of critical, professional growth that empowers teachers as change agents in local matters of schooling and education. In order to work toward this goal, Troutman is in the process of updating the SAWP website, planning a retreat with the advisory board, meeting with directors of the other National Writing Project sites in Arizona, and developing events to reach out to schools that have not traditionally participated in SAWP to get more diversity among the applicants.
Troutman will also incorporate her research expertise into the curriculum. “I want to do more in terms of talking about race, culture and identity among students.”