Writing with the Experts Professional Learning Series

WwtE Boswell Hoyt 

Writing with the Experts Remix February 2015: National Literacy Experts Kelly Boswell and Linda Hoyt 

Writing with the Experts Professional Learning Series: 

Improving Instruction and Writing Achievement across Wayne County

What does it mean to be literate? More specifically, what will it mean to be literate in the 22nd century? In order to meet the literacy demands of a world that does not currently exist, educators must provide all students opportunity and access to instruction that moves well beyond basic skills. Students will need to be critical assessors of their world, creative, reflective, innovative, generative thinkers, and most importantly, students will need to be readers and writers.

A critical step in deepening understanding of the nuances of effective literacy instruction is to provide teachers with transformative professional learning. Research has demonstrated that in order to improve teacher practice, professional learning must be intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice. Over the course of the past three years, approximately 350 teachers and 100 administrators across Wayne County representing 25 school districts have received over 90 professional development hours through Wayne RESA where they directly interacted with nationally renowned literacy experts, collaborated with colleagues, analyzed student work, refined units of study, and reflected on their own pedagogical practices.

In this era of the Common Core Standards and the M-STEP, it is more critical than ever that students are skilled in the Four C’s (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity), and the Writing with the Experts professional development series addresses each of them. Writing is essential for communication and this series provides teachers with the knowledge and tools they need to accelerate their students’ progress as writers. Choice is a basic tenet of effective writing instruction, as is the study of wide and varied genres of quality mentor texts, both of which naturally foster creativity. As writing is used to support the construction of deeper comprehension in reading, critical thinking is developed as students read closely and respond to increasingly complex texts. Purposeful talk and a sense of community are essential elements of the writing process, so collaboration is an integral component of any writing curriculum. Each of the Four C’s were strategically incorporated throughout this series. District teams who have participated in Writing with the Experts have consistently reported that this robust and sustained learning experience has had a significant and positive impact on their professional knowledge base and classroom practice (see Figure 1).

Writing with Experts Fig 1 (2) 

A powerful tenant of the Writing with the Experts series is that it has incorporated a multitude of national literacy experts, including Katie Wood Ray, Ann Marie Corgill, and Penny Kittle, who shared foundational information on the writing workshop model of instruction and emphasized how critical it is that independent writing is increased in order for students to develop the fluency, stamina, and independence they will need for career and college readiness.

Stephanie Harvey presented on the development of critical thinking through purposeful talk, inquiry, and collaboration. In an interactive session on the use of Socratic seminars, Matt Copeland also demonstrated the critical role that collaboration and purposeful talk play in supporting literacy. Students need explicit instruction in close reading, text annotation, and reflective and evaluative discussions to support meaningful written response. As students develop greater depth of knowledge through extended conversations, their writing is enriched along with their reading comprehension.

Conferring expert Carl Anderson introduced participants to the basic components of the one-to-one conference, which is the heart of the writing workshop. Also addressed were best practices in assessing students as writers and using this data to inform instruction. During the study session following this presentation, participants engaged in the norming process to develop a common assessment lens as they examined their own students’ writing to determine next steps for instruction.

Linda Hoyt shared strategies for crafting information writing, supporting the instructional shift toward more nonfiction writing called for in the Common Core. The use of explicit modeling of rich, descriptive writing was emphasized as critical for accelerating students’ growth as writers. Jeffrey Wilhelm delved into inquiry-based teaching to develop students’ skill in argument writing through close examination of high-quality mentor texts, engaging and in-depth discussion, and authentic writing experiences focused on essential questions and evidence to support claims.

The use of mentor texts to explore varied writing genre and craft moves were examined with Ralph Fletcher, Lester Laminack, and Jeff Anderson. Participants learned how critical it is that students not only notice and name the craft moves of published authors, but also that they understand the purpose for their use, what the author intended these craft moves to do for the reader. Only when students understand the “why” as well as the “what” in their study of model texts will students be able to effectively incorporate elements of craft into their own writing.

Following the presentations of the writing experts, study sessions facilitated by WRESA consultants provided opportunities for participants to reflect critically on the information gleaned from the presentations and from their professional reading. Each study session enhanced the learning from the expert presentations and provided time for further study and collaboration among participants, particularly in examining implications for instruction in their own classroom, school, and across their district. Participants carefully reflected on the impact this learning had on their professional practice and had the opportunity to share student work and reflect on and gather feedback on their own implementation.

Formatively assessing writers’ progress was also a large component of the series. During the study session time, participants collaborated as a professional learning community (PLC) to develop a common assessment lens, providing a powerful model of how group interaction facilitates critical thinking, creativity, and communication. Just as collaboratively examining their own students’ on-demand writing samples strengthened participants’ skills as teachers of writers, this kind of teamwork also enhances students’ skill as writers. Participants were encouraged to replicate this experience with their students to develop their skill in assessing the qualities of writing, self-evaluating, providing meaningful feedback to peers, and developing greater independence as writers. Finally, to build additional capacity in their local districts, participants were encouraged to introduce this process in their PLC work with building colleagues as a powerful step toward enhancing alignment of professional practice with the CCSS/Michigan Standards.

There is no substitute for an effective teacher who knows his/her content well and knows how to teach to maximize student achievement (Allington, 2012). Thus, it is not surprising that as teachers’ knowledge and skill set were positively impacted by their participation in this series and the dedicated time for the study of professional text in collaboration with colleagues. As teachers modified their practice to include more of the basic tenets of effective writing instruction (e.g., more time for independent writing, increased student choice, regular collaboration, meaningful feedback, close study of mentor texts as models for varied writing genres, etc.), student motivation and engagement increased, as did their overall skill as writers, particularly in the areas of fluency, stamina, and independence.

Although we can’t answer with certainty what it will mean for 22nd century youth to be literate, what we know for sure is that literacy is at the core of human experience. Thus it is essential for literacy instruction to reflect the complex world that our children will inherit. We believe that the best way to prepare for the unknown is to study “best” practices, reflect, and strive to consider “next” practices.

The Writing with the Experts series will continue with a new cohort for the 2015-2016 school year. Please see Wayne RESA’s website under professional development offerings for more information.