Writing can be an arduous pursuit, but teaching others how to write can be even more difficult. Educators from around the state met for three weeks to share insights and ideas on writing instruction for all grade levels.
The annual Central Utah Writing Project’s summer institute was hosted here at BYU this past June. Ten educators were invited to attend the three-week program aimed at helping teachers become better writers and, thus, better writing instructors. Five mentors, including BYU English professors Christopher Crowe, Deborah Dean, and Amber Jensen, led the fellows in workshops and exercises.
Programs such as this give teachers the opportunity to network, share ideas, and learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The participants, or fellows, came to the institute not only prepared to learn but prepared to teach and discuss with their peers how they could all improve, particularly in the area of writing instruction.
While activities and exercises varied from day to day, ranging from guest speakers to field trips on Provo Center Street, there were some components that remained constant throughout.
One of these components was what they called “scribbles,” designated writing time where fellows had time to reflect on a prompt or whatever else they had been thinking about that day. Free writing helped fellows focus on the beginning stages of the writing process rather than worry about creating a finished product. While exercises like this can be frustrating, they can also be freeing.
To some, writing can seem like a mystical skill that you’re either born with or not, but the truth is that no one gets it perfect on the first draft. It can take many drafts and a lot of work to create a quality product. One participant, Emily Anderson, noted that it’s important to show students how messy the writing process can be. So, rather than focusing on a polished final draft, focusing on teaching the writing process can help “students see themselves as writers.”
Another daily exercise was “lab lessons,” where the teachers would workshop writing lessons and receive feedback from their peers. Robin White noted that lab lessons gave the fellows “opportunities to test out things that didn’t go well in the classroom.” In this safe environment, peers gave feedback about what worked, didn’t work, or could be changed. “Even with just the experience of lab lessons, if I went through [Summer Institute] again and just did lab lessons, it would make the experience 100% worth it because of what I was able to learn,” White said.
Many of the fellows came into the institute as confident writers but weren’t sure how to translate their writing skills to their teaching. “I’ve always known how to [write], but I didn’t know how to teach people how to [write],” said Anderson. But as they got feedback from their lab lessons, spent time in workshops, and discussed ideas with mentors and peers, fellows increased their confidence as both writers and writing teachers.
In the last meeting of the institute, after three weeks of intense training and growth, participants jokingly revised a popular saying from the movie Ratatouille, saying, “Anyone can write.” When teachers see themselves as writers and truly believe that anyone can learn to write successfully, they’re able to help their students become more confident and effective writers.
The Central Utah Writing Project (CUWP) has sponsored the summer institute for the past 13 years, and they hope to continue for many more. To learn more about CUWP, the summer institute, and how you can get involved, visit their website.