Central New York Teachers Participate In Federal Writing Project

Twelve Central New York teachers undertook an intensive, four-week Summer Institute in July at SUNY Cortland during the second year of the Seven Valleys Writing Project (SVWP).

The institute took place July 6-31 at Main Street SUNY Cortland, an extension facility the College operates at 9 Main St. in downtown Cortland. The educators honed their written expression and improved their grasp of research in education-related subjects.

"I used to laugh at the idea of having students write in class every day," said Nick Bessette, an English language arts teacher at Union Springs (N.Y.) High School. "Now I don't."

"At the end of the Summer Institute, I have come to realize how little I have used writing," noted Kathryn Cernera, English language arts teacher in the Ithaca (N.Y.) City School District's DeWitt Middle School. "I knew it was missing, but after being here, I have so many ways to sneak it into my classroom."

Since 2008, the College has operated a local branch of the National Writing Project, funded through the federal Department of Education, as a means of helping outstanding teachers across Central New York improve their practice through writing and research. In all, 26 area educators have been trained as master educators and returned to their home districts to share their new knowledge with colleagues and students by conducting professional development demonstrations after school hours.

"This whole institute has been a real shot in the arm for my teaching," said Tina Conklin, English language arts teacher in Chenango Valley (N.Y.) Middle School. "I want to go back and infect my school with an enthusiasm for writing."

"The program has helped 4,800 students gain access to a SVWP teacher consultant so far," said David Franke, a SUNY Cortland associate professor of English and professional writing who is the College's project director with Brian Fay, a teacher at the Onondaga-Cayuga-Madison BOCES. "The bottom line is that we anticipate our program will reach 18,000 students with a Seven Valleys Writing Project teacher by the end of five years. In our second year, we've taught a total of 26 educators from more than 20 school districts in Central New York. These teacher consultants practice in all fields and at all levels in the theory and practice of using writing to help students learn at the kindergarten through 12th grade level."

The SVWP will ultimately serve 79 school districts in an eight-county territory located within a 100-mile radius of Cortland, Franke said. The 12 teachers were competitively selected from 15 applicants and were required to have at least two years of teaching experience. Franke and Fay would like to see more candidates apply who teach science, math, social studies, art and other content areas.

The other Central New York teachers chosen to attend this summer's institute were: Quana Brock, English language arts teacher at Binghamton (N.Y.) High School; Deborah Gleason-Rielly, English teacher at Auburn (N.Y.) High School; Tish Evans, English as a second language teacher in the Syracuse (N.Y.) Central School District; Deborah Kisloski, English teacher at Horseheads (N.Y.) High School; Shannon Dawson, English language arts teacher at the Maine-Endwell (N.Y.) Central School District; Sarah Marcham, English language arts and math support teacher at Dryden (N.Y.) Elementary School; and Gerald Masters, an English and technical writing teacher at Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES Finger Lakes Technical and Career Center.

"Part of my job as a teacher is to pay attention to my students' passions," said Marilyn Mayer, a music, art and physical education teacher at Ithaca (N.Y.) City School District's Northeast Elementary School. "Listening to the things they say and the questions they ask — and all the silences in between -- is the only way to help them move to feel joy and take pride in the work they do."

"I'm reminded to take risks and that if I don't think the writing is interesting, no one else in my class will," said Joseph Cortese, history and economics teacher in the Homer (N.Y.) Senior High School.

"It was really an amazing year," Franke noted. "People work so hard, but it's really good work. They love it. They do research into their own professional research questions, for example, 'Does teaching grammar make elementary students better writers?' and 'How can I teach students to respond critically to their peers' work?' Stuff like that. At the same time, the teachers are helping each other compose their own writing, everything from memoir to poetry to fiction. On top of that, the group serves as a critical audience for teachers to develop their own ways to use writing in the classroom."

For more information about the SVWP, visit the Web site at www.cortland.edu/svwp or contact Franke at (607) 753-5945.