Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Visit to the New Elk River Writing Project Site in Billings, Montana

We have a new writing project neighbor in Eastern Montana. I had the privilege of accompanying Rachel Bear of the National Writing Project on a visit to the proposed Elk River Writing Project Site in Billings, Montana September 30-October 1st.  We arrived on a beautiful day—the leaves were changing color in the valley of the Yellowstone River, and the sun shown on the beautiful rimrock along the edge of the canyon. First, we met in the English department of Montana State University in Billings.  University Director, Tami Haaland, a poet, met us on campus and brought us to the top floor of the building, where we met with faculty members, the press, teachers from the local schools, and Reno Charette, the American Indian Outreach Director. Rachel gave an overview of the National Writing Project, and I contributed my perspective as Director of the Red River Valley Writing Project.
 After the meeting at the university, our next stop was the school district office, where we met with a large group of about 20 teachers and administrators, which was a great turnout on a Friday afternoon and during homecoming week at that! Glenda invited the writing project teachers to talk about what the writing project does for them. A math teacher shared first. She was brutally honest in admitting that prior to her experience in a writing project summer institute, she skipped the writing questions in her curriculum. She didn’t think writing helped her students improve their mathematical abilities and she didn’t buy into the writing the school required of content area teachers. In a voice filled with emotion, she described her epiphany about the importance of writing, how she ventured to include writing in her math classroom, and how now writing is so important to her students that she would never go back. Another teacher shared how she was asked to cover a class for a writing project teacher, and when she saw that the lesson plan for 45 minutes involved students writing in one form or another for the whole time, she was incredulous. “Students can’t write for that long,” she thought. The students proved her wrong—and that experience moved her to sign up for a writing project summer institute.
Shannon, an elementary teacher told the story of her first week in a summer institute: “It was the most intimidating thing I’ve ever done in my life.” She was one of only two elementary teachers in a group of mostly high school teachers and lacked confidence in teaching writing. She said that when she first started teaching, there weren’t a lot of resources for teaching writing, so she let writing go by the wayside. Attending the summer institute helped her gain the confidence and resources she needed to make writing central to her classroom. A fourth grade teacher echoed this experience. She put reading and math first in her classroom and put writing on the backburner, which meant she’d reach the end of the day or the end of the week, and find that there was no time for writing. The summer institute helped her bring writing to the front. “It was something I felt I needed to do.”
Margo also shared a before and after story. For her, much of her teaching career had been dedicated to “finding the perfect worksheet.” The writing project helped her break free of this futile quest and design more authentic writing activities for her students. With this shift, she found she could address multiple standards and “You get an amazing product that is not only interesting to read but interesting to grade.”
Steve, a high school English teacher echoed this enthusiasm, stating he never would have done some of his most meaningful assignments without the influence of the writing project. He told the story of an at-risk student who experienced a turnaround in school because of the Wednesday “Ritual Read” and “Writing into the day” that he used in his classroom. He said that he never would have been able to build a relationship with this kid without the writing project. Cindy, who just went through a summer institute with Elk River this past summer, concurred: “In a writing project classroom, kids treat each other differently--they’re humanized through the writing project approach.” She said the writing project has transformed her year and transformed her relationships with students. The topic of local emphasis of the Elk River Writing Project also came up. Marcia said that the site’s focus on Indian Education for All is the hook that brought her into the writing project. In fact, the name of the writing project site echoes the this focus. Each Montana Indian tribe calls the Yellowstone River “Elk River” in their own language, according to Reno Charette.
Administrators were clearly moved by these teacher testimonials. One principal said, “When I came to this meeting, I didn’t really know what the writing project was all about, but now I’m thinking that I want to sign up for a summer institute.” She and other administrators talked about different ways they saw the work of the Elk River Writing Project supporting the students in their district. It was a successful meeting, and the Billings Gazette reported on it here.
On Saturday morning, Rachel Bear and I attended a planning meeting with the teachers. Rachel announced that they could now officially call themselves “The Elk River Writing Project Site.” After a brief moment of applause, this industrious and innovative group did what writing project teachers do everywhere—they immediately went to work planning out their next steps. I’m happy to welcome a neighboring site to the national network. You can check out their website here:
Or follow the Elk River Writing Project teachers with this twitter hashtag: @erwpmt