Three out of four Americans think schools should put more emphasis on teaching students to write well, according to a statistic published in the National Writing Project’s 2011-2012 annual report. The report highlights the focus on writing and literacy that is still very much alive in the American school system, even in the course of the digital age. The National Writing Project is a nation-wide professional development program that concentrates on teaching writing in K-12 institutions. With 191 university-based sites, the NWP is able to reach a broad base of students and teachers. But, what many UConn students may not know is that there is an NWP site right here on our own campus called The Connecticut Writing Project that brings these initiatives to teachers and schools throughout the state.
The Connecticut Writing Project was first established at UConn in 1982 and has since continued to grow into quite a successful institution. The CWP strives to “improve student achievement by improving the teaching of writing and improving learning in the nation’s schools,” the program’s mission statement read. Since its beginnings in 1982 the program has created an annual Invitational Summer Institute that provides an in depth professional development program for teachers and has published literary magazines that center on K-12 student work, which are published each year accompanied with an awards night that acknowledges the student writers.
The current Director of the CWP and lecturer of English at UConn Jason Courtmanche has been a part of the program since his undergraduate years at UConn in 1991, taking an Advanced Composition course taught by the then current Director of the CWP Mary Mackley. He even attended the Summer Institute himself as a graduate student.
“I taught for four years before attending the CWP’s Summer Institute and earning six grad credits in English,” Courtmanche said. “By spring of 2007, the position of Director of the CWP was open again. I applied and was hired. I now teach that Advanced Composition course I took in 1991.”
After eight years as Director of the CWP, Courtmanche looks to an even more successful 2015-2016 year for the CWP as the program continues to grow. The Summer Institute in particular has been a major source of accomplishment for the CWP.
“The main part of the program, the real cornerstone of everything, is the Summer Institute, which has run every summer since 1982,” Courtmanche said.
The Summer Institute consists of two graduate courses in composition theory and writing workshop, which touch on both the theoretical and the practical studies of writing. The courses, which last four weeks in the summer, are meant to be much more demanding and intensive than simply a workshop class or a conference. It is important that teachers who take part in the Summer Institute foster professional relationships and implement professional development programs between school districts and within their own schools to promote a greater overall understanding amongst teachers on how to teach writing.
“Ideally the teachers who attend the SI will be able to help the CWP provide contracted professional development services in schools- basically helping to teach other teachers how to teach writing,” Courtmanche said. “The professional development workshops teachers can offer other teachers through contracted professional development with the CWP are based on the research the teachers conduct during the summer in fulfillment of the requirements for the three credit theory component of the institute.”
E.O. Smith High School English Department Head Denise Abercrombie, who attended the Summer Institute in 2007, said her experience in the program stands out as one of the most intense and outstanding professional development experiences in her 27 years as an English/theater teacher. Through her courses at the Summer Institute, Abercrombie was able to conduct research on the use of drama techniques to study poetry and fiction. She also had the opportunity to do some writing of her own while receiving feedback from her peers as well as hearing and commenting on their work. The program allowed Abercrombie to expand on what she learned and bring new ideas to E.O. Smith’s program.
“The Summer Institute served as a springboard into other life changing writing and teaching opportunities,” Abercrombie said. “The CWP was instrumental in helping E.O. Smith High School establish a student-staffed Writing Center modeled after UConn’s Writing Center. CWP Teacher Consultant, Megan Magner and I collaborated to co-found and co-direct an interdisciplinary Writing Center inspired by CWP best practices.”
The CWP and its programs promote teachers within and between school districts to work together to create more successful writing programs. Abercrombie acknowledges the success this practice has had at E.O. Smith.
“It’s rewarding to see our Writing Center thrive under the direction of fellow CWP Teacher Consultants and dedicated humanities teachers, Suzanne Desjarlais and Patricia Baruzzi,” Abercrombie said. “For many years now E.O. Smith’s Writing Center has been a featured model at UConn’s Annual High School Writing Center Conference.”
To be a part of the Summer Institute teachers must apply and go through an interview process. Selected participants are awarded a Fellowship funded by the Aetna Endowed Chair of Writing and/or grant funds from the National Writing Project. The program has been consistently growing over the years and has become extremely popular in the Storrs CWP district.
“Our 33 year average is 15 teachers per summer,” Courtmanche said. “But we’ll surpass 500 participants this summer.”
Not only is participation increasing in the Summer Institute, submissions to the CWP sponsored K-12 student magazine “Connecticut Student Writers,” which is published annually, have also been increasing.
“This year we had 1,100 participants from roughly 120 schools for our student literary magazine,” said CWP Graduate Assistant Sara Austin. “That is a 300 participant increase from last year. We also have 256 honorees for our awards night at Jorgensen, compared to last year’s 120 honorees. The program is definitely growing and gaining interest amongst students.”
The “Connecticut Student Writers” magazine is a collaborative effort of the best student writing from across the state. K-12 students can submit works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama and artwork to be chosen for the publication. The process is then celebrated at the annual Student Recognition Night, which is hosted by the CWP.
Though the CWP is growing in many areas, they continue to look in new directions for growth and improvement.
“We are really trying to get the word out across the state about our program,” CWP Intern and 8th-semester English major Nikki Barnhart said. “We want to show what the definition of the best Connecticut writing is.”
“We’ve expanded professional development programs to new towns such as Manchester and have pulled in whole new districts and prospective school systems for next year,” Austin said. “Though we stay in the Hartford area, areas within that still exist where we are not present and look to expand.”
Courtmanche also discussed new topics the CWP has begun to cover in SI classes in response to changes in writing education.
“In recent years we have of course put greater emphasis on digital literacy, English Language Learners and responses to various education reform initiatives,” Courtmanche said.
The CWP has since increased its web presence, promoted research in the field of digital literacy and Bilingual/ELL Education by teachers in the SI program, as well as shifted to a more teacher-centered focus, allowing teachers in the Institute to conduct research that more closely applies to the needs of their districts, classrooms, students and the strengths and weaknesses of the teacher, explained Courtmanche. He also acknowledged a number of faculty from across school districts that have introduced these initiatives into their own schools, such as Rose Clack who received a LEAD grant to aid in her teaching of math to bilingual and ESL students.
In the coming years it will be exciting to see how the CWP will continue to grow. But difficult budget cuts, which have already been taking place since the 2008 Economic Recession, as well as the uncertainty of new changes to come, due to Governor Malloy’s new budget plan and leadership changes through the levels of the NWP, create an interesting future for the CWP.
“Of course the biggest improvement I could hope for is improved funding,” Courtmanche said. “I predict there will be an uptick or improvement in at least opportunities for federal funding. At the university level, we are all waiting to see Governor Malloy’s final budget and how this will affect UConn as a whole, and then we can see how this will trickle down to small programs like CWP.”
But overall, the Connecticut Writing Program continues to show great initiative, offering many enriching educational writing programs for everyone from teachers to K-12 students and even undergraduates.
“Interest from teachers to attend the Summer Institute remains high. And interest from school districts in professional development services is as high as it’s ever been,” Courtmanche said. “And our relationship with Neag continues to strengthen. For undergraduate students who are interested in the field of education, I’d say the Connecticut Writing Project is an awesome portal through which to enter the field.”
The Connecticut Writing Project holds a special spot in the hearts of those who have been able to be a part of the program. It is with high hopes from teachers and students alike that the CWP will continue on its path of encouraging students to become great writers.
“I was so happy to be a part of this program because it has principles that match my own,” Barnhart said. “It is so important to stress writing in public schools because it gives a foundation for every field a student could move on to in the future.”
The CWP proves not only to be an inspiring program for participants, but those participants become inspirations themselves.
“It’s rewarding to see a 17-year-old student like Amy Ma get published in that same magazine as a high school senior and then have her write me seven years later to say she’s now a high school English teacher in Hartford,” Courtmanche said.