The Rapidian

Murky future for teacher enrichment program

A Grand Rapids summer institute focused on improving student writing through innovative teaching lost funding in March. What's next?
This year's Lake Michigan Writing Project participants share writing completed during the institute

This year's Lake Michigan Writing Project participants share writing completed during the institute /Amanda Cornwell

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It’s hot. It’s humid. And it’s time for a month of teacher professional development. No, this isn’t an attempt to remediate West Michigan’s worst teachers. This isn’t a requirement for tenure. These teachers aren’t forced, bribed, or coerced to show up. They choose to be here. The question is why?

Over the past four weeks, twenty-one teachers representing elementary through college classrooms met at Grand Valley’s Pew Campus each day to write, read and learn from each other about teaching writing in ways that work. These educators enthusiastically took part in the Lake Michigan Writing Project.

The Writing Project isn’t for the faint of heart. This is a dynamic, challenging program intended to immerse teachers in the act of writing while encouraging reflection and growth in teaching. The institute encourages teachers to share what’s working in their classrooms. “It’s empowering,” explained Amanda Cornwell, a middle school teacher and a consultant with the Lake Michigan Writing Project. “Teachers recognize they really do have valuable knowledge to share with each other.”

The Writing Project focuses on facilitating discussions about what works in the classroom. Teachers have time to talk to each other, learn and teach each other, and discuss how they’ll actually put best practices into use. The focus here is on improving student learning in and through writing.

And there really couldn’t be a more important moment to focus on improving student writing. It’s a crucial skill for finding employment, and in today’s tight job market, our students can’t afford to fall behind. According to The National Commission on Writing, “Fully 86 percent of (blue chip) companies report they ‘frequently’ or ‘almost always’ hold poorly written application materials against a job candidate.”  

“If we are to live in a community where our students will someday stand on their own, they must have the best teachers of writing to prepare them. The best teachers are created in an environment where they can collaborate and be empowered,” said Dave Stuart Jr., a participant in this year’s Writing Project, and a high school teacher in Cedar Springs.   

“The biggest bang for our buck as citizens comes from providing time and place for teachers to work with one another and learn from one another,” agreed Cornwell. “We need to invest in the teachers who will spend the next thirty years in their classrooms.”  

Unfortunately, despite the rave reviews this program has received from local teachers, the future of the Lake Michigan Writing Project is murky. Beginning in 1991, the federal government has funded over 200 Writing Project sites across all 50 States, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. However, in March, funding for the program was eliminated. This will almost certainly affect local Writing Project sites, including the Lake Michigan Writing Project. Without federal funding, it’s not clear how the sites will finance themselves.

This is unsettling to participants who view the Writing Project as a positive force in the Grand Rapids community. Jackie Hodge, a fourth grade teacher in Kentwood and participant in this year’s Lake Michigan Writing Project, noted that when participating teachers apply what they’ve learned to their classrooms, “we are affecting positive change to all our students. Students who can think critically and use writing as a means to learning are going to improve our community and go far in a world that is constantly changing. Learning to write well helps students to continue to think critically and continue to learn, even when formal education is complete.”

Fran Clemence, a third grade teacher and an instructor at Grand Valley, says maintaining a Writing Project site here in Grand Rapids also demonstrates that West Michigan values education. “The Lake Michigan Writing Project helps educators throughout West Michigan to become better teachers of writing, showing other states that teachers in Grand Rapids are reflective practitioners.”

No one can deny that these are difficult economic times. Sacrifices must be made. But are we truly willing to sacrifice one of the few spaces where teachers can meet, research, and work together to improve students’ futures?

Disclosure: This piece was written collaboratively by the participants of this year's LMWP.

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