Delta Writing Project Impacts Thousands

by Tucker Crain
Delta Digital News Service

JONESBORO – A local branch of the National Writing Project, the Arkansas Delta Writing Project focuses on the overall goals of teacher leadership and writing instruction, shaping the styles of teaching in the region.

Opportunities for the NWP to shape instruction occur throughout the year, but the biggest draw in the region occurs during the ADWP summer program at Arkansas State University. The two- to three-week program emphasizes placing teachers in the same role as their students, allowing for an understanding of how each activity and training session is carried out in the classroom.

A federally-funded program, the ADWP is one of approximately 150 sites across the country that utilize this training. Though the program resides in Jonesboro, it draws in teachers from schools across the Delta region.

“It’s authentic,” ADWP director Dixie Keyes said. “The teachers-teaching-teachers method – rather than people who aren’t teachers trying to tell teachers what to do – is really the heart of it. That’s the gold mine.”

The NWP does not place strict guidelines on these regional sites. Instead, these sites are considered grassroots programs. This allows for greater specialization of instruction based on the region.

Teachers from the Delta have their work published in an anthology at the end of the program. This anthology acts as a model for teachers, showing how to apply all they have learned in the program.

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Heather Neeley, English teacher at East Poinsett County High School. Neeley participated in the summer 2017 program. Photo by Tucker Crain

Heather Neeley, an English teacher at East Poinsett County High School in Lepanto, attended the program this past summer.

“I hate to use the cliché word ‘revolutionized,’ but it revolutionized the way I think about even assigning non-writing units. I’m connecting things I would not have put together before and having it be meaningful for the kids,” Neeley said.

During the program, every teacher leads a daily activity, such as a demonstration lesson on a specific part of writing. The teachers collaborate on projects, write daily journals about the activities and discuss what problems their students encounter.

The ADWP is open to all teachers in the Delta region from kindergarten through college. Though few college professors have attended, teachers from all subjects and all grade levels regularly attend. Neeley said this cross-subject discussion lets teachers learn what general styles of teaching are successful and that the program is beneficial to teachers regardless of subject.

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Kelly Webb, English teacher at East Poinsett County High School. Webb participated in the summer 2017 program. Photo by Tucker Crain

Kelly Webb, an English teacher at East Poinsett County High School, attended the program this past summer.

“I knew I wasn’t doing everything I needed to be doing, and this just gave me an arsenal. I still have my notebook, and I can flip through it and go ‘Oh, I can use this and this and this!’ Really, it was life-changing,” Webb said.

Part of this arsenal includes a “2 cents” activity. Webb said this activity involves reading an article, a short story or another piece and requires students to throw two pennies in a bucket. But, students cannot throw in their 2 cents until they give their insight into the reading. This hands-on approach runs throughout the activities taught at the ADWP summer program.

Even basic writing activities changed the classroom and the student response. Neeley said writing-based assignments like a daily journal give the students something they are confident in and want to talk about during class.

Debbie West, a technology coach at Nettleton Public Schools, went through the ADWP program in 2009 before helping facilitate the program from 2010-2012. Though not a teacher now, West taught during her time with ADWP.

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Debbie West, technology coach at Nettleton Public Schools. West participated in the summer 2009 program. Photo by Tucker Crain

West said the program helped her gain leadership skills and an ability to convey to other teachers what she was doing in the classroom, enforcing first and foremost that writing has worth. The program, in turn, shaped her teaching style.

“(My students had) an excitement for writing. It was important for me to write at the same time that my kids were writing. I also saw the kids beg me, ‘Please take me to the computer lab, we want to blog today!’ They really built an online community with each grade level. They loved reading each other’s stories,” West said.

The blog process incorporated into West’s class involved publishing online stories that the other students read and commented on. West said the students motivated each other regularly, with one student calling another student “as good a writer as J. K. Rowling.”

ADWP has taught around 75 teachers in total, with the summer program’s attendance staying around 10 teachers. One teacher can instruct hundreds or even thousands of students during their time as a teacher. Keyes said she believes this acts as the most beneficial impact of ADWP.

“As the years go by, you’re talking about thousands of students who are enriched just by one teacher,” Keyes said. “So when you think 75 teachers and all the students they’re impacting, that’s what gives me reason to sustain this and keep going.”

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