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Embracing Teacher-Directed Professional Learning

Terri Howell, Mary Spring

Summer Writing Institute at Columbia University, and author of countless books about teaching writing ( readingandwritingproject.com).

One thousand teachers from nine different countries attended this 26th writing institute. We all attended Lucy’s morning keynote address, but the rest of the day we worked with Calkins’s staff developers in smaller specialist groups geared to the grade we taught or to the role we had within our board or school. At the end of each day, the seven of us, our heads full of new ideas, would gather in our residence room to debrief and share the writing we had done. “It was some of the most enriching I have ever had,” said Wendy Stephen, after attending her first writing institute in 2008.

It is 4:45 and we try to be strict about ending our meetings at 5 o’clock so the parents in our group can get home. Libs asked Debbie to share what she did with a poetry unit in her grade 8 class. Debbie gathered ideas from her notes from the institute and other books. She has a wealth of student examples and the modelled writing from the mini lessons she taught, which we look at on the document camera. We discuss how we can adapt the lessons for the Junior grades, or even for Primary learners. We are all madly scrawling notes.

Not all of our writing groups are focused on studying a book; our topics are as varied as we are. We attempt to meet the group’s needs, respecting the fact that not everyone went to New York City. For example, one focus of the Columbia University writer’s workshop is conferencing with children about their writing — one on one or in small guided groups — and how to recognize quickly what students can do to improve their writing. We brought this new skill back to our study group by having each teacher bring a sample of student work, especially from students who were puzzling to them or who weren’t progressing as they thought they should. We have also spent meetings watching videos and sharing books and techniques used by Calkins and her staff developers, who are engaged in perfecting the art of the student conference to improve writing. At other meetings, we have each brought a mentor text and explained how the text could be used in a mini lesson to teach a specific writing skill, and how to connect reading and writing within the literacy block.

In addition to the travel to New York City, the TLLP grant has given our group two other great benefits: we have purchased writing resources, such as mentor texts and books by Calkins and her staff developers; and we

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