To learn is to do. And that’s exactly the approach the Oklahoma State University Writing Project is taking. For the past 28 years, the organization has supported and empowered educators through professional development opportunities that connect teaching with practice.
“The best teachers of writing are those who understand writing intimately as writers themselves,” said Dr. Shelbie Witte, director of the writing project and professor of adolescent literacy and English education in the OSU College of Education, Health and Aviation.
This notion helped launch the National Writing Project in 1971 when a group of teachers in Berkeley, California, wanted to improve how writing was taught in schools.
The group began hosting an annual summer institute for teachers to come together to learn from one another and utilize resources to become better writers. By taking what they learned back to their classrooms, they became better teachers of writers. The concept bloomed into the largest professional development organization in the country, with more than 200 writing project sites, including OSU’s program, which was established in 1991.
“We are the epitome of the OSU land-grant mission,” Witte emphasized.
OSU’s Writing Project serves educators by providing resources to improve the teaching and learning of writing in Oklahoma classrooms. The approach is strategic, grounded in inquiry and research-based practices related to establishing a long-term professional development community.
“Our core belief is that the best, most effective professional development is sustained over time,” Witte said. “We don’t practice a one-and-done philosophy. We exist to develop and sustain partnerships with school districts so we can offer continued professional development on the various aspects of the teaching of writing.”
Much of the organization’s work revolves around the Invitational Summer Institute, a professional development program where teachers of all subjects and grade levels explore best practices, write and respond to others’ writing, and read and discuss current research. Participants return to their classrooms with a wealth of ideas generated by sharing, strategies and activities for instruction and assessment with other dedicated educators, a renewed energy for teaching, a sense of confidence in their own writing abilities and a connection to a larger collegial group.
“Essentially, we are teachers teaching teachers,” said Dr. Shanedra Nowell, co-director of the OSU Writing Project and associate professor of social studies education in the College of Education, Health and Aviation. “Every voice in the room is valued, regardless of years of experience. We empower teachers to share their knowledge and tell their story.”
In addition to the summer institute, the program hosts youth and teen writing camps every summer. Past camp themes ranged from songwriting to graphic novels to escape rooms and much more. Participants hone their writing skills through interactive, creative and supportive programming.
Social justice work is another important facet of the project, including work with military families. This past year, teacher consultants provided and developed educational resources for military- connected families by purchasing and donating a large collection of children’s and young adult books to the Mary L. Williams Education and Teaching Library in the OSU College of Education, Health and Aviation. The library works closely with campus and community partners to offer research assistance and serve as a statewide educational resource for teachers and administrators. The team also developed a list of web-based resources for teachers who want to help their students understand more about military life and become better resources for military-connected children.
Witte, a military wife herself, has a special connection to this work.
“As a middle school English teacher at Fort Riley (Kansas) Middle School, our school experienced firsthand how deployments during war times impact the lives of families,” said Witte. “Many of our middle school students were experiencing their third or fourth deployments of their mom and dad and sometimes both, making life at home more challenging and, in turn, making school and their success in it even more challenging.”
Additional social justice work includes educating the community on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, arguably one of the darkest times in the city’s history. Over the summer, the program hosted area teachers for a three-day workshop at OSU-Tulsa to give them much-needed information and resources to assist in teaching their students about the event.
The organization relies heavily on grant funding to support its work. In May, the program was selected as a LRNG Innovators award recipient for its project, “Writing the Past, Changing the Future: A Century of Learning the 1921 Race Massacre.” The award, supported by John Legend’s Show Me Campaign and the National Writing Project, will help fund efforts to connect youth to larger networks, mentors and forums where they can share their work and amplify their message.
The OSU program’s presence is mostly felt in classrooms and communities across Oklahoma, since the majority of the team’s time is spent off- campus, supporting teachers through co-teaching initiatives, mentoring programs and professional development activities.
“The hard work of teaching and teacher preparation is often not visible because it happens in the field,” said Witte.
However, those field experiences have very practical implications, especially for Oklahoma State education students who dream of becoming teachers. Faculty members like Dr. Witte and Dr. Nowell take what they learn through the program and continually apply it in their own classrooms, remaining steadfast in their commitment to shape and prepare the next generation of educators.