Story on CRWP from The News @ Central

From our site visit earlier this winter, the media and public relations team at CMU has put together an article and podcast about the Chippewa River Writing Project. I find it fitting that as we pursue digital writing within the project that the way in which it was announced to the CMU community comes in the form of a web-based article and podcast.

CMU becomes site for National Writing Project

The National Writing Project, a federally funded professional development program with nearly 200 sites, provides over 7,000 programs for K-16 teachers across the country, reaching more than 135,000 participants in 2008. The CRWP was one of ten new sites established in the U.S. this year.

“We aim to develop programs unique to CRWP that will distinguish us in the state and nation by addressing the issues that face us in northeastern Michigan. We will do so by utilizing technology for distance learning and building on the strengths of the English department and interests of local teachers,” said Troy Hicks, a CMU English faculty member and director of the CRWP.

Hicks is optimistic about the impact the writing project site will have on teachers in the area.

“My goal is to establish the CRWP as a site that partners with teachers in suburban and rural settings throughout northeastern Michigan, utilizing technology to both support their professional learning as well as to become a key component in their own teaching,” Hicks said.

My journey with the National Writing Project began in 2003 with my participation in my first summer institute at Red Cedar Writing Project and has continued to take me in places, personally and professionally, that I could not have imagined. To say that beginning a new writing project is a dream come true, despite the cliche, would be an understatement. So, it is with great anticipation that I look forward to our summer institute that begins in a few short weeks.

As a key component of the summer institute, we have created a wiki to organize, share, and archive our writing, teaching demos, and discussions. My hope is that by working with a digital writing space as our main point of contact in the summer institute, we will establish the habits of mind that will make collaborating and communication with digital writing tools a part of the fabric of our writing project. Because our service area will cover so many rural communities in northern Michigan, my plan is to engage teachers and students in digital writing so that they have opportunities to connect outside of their classroom, school, and district in meaningful ways, with technology being a part of an equation that focuses first on the writer and then on the mode and media of the writing.

So, as the summer institute gets closer and I have more opportunities to think about how we are engaging in digital writing, my hope is to capture some of that thinking here. In additional to having human subjects research approval and media releases from all the participants in the summer institute, my plan is to blog more regularly so we can really document how a digital writing project unfolds in its first year.

Wish us luck, and feel free to join the wiki and contribute, too!

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Creating a Digital Writing Project

As the end of the semester approaches, the pace quickens for us as we plan for our inaugural summer institute at the Chippewa River Writing Project. In conversations that began many months ago and have stretched across talks with NWP folks like Will, Bud, Paul, Peter, and Sara, my thinking on what I want for a web presence for our site has been boiled down to the public face through our own website as well as a workspace for our teachers in this wiki. These conversations have now led me to a chat today with my writing group, Rob and Jim, both of whom are working with writing projects at their own universities.

The topic — what does it mean to have a “digital writing project?”

Now, I do not mean to be presumptuous here. There are plenty of writing projects who are doing digital writing in some way. And, many of them are doing outstanding work, leading the field of K-12 digital writing, as represented in the new collection – Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom (which we will likely use in our summer institute).

Our site can do something different, however, from the very first moment of our orientation that happens next month, through our summer institute, and into all the work of our site thereafter. We will be a digital writing project from the get go. We begin our work as a site with the expectation that digital writing is simply a part of our work. I am not sure how other sites that have begun in the past few years view their use of technology to support the site, represent their work, and connect their teachers, but I see our site as being a digital writing site because the use of blogs, wikis, collaborative word processors, digital stories, and other media will be a constant part of our work. From the initial Google form that teachers used to apply to their final digital portfolios this summer, digital writing will simply be a part of our site’s identity.

So, what does this look like for the writing project summer institute? Rob encouraged me to think about what I want participants to know and be able to do, and how those skills contribute to a deeper understanding of digital literacy. Here are some thoughts right now:

Personal writing
Participants will be invited and encouraged to share their alphabetic writing through a blog or wiki page, as well as by using collaborative word processors. In addition, as a component of personal writing in the summer institute, we will encourage them to create multimodal writing, most likely in the form of digital stories for this first summer. Through alphabetic and multimodal writing shared across digital spaces, participants will have a better understanding of how and why to choose different media for production of and response to writing.

Teaching demonstrations
Participants will again be invited and encouraged to share their teaching demonstrations on the CRWP wiki. We can show them how to upload and embed images, audio, slide shows, chat rooms, and other media, as well as how to use the discussion and history functions of the page to invite their peers into their presentation in ways otherwise not available without the technology present. This will, over time, create an archive of teaching demonstrations that will be both horizontally aligned by SI cohort and grade level within those cohorts as well as vertically from year to year, thus showing major themes in each summer’s institute. By inviting participants to create their teaching demo on a wiki page, we are creating an automatic archive that we can look to in the future for purposes of research, reflection, and professional development.

Reading research groups
In thinking about ways that we want participants to engage with one another and keep track of their own reading and research, there are a number of tools such as delicious, Diigo, and Zotero that I want them to be aware of and, ideally, use as research tools. As we engage in the process of reading, online and offline, and keeping track of that information by using digital writing tools, we will be teaching participants skills that they can use for their own professional learning as well as share with their students who are learning to become digital researchers themselves.

Writing response groups
As perhaps the key element of the summer institute, participants will share their writing in response groups. By using blogs, wikis, and collaborative word processors, we will be able to see the benefits and constraints of each tool including how they can be used in public and private ways. By inviting participants to think about what it means to respond in face to face and digital environments, we can compare the ways in which the context shapes our response process. Also, we can think about how offering comments through digital tools such as microphones or voice recorders can change the response process, too.

So, as I thought through all of these things, Rob and Jim asked me what this means for the culture of our site. This is bringing together my interests in digital literacy, teacher professional development, and the teaching of writing. So, of course, it leads me to a number of questions:

  • How does an explicit focus on digital writing affect the experience of being in the summer institute?
  • There is lots of research and writing done about relationships that individuals develop within institutes, but there is not as much about the vertical relationships that expand over time. How can being a digital writing project help these relationships materialize?
  • We know that the NWP experience is powerful. What makes this such a powerful experience for teachers and how can we track it digitally? 
  • How will a deeper understanding of how and why to use digital writing tools change participants’ perceptions of what they can and should do in their classroom?

Jim also suggested that participants create a literacy autobiography before the summer institute, but ask them to do so by creating it with a digital tool with which they are comfortable. This would help set the tone for the summer and provide us with an icebreaker activity in the first days when people share their autobiographies.

Of course, one of my jobs this summer will be to identify the two or three participants that can help do this kind of digital writing work next year and invite them to become leaders at our site.

What, then, am I going to do in a practical sense? Well, here are some thoughts right now:

  • At the orientation, have participants sign up for Wikispaces and Gmail, doing demos of each with the expectation that they will use each for SI work
  • Create a Google group that we will use for communication between the orientation and the summer institute and then beyond
  • In the institute, explicitly introduce blogs, wikis, and collaborative word processors for a variety of purposes
  • Also, in the institute, focus on digital storytelling early on so that participants can consider creating one for their final portfolio
  • Introduce research tools such as social bookmarking and Zotero
  • Require that participants create a digital portfolio for at least part of their final project

So, those are some initial thoughts. I will be curious to see how this develops and how teachers react to the overall experience of working in (and then reflecting on their work in) a digital writing project. I look foward to the journey. 

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