Oswego Teachers Return To ‘Class’

OSWEGO, NY – The calendar may still say summer, but Oswego teachers were back in the classroom.

More than four dozen teachers, from a variety of subjects, became students for four days this week. They took part in a project that will enable them to improve their skills and in turn enhance their students’ classroom experience.

The Summer Writing Institute for teachers took place from Monday through Thursday in Sheldon Hall.

“In essence, the Summer Writing Institute is a collaborative project between the Oswego City School District, Teachers College at Columbia University (The Reading and Writing Project) and The School of Education at SUNY Oswego,” according to Joan Dain, literacy coach for the Oswego City School District, and one of the facilitators.

Staff developers from the Reading and Writing Project work with teachers from the Oswego City School District on turning classrooms into “rich writing workshops,” she noted.

Author Laurie Halse Anderson speaks to teachers on opening day of the writing institute.
Author Laurie Halse Anderson speaks to teachers on opening day of the writing institute.

On Monday, local best-selling author Laurie Halse Anderson challenged the teachers to write for at least 15 minutes each day. And, she encouraged them to share what they’ve written with their students.

Anderson said she hears voices in her head, “and I write down what they say, I make stuff up – and I get paid for it! Which means, I’m like I was in fourth grade; only now, I pay taxes.”

The author talked about inspiration, magic and taking risks.

She recalled how she sat with her late mother before she died and shared many family stories.

“We all reconnected with each other. That is the magic of story,” she explained. “Even when it’s not as profound as stories told at a deathbed, even if it’s just one kid to another connecting over their snack and saying what they did that summer or what they’re going to do that weekend – every time you tell stories, listen to stories, we are weaving baskets to take us on our own journeys.”

Stories tell us who we are, she continued.

“And, when you’re a child, knowing who you are and where you come from helps you figure out where you’re going to go,” she explained.

She wrote for fun and also became a freelance reporter.

“And then it came to Sept. 7, 1992. My child went to first grade,” she explained.

Instead of going to have pancakes with the other parents, she went to her room and wrote in her journal “that I really wanted to be a writer.”

She gave herself five years to get a book published.

The moment she knew she wanted to be a writer occurred in the second grade when she wrote a haiku poem about her cat.

She watched as her teacher read it. “I could see in her face that I had communicated what I felt about my cat to another person through words on a page. I’m getting chills; that is the moment I became a writer,” she said.

It wasn’t that she went on to publish a lot of books, she pointed out. It was she found a way to connect “the beat of my heart to the beat of the heart of someone I cared about, my teacher.”

“It’s a scary dream because you have to take this incredible risk and become vulnerable,” she said. “Not only putting something on the page but then having what you put on the page judged and you get these things called ‘rejections,’ which are incredibly painful. I have a lot of them.”

Teachers should support and encourage their students, she noted.

“Never forget that you are all angels, and that you have in your classroom children, like me, who are eager to have people to hold up a light in the darkness to them,” she told the teachers. “Never forget that you touch the lives of hundreds of children … the world is a better place because of your presence in the classroom every day.”

Writing is not about the destination, Anderson said. It is about the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else, she added.

If she was a teacher, she wouldn’t grade kids on the quality of their writing rather on how much their writing had improved from the first draft to the final product, she explained.

“If all (students) see from you are corrections of their writing, they won’t get it. They’re likely to become frustrated and give up,” she pointed out.

Cheryl Beck and Kerrie Mcelroy look over a selection of books by Laurie Halse Anderson.
Cheryl Beck and Kerrie Mcelroy look over a selection of books by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Among the other topics discussed this week were developing units of study in the writing workshop; holding students accountable for doing their best work; using literature to help students craft their writing; and moving writers along a continuum of skills.

During the closing day, Thursday, teachers shared their writing during the “Writer’s Celebration.”

“This is a way for the teachers in Oswego to really empower their students and give them opportunities to become better writers,” said Anna Lombardo, a literacy coach at Leighton Elementary. “It’s also a way for us to make our own writing better so that when we are teaching, we are leading by example.”

“It’s also about giving them choice,” added Amy Armet, a literacy teacher at Leighton. “Everyone writes at their own pace. We need to support and encourage them and write and share our own examples.”

Writing is really about 95 percent revision, the teachers agreed. Most students will complete an assigned essay and turn in the first draft, they said. Teachers need to impress on their students that if they revise their work then can make it better.

“Revisions can be done any time. That’s where you get it just the way you want. It could be the turning of just one little word or rearranging a sentence or two,” Lombardo explained.

“That’s why this is such a good program,” Armet said. “It is helping teachers improve our own writing. We can help students improve by showing them what we did, not just telling them, we can give them examples of what we’re talking about.”

The institute was attended by Oswego teachers.

Next year, Dain said, they hope to “fold in other layers; opening up a little bit more teachers and different layers within the institute. I’d like to see an art component, for example.”

The Institute is made possible through generous support from Entergy as well as support from the Oswego City School District and SUNY Oswego.

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