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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Borderlands Writing Project gives push in the write direction

Thirteen teachers and graduate students involved in K-12 education recently became Fellows of the Borderlands Writing Project, having completed the fourth Summer Invitational Institute conducted by the BWP.

ing the program was no easy task for participants, and even more demanding is their obligation to continue working at promoting writing upon returning to their respective schools.

"This summer will expand our numbers to 65 Fellows and Teacher Consultants who not only share a common experience of having given up a major portion of their summer to the rigorous work of the Summer Invitational Institute, but who also are committed to going back to their classrooms and their school communities with a renewed commitment to honoring all students, creating learning environments which are informed, respectful and welcoming to the diversity which is Southern New Mexico," said Barbara Pearlman, co-director of the BWP and teacher at Hot Springs High School in Truth or Consequences.

The BWP is a professional development program aimed at improving the education of students in grades K-12 by examining and advancing the writing of the teachers instructing them. This is done by reaching out to teachers who have no experience with the BWP, as well as with continuity programs that keep teachers engaged in the program long-term.

Kyle Shanton, director of the BWP and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at NMSU, believes the program is making a difference and offers evidence to back it up. In one example, Chris Burnham, former head of the English department at NMSU, "found that students who have had contact with a BWP member did much better in their English classes," Shanton said.

Another example is that of a Las Cruces elementary school teacher who was having a difficult time getting the 7-year-olds in her class to write for more than about two minutes. Frustrated, the teacher attended an exacting BWP workshop, which happened to be focused on journaling. The teacher returned to class and began actively journaling with the students, encouraging students to voice their writings. With renewed interest, the students began to write more, and not just because they had to, but because they wanted to.

"They would write for half an hour every day," said Shanton. "She made the writing important to the students."
Pearlman stressed the importance of students using their own "voices" in their writing despite the fact that most academic work does not give much room for individuality.

"There is writing that becomes an incorporated part of who we are as people," Pearlman said. "Writing becomes what writing should be: who we are, what's going on. Until students claim authority over their writing, they're not writers. Most students academically write themselves out."

Another issue is that educational institutions at K-12 levels are not set up for teachers to be writers, Shanton said. Instead they are micromanagers, "excluded from the practice they are telling others to practice."

That is changing, however, as the BWP offers programs like the teacher inquiry community and an advanced summer invitational institute for graduates of the program that will keep teachers writing.

The goal for the BWP is that it will become a self-sustaining, self-generating system in which teachers whose interest in writing has been sparked will return and further their knowledge, making it possible for them to spark the interest of others. Shanton said that the BWP is trying to instill in teachers what teachers are trying to instill in their students: the resolve to bring themselves into their work, become involved and resist the urge to mechanically receive and relay information without any real thought.

Austin Craig
Aug. 9, 2006