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July 23, 2015

Education Innovation: Western PA Writing Project aims for transformation of teaching, learning

writing.closeup.KKBMapping the relationships between the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project (WPWP) and fellow innovators in education might very well turn the game of six degrees of separation into an exercise in excess.

When it comes to the University-based WPWP’s many overlapping connections, six steps is likely to leave four or five intermediaries to spare. Trace the WPWP’s multiple links and an ever-expanding network of hubs and nodes emerges.

Envision a fractal pattern, or a constellation that’s linked to many other patterns of stars and you get the idea.

WPWP is connected to a network of nearly 200 university-hosted sites across the country by virtue of its status as part of the National Writing Project (NWP), which aims to improve the teaching of writing for learners at all levels.

Locally, WPWP is among more than 200 organizations including schools, museums, libraries and community centers that have banded together in the Remake Learning ( network, which in turn is part of larger national and international efforts to transform education.

It’s also involved in the Pittsburgh City of Learning connected-learning initiative (, through which young people can earn digital badges to document skills they’ve mastered through a variety of school and community-based educational opportunities.

The many connections provide myriad opportunities for mixing and matching among like-minded members.


Connections are made one-on-one as well and summer is a prime season for sparking a passion for writing among teachers and students alike.

• Sixteen teachers selected from across western Pennsylvania are spending this month on the Pittsburgh campus at the annual invitational Summer Institute for Teachers. The four-week intensive program is devoted to strengthening teachers’ own writing and developing leadership in the teaching of writing, operating on the premise that teachers who write are the most effective teachers of writing.

Teachers who complete the course can become WPWP teacher-consultants who provide workshops, presentations, coaching and other consultation services on the teaching of writing in area school districts.

• On July 13, about 100 students in grades 4-12 converged on the Cathedral of Learning for the annual Young Writers Institute, which wraps up tomorrow. Similar WPWP summer young writers’ programs already have concluded at Franklin Regional and in Clairton.

• Two dozen Clairton students in grades 4-9 visited campus with their teachers late last month as part of a new weeklong Clairton Writes! summer program. They took inspiration from the Nationality Rooms and composed poems and sketches inspired by their detailed observations of iconic Oakland buildings such as the Stephen Foster Memorial, Alumni Hall and Mellon Institute, under the guidance of a team from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The writing programs all result in the publication of participants’ collective work.

Not all of the writing that the WPWP encourages takes the form of words on paper: WPWP has partnered with the Carnegie Science Center in SmashJam science video workshops, in which students use iPads to create videos that illustrate science concepts. The most recent session in mid-July sold out.

The collaboration is funded through a National Science Foundation Intersections Initiative grant, which brings together science centers and NWP teachers in projects that integrate science and literacy.

The WPWP also collaborates with Pittsburgh Filmmakers in the Hear Me 101 initiative, in which students write and produce in-depth documentaries on relevant topics.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and editorial board member Tony Norman leads a session at Falk School for invited participants in the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project’s annual Summer Institute for Teachers.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and editorial board member Tony Norman leads a session at Falk School for invited participants in the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project’s annual Summer Institute for Teachers.


Western Pennsylvania Writing Project director Laura Roop

Western Pennsylvania Writing Project director Laura Roop

“We love partnerships,” said WPWP director Laura Roop, a faculty member in the School of Education. “Relationships are what lets the work continue and new dreams to be dreamed.”

She brings her own connections to the mix. Roop is new in her role in Pittsburgh, but she is no newcomer to the National Writing Project. An English teacher by training, she spent 18 years as director of an NWP site in Michigan and has directed the state’s network of NWP sites.

She’s interested in tapping deeper into the maker movement of techies and other creative do-it-yourselfers, as well as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and STEAM (STEM plus arts) learning initiatives.

Next week, teachers and program directors have been invited to the Pittsburgh campus to learn about “21st century notebooking,” a STEAM enterprise that combines programming and paper circuitry with sketching and writing to enable students to create light-enhanced notebooks. “It’s making, writing and thinking,” Roop said.

“I see this [Pittsburgh] site contributing powerfully on a national level,” Roop said. “How do we get to the point where that is the case?

“For this site at this time this might be the project,” she said. “It’s about innovating: through inquiry, through collaboration and deep literacy work. That’s what we’re about.”

WPWP has established a “long, deep history in humanities and arts,” observed Roop, who is tending to the established partnerships she inherited on her arrival in 2014 and growing additional ones.

“I am in awe of the resources here,” she said. “There’s a lot of commitment and investment in working with young people.”

Roop sees powerful learning opportunities in balancing fun and content, not just in school, but in out-of-school settings — places where a lot of learning happens, she said. “You can build relationships to have more robust learning contexts.”

The maker movement “needs to do more than just futzing around” — that is where real disciplinary literacies come in, she said, adding that WPWP expertise can deepen the academic component.


Roop said there’s often a disconnect between traditional school and the kind of skills students need today. “We have an educational system that is pushing kids into boxes and kind of being frightened when they think,” she said.

“People should feel a kind of urgency about preparing students who are able to actually design new solutions to problems because we have a world that is absolutely chock-full with problems. And problems are messy by their very nature. So we have to have students who are able to handle the complexities and navigate them.”

Roop sees value in strengthening points of intersection between the maker movement and the classroom to engage students in the kind of interdisciplinary learning that she believes is needed today.

In her 2014 book, “Doing and Making Authentic Literacies,” she and co-authors Linda Denstaedt and Stephen Best write:

“What if we were to take advantage of the tremendous potential young people possess, and the ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking they are capable of, to design environments in which all can unleash, develop and publicly share their talents?

“Instead of ‘doing school’ — working from textbook-driven, often contrived ‘school subjects’ — what if we aimed for something else with our students, something closer to the public, energized achievements of accomplished adults? In too many cases, we would argue, students aren’t seeing themselves as ‘doers’ and ‘makers,’ authentically engaged in disciplines, with real prospects for using these lenses for their future lives and work.”

Among the inspirations for the book was a real-world construction trades class led by a pair of teachers with contracting expertise. Coached by these experts in working on-site, students became home construction experts themselves, learning to use the tools, techniques and language that professionals in the trades use.

“If we were talking to people in chemistry, would they know the term ‘disciplinary literacy’? Maybe, maybe not,” Roop said. “But they understand what I’m talking about in the sense that they know the difference between generic strategies that can be applied and the literacies that actually are used by the scientists as part of their work.”

Math is an interesting example in that regard, said Roop, who followed a cohort of students affiliated with the Algebra Project, a math literacy program. “A lot of times people will ask, ‘What does writing have to do with math? What does literacy have to do with math?’” she said.

Through her work with the Algebra Project, she saw how conversations between teachers and mathematicians affected students. “All of a sudden they realize that the mathematicians think about math as something that’s aesthetic: They have a whole way of talking about that. There’s a language and there are systematic ways of working, and there are different ways of representing problems. These are all absolutely crucial to mathematics.

“Often in schools, nobody is introducing students to that. Instead they’re handing them a problem set to complete,” she said.

“So, you can memorize patterns without understanding mathematizing — what happens when you take the world and turn it into mathematics and use it to solve problems, which is what mathematicians do,” she said.

“I was trying to delineate between literacy in the content areas or content-area writing and literacies of the disciplines. No, you’re not going to slap generic strategies on a lot of things. You’re going to actually observe and study the practices of people who are deep in this disciplinary work. And then you are going to figure out how to introduce students to those practices.”

The book, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, illustrates examples of teachers facilitating this “authentic learning.”

“We felt like this issue of authenticity was really important,” she said. The shorthand authenticity test is: “Is this really something that adults in the world outside of school actually do? And if so, do the young people we’re teaching understand that this is legit? That this is something that actually happens?

“We sometimes can’t answer that question or we don’t think hard enough about that question,” she said.

“People are eager for a different vision” of education, amid an environment of systems, policies, test regimes and “measures” that must add up.

“We’re wanting to create spaces where teachers can work toward a vision that they can feel passionate about,” she said. “You find districts trying to test prep all the time. Teachers lose their sense of purpose, students are bored out of their minds and they rebel against it.”

Teachers need support if they are to transform their teaching practice with the kind of authentic learning opportunities that have been shown to result in improved student learning, Roop said.

“We spend a lot of money on education. The question is how are we spending it? What is the vision we’re going toward as we’re spending this money?” she asked.

“The government just spent $300 million on development of two test sets: The (Smarter Balanced) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments. They put huge amounts of money and people’s energy into the development of those tests,” Roop said.

“What if we were to use a similar amount of money and put it toward the creation of a set of tools and professional learning opportunities for teachers so that they can enact practices that are powerful for students? It just would make sense as a possibility, I think,” she said.


Roop is hopeful that the time is right to create more learning initiatives like those outlined in her book. “People are feeling pretty overwhelmed by the policy environment right now. We’ve got a real mess. Let’s start to talk about what we see as a vision we could work toward and that people would get excited about.”

It all comes back to partnerships, she said. “It is so important — people have to work together toward this kind of vision.”

For teachers, “It’s not a case of you suddenly springing into these kinds of rich, project-based learning opportunities. More likely you connect with somebody and you begin to experiment. And maybe that experiment begins to grow. And then it grows in a different way. So there’s this evolution of practice,” she said.

Making connections is key.

“The idea of an individual teacher in an individual classroom — we don’t think that’s where the future is. We think it’s more about small teams of teachers who are then working with community partners,” she said. “I don’t want teachers to think it’s impossible to grow toward this vision because that’s exactly how you can do it: You let go of your fear and you partner with people who know things that you don’t know.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow   

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