Institute prompts teachers to improve students' writing

Institute brought in 16 teachers who applied from throughout the state

Posted: Sunday, August 07, 2005

Some Alaska teachers preparing for the upcoming school year left a three-week institute in Juneau on Friday determined to practice what they teach.

"A huge part of being a writing teacher is writing yourself," said Nathan Pitt at the end of the 2005 Summer Invitational Institute put on by the Alaska State Writing Consortium at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Last year, Pitt taught every grade level at his 40-student K-12 school on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait. This school year, he's slated to teach only students at the middle- and high-school levels, but he plans to teach better.

"The institute revolutionized the way I think about teaching writing," he said.

Political leaders have made it clear that writing is important, said Tammy Van Wyhe, a Copper River teacher who led the institute.

Most students take multiple-choice tests annually in reading, writing and math, but preparing students to do well on the tests won't make them better writers, she said.

"If the emphasis is only on teaching skills, you're not working on real writing," she said.

A Palmer teacher's eyes lit up when she described a unit of lessons she is planning to make her students better writers.

"It will really sing," Jerilyn Burtch said.

Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Kristin Garot, who will return to work Aug. 22, said she picked up a couple of things from the institute.

There will be more time for her students to write together in class, she said. In the past, she has mostly sent writing assignments home.

"I need to write more myself," she added.

The institute brought in 16 teachers, including Van Wyhe, who applied from across the state.

"In the end, to understand what we know, we must write," she said. "We figure things out and process them by writing them down."

One emphasis is to teach writing broadly throughout the curriculum, Van Wyhe said. Some secondary teachers at the institute teach subjects other than language arts.

Teachers can model the writing process for students by doing it along with them. Institute participants wrote, and they read research on how people learn.

"We all have a lot of theory," said Burtch, who goes back to school Aug. 19. "It's putting it into practice we're looking forward to."

She will try to have more group writing time and provide more writing choices for students and more opportunities to have their writing read by others.

"I think I'll try an oral history project," she said.

Pitt said he likes the idea of incorporating oral history into "digital storytelling" on computers and incorporating pictures.

"There are elders who might not be around in a few years," he said.

He likes the idea of adapting to the classroom the workshop approach to writing, in which participants read and critique each other's work.

The group has set up a network to share ideas throughout the year.

Even the most senior teacher at the institute said she learned some things. Pat Madore, a fifth-grade teacher in Dillingham who began teaching in 1952, said she was also impressed with how everyone accepted her, the 75-year-old woman in the room, and listened to what she had to say.

"The one thing about education is, no matter how much you think you know, there's always a better idea," she said. "Like I tell the kids in my class, you need to learn something every day."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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