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Big Grant Aims to Help Small-Town Teachers

Danielle Sullivan relocated from the Washington, D.C., area — population 618,000 — for a job teaching special education in Candor, N.Y. — population 5,305 — in 2007. She quickly made a startling observation about the rural community: despite being a close-knit and welcoming place, many of Candor’s schoolchildren never imagined a world outside of their small town.

A competitive $20,000 grant awarded to the Seven Valleys Writing Project at SUNY Cortland and Candor Elementary School could change that. The National Writing Project award will fund the Candor Learning Community, a collaborative effort that aims to improve teaching practices and develop new ideas, during the 2012-13 school year.

“I’ve learned through the Seven Valleys Writing Project experience that writing can be a tool to teach,” said Sullivan, who resides in Ithaca, N.Y. “It isn’t just putting stuff on paper. It’s a way to explore your own learning.”

David Franke, the director of the Seven Valleys Writing Project and an English professor at SUNY Cortland, and Sarah Hobson, an assistant professor of English, will represent the College in the Candor project. They’ll be joined by Seven Valleys Writing Project teacher-consultants and Candor teachers. The three groups will work together as the Candor Learning Community, meeting regularly for full- and half-day professional development sessions.

“Part of the SUNY mission is to support the full spectrum education in Central New York,” Franke said. “With one of the largest teacher education programs in the nation, we’re committed to regional teachers over the span of their careers, not just our undergraduates.”

The grant’s funds will be used to purchase literacy materials, develop online resources and help send Candor Elementary School teachers to future conferences, Sullivan said. It also will help pay for the travel costs of learning community participants and the substitute teaching costs the district will incur when substitute teachers are needed.

Franke said the grant will provide precious time for engaging discussion, which in turn will enhance a student’s learning experience.

“Really, the bottom line is this grant allows for teachers to work face to face with other expert teachers inside and outside of Candor Elementary,” he said. “We trust and support teachers’ ability to collaborate and make productive changes in their classrooms and schools.”

Fresh ideas to encourage best reading and writing practices would go a long way in Candor, a high-needs district of roughly 800 students located between Ithaca and Owego. To be labeled high-needs, more than 50 percent of a school’s students must qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Candor students are capable, parents supportive and teachers passionate, Sullivan said. But reading and writing have yet to permeate a fifth grader’s daily routine as much as, say, four-wheeling or hunting. Franke cited a study that reports students in high-needs schools are exposed to millions of words less than students who regularly read books. And still, Candor teachers attempt to persevere.

Once, when a sixth grader made it apparent to Sullivan that he despised reading, she rebuilt his curriculum around a hunting license he hoped to earn.

Almost instantly, the boy’s attitude towards learning changed.

“I know what I’ve applied to my kids in fifth and sixth grade has opened them up beyond belief,” Sullivan said. “I’m very excited for teachers to use some of these strategies in their classrooms because they make up a common language and common lexicon that we can draw from as a (school) building.”

A lack of exposure to books or marginal writing practices aren’t just limited to high-needs schools, Franke said. According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one out of three fourth-grade students scored “below basic” on the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress Reading Test.

Stale writing practices in schools and a desire to connect educators from different backgrounds led Franke to establish the Seven Valleys Writing Project at SUNY Cortland in 2008. Funded by the National Writing Project, the program holds regular conferences and a marquee event known as Summer Institute, a three-week workshop where a select group of educators tackle questions related to teaching and writing.

What might sound like a group of English teachers diagramming sentences and dissecting Macbeth actually is anything but that. It involves primary teachers and secondary teachers from every discipline — history, mathematics and technology, to name a few — taking on meaningful projects that impact school districts such as Candor.

Danielle Sullivan
Danielle Sullivan, a special education teacher
at Candor Elementary School, is one of several
Candor teachers who will benefit from a
$20,000 grant recently awarded to the Seven
Valleys Writing Project at SUNY Cortland.

Sullivan graduated from the program in 2010 and now serves as its associate director. Amy Riemenschneider, a third grade teacher at Enders Road Elementary School in the Fayetteville-Manlius School District, participated last year after a bit of soul searching.

“I felt like: ‘I’m a great reader and I love to read, but you get me in front of a piece of paper and I’m scared (of writing) just like every single kid in your class,’” said Riemenschneider, who returned to Summer Institute 2012 as a mentor for the conference’s current attendees.

She started a research project, one of the Summer Institute’s key components, that examined the effectiveness of daily oral language (DOL) practice. Some criticize DOL as “busy work,” where students simply proofread for errors in punctuation, grammar and spelling, rather than take the time to use correct practices. In her own classroom, Riemenschneider noticed that students could spot the errors but that they failed to avoid them in their own writing.

She eliminated DOL practice as a result of her research and has since showed her students expert models of writing so that they might attempt to replicate them. She found success in her results and contends that the only way to learn language is “to actually do it and be immersed in it.”

The DOL example, although a small one, shines light on possibilities at Candor Elementary School when teachers collaborate in creative ways that extend the limits of tradition and repetition.

The Candor Learning Community and the Summer Institute are more than writing projects in Franke’s eyes.

“They’re leadership projects,” he said.

At Summer Institute 2012, which is currently underway and running through July 27 at Main Street SUNY Cortland, 9 Main St., a small group of teachers recently was asked: “What’s your teaching superpower?” Eight different answers bounced around the room — qualities from acceptance to extrasensory perception — yet none of them seemed absurd, given each conference participant’s reasoning.

It was an off-the-wall way to ask the question: “What’s your best teaching quality?” The exercise, it seemed, elicited a unique sense of confidence from a risk-taking bunch of teachers.

“The people who participate in Summer Institute and the people who will contribute to the Candor project show a real commitment to their future as teachers,” Franke said. “In fact, research shows that 98 percent of teachers who go through a Summer Institute at a site of the National Writing Project will retire in education.

“It is a powerful remedy for the problems of teacher attrition.”

Despite the obstacles that have cropped up in the past, such as student apathy as it relates to reading, Sullivan said she and her co-workers in Candor are eager to put the recent grant proposal to practice.

For months, Franke, Sullivan and other contributing grant writers asked Candor teachers two important questions: What do you need as a teacher to help your students? And how can the journey use support from the National Writing Project?

“I’m just really excited to watch some of my colleagues go through their own discovery of teaching,” Sullivan said. “That’s what this grant comes back to: celebrating a teacher’s discovery and seeing how other teachers can support it.”