We’ve reached the final day of the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project 2013 summer institute. Being a leader in this community has been so positive for me, and it’s work very worth doing. The more I am involved with people associated with the National Writing Project, the more I want to meet every single one of them. The experience of growing together as creative and professional writers, and of grappling together with the big questions surrounding the teaching of writing in our schools is one that engenders a highly satisfying mix of professional work and personal closeness. It’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced many times in my life… those that share and develop their writing together form strong, trusting, personal connections.

As a facilitator, I enjoyed mentoring fellow educators through the inquiry and presentation process. Leading a writing critique group was also a natural, fulfilling role for me. But I was also learning from my colleagues as much as I was mentoring them. As I reflect on the most thought-provoking presentations, I found that my biggest takeaway from the summer was a re-affirmation of this fact: Writing cannot be separated from community. Writing fosters community, and strong communities support the development of successful writers in turn.

Mrs. S’s presentation on the implementation of writing circles in the classroom (after James Vopat) reminded me anew that providing a safe and smart classroom community where student writers are expected to share, connect, and uphold one another will help young writers flourish and take ownership in their work. In combination with strong teacher leadership and modelling, students will develop immensely as writers because of the daily supportive community provided by their writing partners.

Ms. C’s work was oriented around the idea of using writing as social action (guided by Randy and Catherine Bomer). Listening to her work, I was refreshed in my goal of making writing authentic, purposeful, and immediately useful in my classes. In order to see the change we want in our local communities, we need to take action. When students discover the power that comes with an ability to write in diverse genres with a strong sense of purpose/audience/tone, they unlock their ability to create change in the community where they live. It is our social responsibility as educators to train our students in this regard. Young people need to have the experience of composing for a cause, of using writing to solve problems, forward new ideas, and articulate what is important to them here and now. Writing for an authentic audience to create social change empowers youth in our local communities and sets them up for a lifetime of responsible citizenship.

Mrs. R’s research took the picture even bigger as she discussed the use of fulcrum and texture texts to forward students’ writing skill (as recommended by Sarah Brown Wessling) in conjunction with their sense of cultural understanding and global citizenship. This presentation made me think hard about the connection between literature and empathy. Students who use texts from many varied perspectives surrounding a place, time, or culture will in turn create work that reflects a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the world in comparison to those who process informational text alone. Asking students to create and consider texts of many different textures–both fictional and non-fictional–helps them avoid the “danger of the single story,” as Chimimanda Adichie calls it. In other words, it allows them to step into the lives of others as global citizens, able to relate compassionately to voices outside their own. Writing requires the forward-imagining of the various reactions, thoughts, and experiences of others, and positions the author’s identity in relation to the world around them. When students understand that, they grow to comprehend and respect the richness of voices that contribute to the chorus of the collective human experience.

Thank you, UW-Milwaukee Writing Project participants, for your work in bettering the teaching of writing in Wisconsin, and for the reminder that without strong writers, strong communities cannot exist. Whether in our classroom, our towns, or our world, the power of writing is the key to learning and progress.