The Louisiana State University Writing Project: Improving the Teaching of Writing and Learning in Schools and Communities
July 16, 2021
If students had one good teacher of writing in their entire career … they could be successful writers” (Donald Graves, 1995, p.14).
Established in 1985, the Louisiana State University Writing Project, LSU WP, an official site of the National Writing Project NWP, promotes the exploration of writing, dissemination of writing research, and the sharing and diffusion of recommended writing practice among educators. Housed in the School of Education, within the College of Human Sciences & Education, the LSU WP is the School of Education’s most senior Project and enjoys a rich tradition of disseminating writing pedagogical practices in Louisiana and beyond. The LSU WP is one of 175 national writing projects, based in universities, nationwide. So, when did writing projects begin and who is involved?
History of the NWP
The NWP was established in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley in the Bay Area in 1974, when a committed group of educators came together, concerned that writing instruction was an equity issue: not all teachers were adequately equipped to teach writing, and not all students received quality writing instruction to improve student writing outcomes. James Gray and his colleagues established a teacher-leadership program for K–16 teachers, the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP) with Bay Area educators. Based on the premise that good teachers of writing are writers themselves, Gray, a teacher educator and former high school English teacher, was inspired to create a distinctive form of professional development for teachers, one that held as a central tenet, the knowledge, leadership, and recommended best practices of effective writing teachers. From that humble beginning, NWPs were established across every US state, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington DC, and Writing Project (WP) sites continue to promote the sharing of writing pedagogical knowledge with other teachers. The structure of this first Writing Project site’s programs formed the basis of the NWP’s “teachers-teaching-teachers” model of professional development. The NWP is the nation’s largest network of teacher-leaders, K–university and across the curriculum, working together through local Writing Project sites to improve the teaching of writing and learning in schools and communities. The University of California, Berkeley maintains the NWP’s research collection as part of NWP’s Archive.
The LSU WP
As a site of the NWP, the goal of the Louisiana State University Writing Project is to improve the teaching of writing and ultimately, help Louisiana students become accomplished writers and learners. Writing helps students and teachers – everyone – clarify ideas, solve issues, and writing leads to understanding of self and the world. According to the NWP, writing is also “the currency of the new workplace and global economy.”
Through professional development and outreach, the LSU WP serves a ten-parish network of districts and schools in the southern part of the state. A hallmark of the LSU WP is the Invitational Summer Institute (ISI), which occurs every summer for graduate credit. Each January, the ISI opens with an invitation for areas educators to consider applying. Current graduate students can be sponsored by their advisor and/or major professor as a form of recommendation. Educators who successfully complete the ISI are recommended as teacher consultants (TCs) and receive a NWP badge.
Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell is the Director of the LSU WP. Along with Co-Director, Dr. Sassy Wheeler, Sulentic Dowell has co-directed ISI’s in the past several summers; other recent past co-directors of the ISI include Drs. Estanislado S. Barrera, IV and Kim Skinner, both School of Education literacy faculty. In 2020, the LSU WP named a local educator and for the first time in the LSU WP’s history, a TC, Dr. Courtney A. Brown, as an ISI Co-Director. The summer of 2020 was also the LSU WP’s first 100% web-based ISI. The ISI consists of two intensive, two-week Institutes, six (6) hours of graduate credit, EDCI 7311, section I and EDCI 7311, section 2, which is rigorous and demanding, requiring reflective praxis and evidence of that writing practice knowledge.
Local Connections to the LSU WP
The LSU Writing Project workshops and professional development are tailored to provide a variety of writing-specific learning opportunities for administrators, educators, students, staff, and faculty. Configurations include entire staff, departments, or customized groups of educators. Here are just a few examples of how the LSU WP has impacted local educators and Louisiana school children. In the 2010-11, the Professional Development Writing Initiative Partnership (PD-WIP) took place between the LSU WP and affiliated faculty and 23 select school in the EBRPSS. During the 2015-16 academic year, the LSU WP was recipient of the NWP’s High Needs Grant (whole faculty grant) and worked closely with the faculty and school leadership at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet, in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBRPSS). A collaboration between the LSU WP and East Feliciana’s three elementary schools and middle school, Writing Professional Development in East Feliciana High- Needs Schools, took place during the 2016-17 academic year. Other examples of high-quality Professional Development collaborations include an ongoing relationship between the LSU WP and several Caddo parish middle, high, and private schools beginning in the 2017-2018 academic year and continuing even now! Teachers in this consortium have established a writing community that meets once a month to learn and review pedagogy and writing strategies, to plan curriculum, and to review student work samples voluntarily.
The LSU WP also takes great pride in its ability to make relevant and impactful community connections with local humanities organizations like the West Baton Rouge Museum, the West Baton Rouge Library and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH). In conjunction with the WBR museum and WBR library, the LSU WP facilitated the critically acclaimed PBS community conversations series, American Creed, inviting the local community and West Baton Rouge’s high school students to participate in a showing of the film in addition to several panel discussions. Always with a consciousness of the power of writing in mind, the LSU WP under the direction of TC, Dr. Courtney Brown (who is also an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Education, conducted a writing workshop followed by the production of a published anthology—American Creed: Connections to the Past, Hope for the Future Volume I—containing submissions from the participants of the community conversations series. In her continuing partnership with the West Baton Rouge Museum, Dr. Brown has written the curriculum for the all new, soon-to-be-released virtual tour, Cuttin’ Cane A’int All We Do: From Slavery to Civil Rights. The LSU WP has also made its presence known in the arts by forging a working relationship with the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities publishing writing lesson plans for the Louisiana Music Legends project featuring local artist, Kenny Neal, which was published in the popular 64 Parishes magazine. Not by coincidence, LSU WP Director, Sulentic Dowell was recipient of the LEH’s Light up for Literacy award in 2019.
As further evidence of the impact of the LSU WP, LSU WP TC, Dr. Claudette Jackson Perkins, who brought her entire literacy team to the LSU WP ISI was recently named a finalist in the Louisiana Department of Education’s Principal of the Year competition. Recently, two other past LSU WP TCs, Megan Jenny and Ellen Daugherty, both School of Education Ph D candidates, were recognized by the Louisiana Reading Association’s Educators as Authors Contest winner’s. Daugherty, who also teaches at the University Laboratory School was the Poetry category winner, earning 1st place for her entry entitled, “Name Poem.” Jenny earned two distinctions, she was recognized as Nonfiction category winner, earning a 1st place for her "The Pond" and 2nd place for her piece, "Another Megan". The LSU WP is tremendously proud of all TCs and recognizes their efforts in bringing quality writing instruction to Louisiana’s children. The research-based strategies that form the core of the LSU WP impact students at all levels.
To date, several focused, strategic writing projects and resultant studies have been conducted that point to the efficacy of NWPs. Those studies include the NWP’s College Career and Community Writers Program, the NWP’s Native Students Write About Life on the Reservation Project, and a rural writing project in Bastrop, Texas.
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Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell is Professor, Literacy Leadership and Urban Education, School of Education, College of Human Sciences and Education, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Her research agenda includes three strands focused on literacy in urban settings, specifically the complexities of literacy leadership, providing access to literature, writing, and the arts, and service-learning as a pathway to preparing pre-service teachers to teach literacy authentically in urban environs. Sulentic Dowell is a career educator, spending the majority of her 20 year public school teaching experience in Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, and most recently, serving public education as Assistant Superintendent of 64 elementary campuses in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana. Sulentic Dowell has been nationally and regionally recognized for her scholarship and teaching. She was awarded the Outstanding Faculty Contributions to Service-Learning in Higher Education from the Gulf South Summit (2014); she received the LSU Outstanding Faculty Service Learning Award (2013), she was named LSU Flagship Faculty (2012), and was recipient of the (LSU) College of Education’s Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award (2012). In addition she was named recipient of The Kenneth S. Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching Award” in 2007. The University of Southern Mississippi named her an Academic Service-Learning Faculty Fellow (2001), and she was finalist for the International Reading Association’s Outstanding Dissertation of the Year (2000).
Dr. Sassy C. Wheeler teaches courses on diverse populations, differentiated instruction, meeting the needs of all learners, and historical perspectives in education. During her time at LSU, Dr. Wheeler has received the Outstanding Educator award from the Tiger Athletic Foundation, Excellence in Teaching award from the National Society of Leadership and Success and was featured as a Flagship Faculty member in LSU Today. She has served as the Faculty advisor for Kappa Delta Epsilon, the Education Honor Fraternity and served as the Co-Chairperson for the Diversity Committee in the College of Human Sciences & Education. Prior to her time at Louisiana State University, Dr. Wheeler taught several core education courses at the University of New Orleans and was a high school English and Inclusion Teacher in the metropolitan New Orleans Area. Dr. Wheeler’s areas of research interest include differentiated instruction, urban education, innovative instructional strategies, social supports for in-service teachers and school leaders, inclusive educational practices and culturally and linguistically diverse populations. Dr. Wheeler served as a Founding Board Member and Board President for Success Preparatory Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, an Advisory Board Member of Breakthrough NOLA, a program that serves students in underperforming schools and helps them acquire the advanced skills necessary to attend college. She also served for several years on the Louisiana Council for Exceptional Children’s Executive Committee, in a variety of leadership roles.
Dr. Courtney A. Brown is an adjunct instructor in the LSU School of Education. The CEO of Somebody’s Answer LLC, she is a prolific author, LSU Writing Project Teacher Consultant and co-director, educator, lecturer, and curriculum specialist. Her research agenda incorporates an approach to literacy which amplifies the contextual resilience present in the individual and collective narratives of underrepresented communities, provides authentic experiences in writing, and connects theoretical approaches to practical, real-world experiences in literacy. For more than 20 years, Dr. Brown has dedicated herself to a life of service in the state of Louisiana beginning her professional career as a residential counselor, therapeutic foster care case manager, and case manager supervisor. Dr. Brown then transitioned to education where she has poured her earnest devotion into the public school system as a teacher of students from elementary to high school while also having finely crafted reading, instructional, and distance learning programs. These varied experiences have made Dr. Brown an integral part of the development of many pre-service teachers’ pedagogy as she represents the connection between theory and practice in her role as an adjunct professor. Nationally recognized for her scholarship and research, Courtney Brown was named a recipient of the Association of Classroom Teachers’ Fellowship (2016, 2017, 2018), and was an America Achieves Cohort Three Fellow (2016). She was the moderator for the West Baton Rouge museum’s community discussion series of the nationally acclaimed PBS special, American Creed (2019) and has worked in collaboration with Caddo Parish schools as a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant offering support to teachers through professional development in writing curriculum (2017, 2018, 2019). Dr. B. has self-published six books ranging in genre from children’s to inspirational and her seventh book is a highly sought after monograph birthed from her dissertation (2018) in publication with Lexington Books (2020).