Teachers from Fentress, White, Putnam, Overton and Cumberland counties are learning to build writing and reading strategies into their lesson plans that might trigger students to think creatively about topics in history, language arts, science and math, and to learn deeply rather than to simply memorize information for a test.
During the Institute for Reading, Writing and Critical Thinking: When Arts and Sciences Combine at Tennessee Tech University, teams of fifth- to 12th-grade teachers worked through various exercises with area educators who are fellows of the Upper Cumberland Writing Project.
During one morning session, Robin Boutillette, an English and language arts teacher at Avery Trace Middle School, demonstrated an olfactory exercise that gets students to think, then to write about, a memory evoked by a scent.
Not only does the exercise spur creative writing, the activity of smelling different scents could be adapted for a science lesson. For example, in chemistry class, learners could investigate the “science of stink” and learn the chemical processes that break down elements and cause unpleasant odors, suggested high school science teacher Phillip Brannon of the York Institute, one of 14 workshop participants.
The teachers had nearly two weeks of sessions packed with ideas for incorporating reading and writing into every subject. The participants signed up for the institute by pairing with a teacher of a different subject from their school. That intentional mixture set up opportunities for brainstorming and idea sharing among the teachers.
“This institute refocuses the importance and necessity of writing as a tool of learning and expression in all academic disciplines,” said Shannon Collins, associate professor of language and literacy education at Tennessee Tech.
Collins and TTU English professor Tony Baker co-direct the institute, which is funded by an Improving Teacher Quality grant from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
“The teachers will share what they have learned informally when they go back to their schools,” Baker said. “They can apply every strategy or lesson differently in their own classrooms. As they share the idea with other educators, the teachers essentially teach other teachers.”
Not only do the teachers receive a stipend for their participation in the institute, each will receive about $1,000 worth of books for their own classroom libraries. Each teacher selected an average of 120 books, which should arrive before school starts this fall.
“This will give them a good start toward having the recommended 10 books per child in their classroom,” Collins said. “Literacy research suggests that when children have access to books in their classroom, their time spent reading increases by 50 to 60 percent.”
The teachers ordered a wide variety of high-quality books, in genres from fantasy to fiction and biographies, and for various reading levels.
The most-ordered book, “How They Croaked” by Georgia Bragg and Kevin O’Malley, reveals how famous people died. The stories offer medical and scientific information in a humorous way that engages young readers.
Baker and Collins are excited about these teachers’ growing realization that reading, writing and thinking are as inseparable as they are invaluable.
According to one participant’s final reflection in a survey, “I understand now that writing has a place in every subject and all parts of the learning process. This institute has changed my thinking of not only writing, but my role as a teacher.”