Miami's Ohio Writing Project boosts writing and teaching skills

Written by Rebecca Huff, CAS communications intern

For students in middle school to graduate school, the Ohio Writing Project (OWP) serves many purposes involved in writing and the teaching of writing.

Youth Writing Camp students refer to a number of colorful writing prompts on the wall during a special writing exercise.

Housed within the Department of English, OWP provides professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers, offers graduate workshops, a free teacher conference, and holds a Youth Writing Camp for 5th through 8th graders every summer.

In all its offerings, the OWP focuses on writing, literacy, and learning.

"OWP believes in the importance of writing as a key to communication, the support of writing and literacy instruction through the development of teacher leaders, and the development of teachers as leaders in their schools and profession," said OWP co-director Beth Rimer.

The OWP was founded at Miami in 1980 and is one of 200 National Writing Project sites. It is also the only site in Ohio that offers a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program.

"We have a strong belief in teachers teaching teachers, so the work of the OWP is centered on the leadership of teachers in learning," said Rimer.

An Outlet for Young Writers

The annual Youth Writing Camp, active since 2006, attracts students and teachers from all areas of Ohio. It has grown exponentially over the years, with enrollment reaching almost 80 students this summer.

The camp is divided into two sections: one section for 5th and 6th grade students and the other for 7th and 8th graders.

"The students have a week-long journey through the writing process," said Rimer. "They are immersed in mentor texts and writing prompts designed to spark their creativity."

Youth Writing Camp students participate in a writing exercise called 'Where My Feet Have Been!'

Near the end of their first day, the 5th and 6th graders were shown pictures of various shoes in a myriad of situations. Some were hanging from a telephone wire, some were old, and some were new. They were then instructed to brainstorm anything that popped in their minds about the shoes.

One student, for example, shared her idea of a black leather work shoe being personified as a police officer because it was laying beside yellow caution tape.

Throughout the week, students revised their work by adding details and techniques they have learned, such as adding voice via inner monologues of the characters. By the end of camp, the writers will have completed one piece of writing that will be published in the Youth Writing Camp's anthology.

"If you look at their writing the first time and the last time, I bet they go through 2 or 3 drafts even this week," said Lindsey Isaacs, an OWP camp counselor, 2014 Miami alumna, and 7th grade teacher from Madeira.

"They leave feeling like a writer, and that's what my goal is for them."

Three returning students received two awards and advance placement in English in their middle schools, demonstrating how the OWP made an impact on their skills.

"When you write at the camp, you feel like you're allowed to write. You don't feel like you only have assignments. You're allowed to write however much you want," said Kate Rimer, a Fairfield Crossroads 6th grader who won an essay contest at her school.

"You get to learn so much, and you get to experiment with things you don't traditionally experience in the classroom," said 8th grader Claire Patton, who was selected to be in an advanced writing class at Mason Middle School.

"It's helped me with my other perspectives, more like how the characters speak," said Tess Wagner, a returning 7th grader at Monroe Jr. High School who also won an essay contest with the skills she gained through the OWP. "I used to just say, 'Oh, look over there.' They taught me you need to make it more extravagant.”

Not only does the OWP help these young writers, but it also helps their teachers as well.

"Everything that I do now has intention in my classroom," Isaacs said. "It's student-centered, content-specific, standards-based. The OWP makes it all seem very manageable and meaningful. There's a level of intentionality in my teaching that didn't exist before. Anytime I can work with the OWP, I'm jumping on both feet."

MAT Program: Teachers as Students

For students on the other end of the writing experience spectrum, the Ohio Writing Project also offers a 32-credit hour MAT program, which can be completed in just 3 summers and offers a flexible online hybrid component.

Chelsea Wirtz, an English teacher at Mason Intermediate Elementary School, got hooked with her very first OWP experience, which she found to be very practical.

An instructor discusses a concept with MAT workshop students.

"I have heard from colleagues that have completed their master's elsewhere that a lot of it was busy work — things they had to get through in order to get that degree," Wirtz said. At OWP, "I could take back [what I learned] to my classroom that very next day."

Becky Holloway, an 8th grade teacher at Brookville Intermediate School, detailed how the OWP has improved her teaching as well.

"One of the biggest things the OWP actually helped me with was helping me create my core values and my core philosophy about what teaching is and what teaching writing should be," Holloway said. "I went from worksheets and grammar books and all the activities right out of the book to teaching kids real-world skills like reading and writing."

"The OWP has refreshed my love of teaching," added Wirtz.

"In two years, OWP will celebrate their 40th anniversary at Miami University," said Rimer. "In that time, close to 2,300 area teachers have participated in the Teaching of Writing Workshop and close to 400 have graduated with their MAT. OWP continues to support teachers as they refine their practice, build their leadership, and strengthen their own writing."

Yet Holloway, as an OWP student and teacher herself, summarized her experience this way:

"This is good teaching. This is real writing. I think that the biggest thing that makes OWP so successful is that there's nothing fake about this," Holloway said. "It is real writers, real readers, real struggles, and we're all just trying to figure out the best way to teach it. The best way is that everybody's voice is heard!"

For more information on the Youth Writing Camp, MAT program, or any upcoming workshops, visit the OWP website.