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Teachers Teaching Teachers

By Linda Christensen

The Portland Writing Project (PWP), a collaboration between Portland Public Schools and the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College, is one of the 189 sites of the National Writing Project (NWP). The Portland Writing Project models the pedagogy it hopes teachers will take back to their classrooms, but it also encourages teachers to constantly reflect on their classroom practice and revise their teaching based on their observations. Like the NWP, the PWP doesn't preach one way to teach writing; it teaches the writing process. But in Portland, we also help teachers learn to develop their own curriculum. 

Every summer for most of the past 20 years, 25 K-12 Portland Public Schools teachers have gathered to share writing strategies and lessons with each other during an intensive (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) four-week class; they receive 10.5 university credits for participating. At our site, my co-director and I choose a multicultural novel that situates our teaching in a period of U.S. history, so that teachers can learn to integrate history, reading, novel study, writing, and students' lives into their lessons.

For a number of years we read Nisei Daughter, Monica Sone's autobiography, which takes place during the Japanese-American internment. The participants, co-directors, and I developed role plays and writing assignments using the book, primary source documents, children's books, or other parallel texts on the topic. While the co-directors and I provide the framework for the summer institute, each teacher develops and teaches a writing lesson that contributes to the unit. For example, Alexis Aquino-Mackles, a first-grade teacher, read a section of Nisei Daughter that described how Sone's family burned "everything Japanese: Japanese dolls, music, swords, Japanese poetry." Then she read a section from Farewell to Manzanar where a Japanese-American mother breaks her family's heirloom dishes one at a time rather than sell them to the vultures who lurked in Japanese-American neighborhoods during the evictions and bought families' valuables at ridiculously low prices prior to the internment. She gave each member of our class a broken piece of pottery and had us write an interior monologue from the character's point of view about that moment.

Tanya McCoy, a high school science teacher, asked each of us to bring a baggie full of soil from our garden. After conducting experiments on the soil and discussing how different the soil would be in the mostly desert-like settings of the internment camps, we wrote about our experiments.

Our intention is not for teachers to grab this particular unit and slavishly follow the lessons; instead we aim to equip teachers to think in interdisciplinary terms and see themselves as curriculum developers, not consumers of other people's curriculum. The work around Nisei Daughter is an important example, but only because it provides a model for how teachers of any grade level or content area might approach developing units of study. I intentionally model curriculum that struggles with racism and inequality of all kinds, that encourages teachers to think about engaging students in why there is inequality and oppression, and that looks for places of solidarity, hope, and alternatives.

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