Story and photos by Danielle Helzer and Nicole Putnam
It all began June 5th, 2011 when fifteen central and western Nebraska teachers (K-12) participated in the Nebraska Writing Project Rural Institute. The first week was spent online as teachers explored and discussed the foundations of place conscious education and was followed by two weeks of face-to-face meetings held at Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte. Teachers represented the following districts: Aurora Public Schools, Elba Public School, Heartland Community School, Hershey Public Schools, North Platte Public Schools, Ogallala Public Schools, Perkins County Public Schools, and South Platte Public Schools. Co-facilitators included Sharon Bishop, Anne Schmit, and Amy Wilson.
The theme of this year’s institute was flexibility due to flooding of the North Platte River. That being said, we still managed to visit a multitude of western Nebraska’s finest places such as Fort McPherson National Cemetery, Dancing Leaf Lodge, and the Lincoln County Historical Museum and WWII Canteen Exhibit. By visiting these places and then writing about them, we deepened our connections with rural Nebraska in a day and age when so many are gravitating towards metropolitan areas. This emphasized to us the Nebraska Writing Project’s philosophy that the best teachers of writing are writers themselves.
The Rural Institute model is unique to the network of National Writing Project sites, and Nebraska has been a pioneer in this effort to bring teacher led professional development into the fold offering an opportunity for rural teachers to form a community of teachers of writing and writers alike. Throughout the institute participants heard from a variety of speakers invited to share their expertise in order to spark the creativity of the group and bring a breathe of fresh air into their classrooms. And since the mission behind the Rural Institute is to bring place conscious writing into the classrooms across the state, specifically rural Nebraska, teachers created a place based writing unit for their own use.
Here is what this year’s participants had to say about the impact of the Nebraska Writing Project’s Rural Institute:
“The Nebraska Writing Project Rural Institute provided me with exciting tools to inspire students' writing in a meaningful way. By participating in various field trips, I was able to see how hands-on experiences motivate writers to share their thoughts in a very personal manner. I’m excited to shift the delivery of my writing instruction to give children more significant topics to reflect and expand upon.” ---Mackenzie Carstens, 5th grade at North Platte Public Scools
“There are multitudes of professional development opportunities that nourish a teacher’s skill set, but this is the first that nourishes the soul of the teacher as well.” --Nicole Putnam, high school Language Arts Teacher at Perkins County High School
“As someone who never was comfortable with writing, I learned that it is okay to write. Everyone can be a writer! It takes a little patience and creativity that is tucked down within each one of us. Becoming aware of who you are by discovering more about where you come from and by the things going on around, you allows writing to flow freely. Place conscious learning is great for all ages. Loved the experience and energy from my new teacher friends. I know that I will always have resources to share with.” ---Mendi Roehrs, 5th Grade at North Platte Public Schools
Many teachers took advantage of the $800 stipend to offset the cost of three graduate hours offered through UNL’s Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education or English departments. A unique opportunity this year was an additional $475 materials stipend provided by the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Post Secondary Education. Many thanks goes out to Anne Schmit, Angela Raby, and Kathleen Fimple for their work in writing the grant! As a non-profit organization, the Nebraska Writing Project relies heavily on outside funding sources. Recently Congress has decided to eliminate all earmark funds which directly affects our program. Now, more than ever, we need your help in lobbying for this outstanding, one of a kind, professional development opportunity. Please take time to write your Senators and let your voice be heard.