Last week I wrote about why the Morehead Writing Project is creating a writing studio and this week I want to explain how our studio looks during its pilot. Of course, we do not know what will come of this pilot so the final version could look very different. The Morehead Writing Project Studio is affiliated with the English Department at Morehead State University, but it is a separate program offered by the Morehead Writing Project which makes it different from most other writing studios. Our pilot program focuses on MSU students, but we hope the final version will grow to include K-12 students as well. While most studio programs grow out of a need to serve a student population, ours came from our mission to provide support to teachers of writing. We wanted to create a vehicle that demonstrated the best methods for teaching writing – methods in keeping with the beliefs of the National Writing Project. Ultimately, we end up in the same place as other studio programs – helping student writers; however, I believe this difference in orientation sets us apart.
The pilot studio groups are embedded within three developmental writing classes taught by two MWP teacher-consultants. The class instructors divided their classes (which cap at 17) into three small groups which meet once each week for an hour. These teachers have coordinated their syllabi and assignments as well as class preparation so the classes (which total 45+ students) are very similar in content and approach. Of course, we are able to do this for our pilot project, but may not be able to do so as the program grows. The studio work is considered part of the required work and attendance for the class so there is no separate or extra credit awarded as a result. Many other models offer Studio as an elective or required 1-credit class as an adjunct to freshman composition.
Our pilot studio groups are led by Peer Writers who are junior/senior English Education majors at MSU. The five Peer Writers involved with the pilot project have all worked with MWP before as well as had a number of education classes and/or tutoring experiences. Typically, studio groups are led by faculty members and graduate students although there are some programs which also use advanced undergraduates. We know there is a larger pool of English Ed majors we could use at MSU as well as a number of Middle Ed majors. We are cautiously considering how many Ed students we can work with at a time to maintain the same level of quality. At our pilot stage, all of our Peer Writers were carefully selected and we can easily stay in contact to provide the support and guidance they need to lead studio sessions. Of course, experienced Peer Writers won’t need that level of support but how many novice Peer Writers can we work with at a time?
The first assignment for the classes we are working with is a literacy narrative. The instructors have provided writing prompts to guide the initial development of this narrative and the Peer Writers are familiar with both the assignment and the prompt so they can support their studio groups as they continue the work they began in class by writing, sharing, and talking through their challenges. We are finding this assignment to be an useful vehicle for the conversations we want to take place in both the studio groups as well as our learning community.
We have created a learning community which includes the five Peer Writers and the two writing instructors as well as two representatives of the Morehead Writing Project. During weekly meetings, our learning community shares stories about working with students, brainstorms solutions to challenges, and coordinates plans for the next round of studio meetings. We are finding this learning community to be a tremendous resource for supporting our pilot project, but as the program grows it will be increasingly challenging to gather all the instructors and Peer Writers together every week. Our task as we grow will be to find ways to provide the necessary support for our Peer Writers.
Although our pilot is still in its early stages, we are already seeing a number of benefits. Of course, the developing writers benefit from working in a writing group led by a skilled mentor who can model both good writing habits and good writing group participation. In addition, the discussions focused on the students’ previous literacy experiences help students unpack some of the issues blocking their progress and better position them to learn and grow as writers. It is also not surprising that the Peer Writers are finding the studio a great learning experience as both teachers and writers. However, both the faculty members and pre-service teachers have found working within a supportive community both more helpful and invigorating than expected. We are all energized and engaged by this collaborative teaching experience. Our excitement for this project continues to grow as we wrap up our third week and we cannot wait to see what happens next.