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Going write to the source

To get kids in the habit, workshop starts with teachers
by: L.E. BASKOW, Sally Stephenson, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Grout Elementary, leads a writing exercise with her students using tools she picked up at the Community of Writers workshop for teachers.

The writings are bold, colorful, to the point and achingly honest.

Not what you might expect from a group of public school teachers whose writing mostly consists of lesson plans and report cards.

Yet the 112-page paperback anthology, 'The Teachers Always Write, Vol. 2,' which will be officially unveiled next month, displays the more intimate side of 22 Portland Public Schools teachers who took part in an intensive writing workshop over the past two years. The first volume was published in 2006.

'It's a bit intimidating to share your writing with your peers, other people, an author - open up a little more than you're used to,' said Sally Stephenson, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Southeast Portland's Grout Elementary. Stephenson went through the program twice and encouraged her building's entire teaching staff to participate. And so they did.

A decade ago, Portland author Larry Colton started the nonprofit Community of Writers with the purpose of immersing teachers in writing so they could pass the experience on to their students. The program consists of a for-credit writing course accredited by the University of Oregon's School of Journalism, offered at the teachers' own school buildings in districts throughout the state. It has served 1,400 elementary and middle school teachers over the years.

High school teachers are not included because their content is more specialized and they focus more on literature than writing composition, said Colton, a former baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies and a prolific freelance writer who's published three books.

The first, 'Idol Time' (1977), was a profile of the Portland Trail Blazers championship season. His most recent book, 'Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn' (2000), about the basketball team at an Indian reservation school, was named the International eBook Foundation nonfiction book of the year.

'We believe you teach the writing process,' he said. 'We want kids to write. We put these writers through hands-on strategies. Most of them haven't written anything since college other than referrals, report cards, lesson plans.'

Details come out with time

During the workshop, the teachers are assigned to write a nonfiction and fiction piece in the space of a week and get personal feedback by any of the 45 professional writers on his staff.

'It's very nerve-racking to them,' Colton said. 'We put them through these writing hoops, and they really evolve as people.'

Take Stephenson, for example. She started with a simple tale of a fishing trip with her son but saw it gain depth when Colton urged her to 'pull out the real nitty-gritty.' The final piece explores her father's disapproving feelings about how her son became an unmarried father at age 19.

Not all the teachers' workshop pieces could be published. This year, for the anthology's second volume, 30 pieces were selected from about 150, chosen for their compelling storytelling, emotional honesty, strong voice and detail, Community of Writers program director Jan Smith said.

'These are the same types of skills we try to develop in students,' Smith said.

Many teachers wrote about deeply personal experiences: the death of mothers and fathers, leaving an abusive spouse, seeing a child off to war, recovering from a near-fatal car wreck.

Writing was an emotional process for Jonathan Fischer, who teaches a combined second- and third-grade class at Grout and wrote a piece called 'Dragon Boats,' in which he walks along the Hawthorne Bridge and imagines that a dragon boat could carry the casket of his recently deceased father out to sea.

He writes: 'I'm not big on funerals. In my 20s I decided not to have one, and announced it to my wife. A mournful parade, I told her, just to be buried in one spot, forever. I love to move around too much and don't like sermons and prayers and crying and I'd just as soon be dumped in the river as put in the ground.

'But there are the ones left behind to think about. If weddings are for mothers, funerals are for survivors. Closure, fanfare, something to salute, something to remember. And something more than a colorless, forgettable hearse, rented for the day.'

Fischer said he started the piece in 2000, after his father died, then put it aside until the workshop, when he brushed it up.

'When I first read it aloud to a group of people, I just started crying,' he said. 'Making writing go public taught me a lot about what my kids have to go through. I've had students who have written about death in their family, other losses.'

Lessons are put to work

As the writing facilitator for Grout School, Stephenson said she's brought other lessons back from the workshop as well. She uses more poetry in her lessons, gives kids more time to write, and talks with them one-on-one about their writing work. She teaches them to consider who their reader is and 'play with language a lot more.'

Teachers who go through the workshop also get to bring something tangible back to their classrooms. Three writers from the Community of Writers staff come into the teachers' classroom to teach lessons for a week during the year, called a writer in residence. Each teacher also gets a $300 gift card at Borders Books to spend as he or she likes.

Both Fischer and Stephenson said they scooped up bunches of picture books and other material that ties into their curriculum, something they'd been wanting to have in their classes for a long time.

Borders is one of several businesses that partner with Community of Writers, a project that's associated with the annual Wordstock Festival that brings big-name writers to Portland in the fall.

Colton said Community of Writers has raised over $5 million from sponsors and grants, most of which goes to pay the writers on his staff.

'This program really, truly works,' Colton said. 'I don't know why it isn't in every school.'

For information, see www.communityofwriters.com.

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