Through collaborative action research and the identification of eight principles to guide writing instruction, middle and high school teachers in suburban St. Louis assisted underachieving African American students develop into confident and engaged writers.
Dimensions: Equity pedagogy, content integration, empowering school culture and social structure, knowledge construction.
Title and Location:
Webster Groves Writing Project
Webster Groves School District
St. Louis, Missouri
Dianne Scollay, Project Director
Gateway Writing Project
English Department, 438 Lucas Hall
University of Missouri - St. Louis
8001 Natural Bridge Road
St. Louis, Missouri 63121
Telephone: (314) 516-5578
- Program History and Description
- Program Components
- Program Success
- Program Replication
In 1987 six secondary teachers in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves initiated a collaborative action research project to investigate and remedy the disproportionality of African American students on writing tests. African American students in their district consistently scored lower on district-wide writing assessments than their European American counterparts. The action research project evolved through three phases over a period of six years. It initially focused on improving student writing, then on improving teaching methods, and finally on improving student-teacher relationships. Throughout each of these phases, eight principles (or strategies) remained central to the Webster Groves Writing Project. Through the analysis of their perceptions, their practice, and the development of culturally relevant instructional methods, these teacher researchers witnessed marked improvements in both achievement and attitude on the part of the African American students in their classes.
Program History and Description
Six secondary language arts teachers in suburban St. Louis, with a professor from the University of Missouri, St. Louis acting as a consultant, initiated an action research project known as the Webster Groves Writing Project (WGWP) in 1987. This research project grew out of a concern with the scores received by African American students each fall during the Webster Groves School District writing assessment. African American students, as a group, consistently scored lower than their European American peers.
The researchers began by examining writing samples from both Black students and White students in an attempt to answer three questions: (1) Did the writing of the Black and White students contain systematically different characteristics? (2) Was nonstandard dialect a prevalent aspect of Black writers in the suburban school district? and (3) Were nonstandard dialect forms scored more negatively during assessment than other nonstandard forms? The teachers then studied research literature regarding process approaches to writing and language dialect as it impacted schooling.
Over time the research team expanded to include fourteen members from both middle and high schools in the district, and the research focus evolved through three phases. At the outset the researchers were intent on improving students' writing. Holistic assessment and text analysis were used in an attempt to identify differences between Black basic writers and White basic writers who had received equivalent scores. The only major difference researchers noted, however, was the stronger, more informal voice and greater personal involvement with the subject on the part of African American basic writers. This was viewed as a strength. The research team also established six principles (or strategies) to guide their classroom writing instruction. These principles expanded to eight as WGWP evolved, and the research focus gradually shifted toward ways to improve teaching methods. Each teacher chose two or three "target students" to monitor closely as modifications and new methods were implemented. The teachers also began to study African American linguistic characteristics and learning styles.
By the end of the second phase, "target students" had expanded to include all low-achieving students, Black and White. By this time, the research team had also begun to question whether the success they were witnessing was due to changes in teaching methods or something else.
As a third phase unfolded, WGWP teachers moved beyond their assumptions of cultural neutrality and objectivity and became critically aware of their own political and cultural biases. They came to the realization that the personal strengths young Black males brought into the classroom tended to be complementary opposites to those the teachers brought as White females. In the characterizations of the researchers, the two stood as mirror opposites in the classroom. The issue of underachievement, initially conceived in terms of linguistic clash, was ultimately recognized as an issue of cultural estrangement (especially for Black males) from the White, middle-class, female world of the typical classroom. As a result, the focus of WGWP shifted toward building healthy relationships in a truly multicultural context.
The initial purpose of the Webster Groves action research project was to identify factors contributing to the disproportionately low achievement of African American students on district-wide writing assessments. This goal evolved, however, through three distinct phases in which researchers worked to: (a) improve writing, (b) improve teaching strategies, and finally (c) improve classroom relationships (Krater, Zeni, & Cason, 1994).
Instructional Strategies and Materials
Eight principles or strategies guide instruction and the educational activities the WGWP teachers integrate into their classroom writing lessons:
1. Build on strengths.
WGWP teachers initially recognized several strengths in the writing samples of low-achieving African American student writers, including a strong, informal voice that showed a high degree of personal involvement with the subject matter and an awareness of the audience. Encouraged by reading the works of educators such as Janice Hale-Benson (1986), Juwanza Kunjufu (1986), and Geneva Smitherman (1977), WGWP teachers capitalized on African American learning styles, oral language, and performance skills in the classroom. Teachers expanded their own cultural knowledge base while they supported language diversity in the classroom and made African American students aware of their bidialectical abilities. African American culture, literature, and content are now incorporated into the classrooms and curriculum on a daily basis.
2. Use process approaches to writing.
WGWP teachers remain committed to process writing approaches. However, observation and study helped them shape process approaches in ways deemed relevant to African American students. WGWP researchers highlight the following key findings about process writing: (1) provide adequate class time for the students to develop their papers; (2) give the students credit for process; (3) keep deadlines flexible; (4) provide students with both process and product models (including direct instruction); (5) utilize student portfolios; and (6) employ linear, teacher-led process approaches which offer both structure (for African American students who may value directive teachers) as well as individual options and choice.
3. Individualize and personalize.
WGWP teachers began with the expressed intention of individualizing instruction for underachieving students but found that a personal relationship with the student was a prerequisite for progress. This principle expanded to "personalize" instruction as well as individualize. They cite Siddle-Walker (1992), who affirms that the affective domain and the student's relationship with the teacher can remain dominant influences on learning for African American students. WGWP teachers attempt to: (a) build trust through affirmation, personal sharing, physical closeness, and assigning individual responsibility; (b) build high academic expectations through written and spoken comments, conferences, and modeling peer response; and (c) remain flexible regarding deadlines, assignments, and expectations.
4. Encourage cooperative learning.
WGWP teachers participated in a cooperative learning workshop (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1988) and subsequently adopted five elements of cooperative learning: (a) positive interdependence, (b) individual accountability, (c) face-to-face interaction, (d) interpersonal and small-group skills, and (e) group processing. WGWP teachers observed that the African American students in their classes preferred collaborative, social activities over isolated, individual, and competitive tasks, as some of the literature on African American students indicates (Hale-Benson, 1988; Howard, 1990). As a result, WGWP used a variety of cooperative learning strategies, including peer response groups, study buddies, collaborative composing, jigsawing, and literature study groups.
5. Increase control of language.
As advocates of process approaches to writing, WGWP teachers were more concerned with students gaining control over their language (i.e. learning a variety of forms and usages and the appropriate time to apply them) than with learning terminology and rules and adhering to standard forms. WGWP encouraged students to "play" with the language, by respecting Black communication styles in the classroom, providing students with opportunities to expand their codeswitching abilities, and focusing on sentence expansion. They also utilized direct instruction in writing through individual conferences and mini-lessons. While advocating process approaches, WGWP teachers cite Lisa Delpit (1995) that effective teachers do not reduce instruction to a "skills" vs. "process" debate.
6. Foster involvement with writing and reading.
WGWP teachers note that the strongest element increasing student motivation to write is student choice. Given the choice, most students prefer to write from either personal experience or from their imagination. Therefore, WGWP encourages teachers to listen to students to determine their interests, teach students how to make choices in subject matter, audience, purpose, mode, and form, and give students an active role in learning. WGWP fosters involvement through: (1) making writing authentic (and directed to a real audience), (2) providing cultural and gender role models for reading and writing, and (3) teaching to a variety of learning styles.
7. Use computers.
As the importance and utility of computers increased in the WGWP schools, this principle was added. WGWP notes that computers benefit writing instruction in five areas: (1) process, by encouraging ongoing revision; (2) individualization, through on the spot conferences; (3) cooperative learning, as partners assist with onscreen editing; (4) control of language, through spell-check and other such programs; and (5) involvement with writing, as students become more readily engaged in hands-on assignments at the computer.
8. Build bridges, expand horizons.
According to the WGWP teachers, this last principle was the most important, involving building curriculum and instruction that starts from where the students are and then stretches; builds unfamiliar tasks upon a familiar base by using models and formulas and the students' own prior knowledge; and (c) builds cultural bridges between the teacher, the students, and the larger multicultural society.
The St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves is characterized as socio-economically diverse. The school district's student body is 75 percent White and 25 percent Black. One-fifth of the Black students are bussed voluntarily from urban St. Louis while four-fifths are residents of Webster Groves (Zeni & Thomas, 1990, p. 17). The original researchers were all high school teachers. Five of the teachers and the university consultant were European American women, and one was an African American woman. The action research team later expanded to fourteen teachers, including two males and several middle school teachers, and all of whom were European American.
The Webster Groves action research team concluded that dialect and culture differences were not the key factors leading to African American students' lower scores on district writing assessments. However, in the classroom these differences often led to African American students being assigned workbook exercises focused on correcting errors in usage thereby denying the students opportunities to develop their writing and communication skills. In response, the teacher-researchers drafted "a broad, learner-centered program, with a structured approach to writing processes and to matching voice with audience" (Zeni & Thomas, 1990, p. 25).
Numerous difficulties and conflicts were encountered, however, when WGWP teachers attempted to evaluate and validate their qualitative action research project using the one-shot numerical scores generated by the district's holistic writing assessment. WGWP added a post-program assessment at the end of each school year and compared mean pre-program and post-program scores for both the target students and the total student population. These comparisons showed that the "all-student" mean increased by 1.6 during the project's first year while the "target student" mean increased by 2.0 (Krater et al., 1994, p. 367).
In 1988 - 1989, evaluation shifted to a focus on the middle school classrooms during the second year of the program. The "all-student" mean increased by 2.0 that year while the "target student" mean increase was 2.9 (p. 369). During the third and fourth years, the low-achieving "target student" population was expanded to include more than one-third of the total middle school population. Comparisons for those years reveal "all-student" mean increases of 1.2 and 1.3 respectively while "target student" means increased 2.3 and 2.2 (p. 370). Means for targeted African American middle school students during the four years were 2.3, 2.9, 1.5, and 2.2 (pp. 373-374).
Krater, Zeni, and Cason (1994) argue that the WGWP data demonstrates that low-achieving students, especially the underachieving African American students who were the primary concern of the action research project, were closing the gap between themselves and their peers (p. 372). The researchers regret that longitudinal data was impossible to gather since many "target students" identified one year were not so identified in subsequent years. Finally, during its fifth year, WGWP abandoned its emphasis on one-shot, holistic assessments in favor of student portfolio assessments. District holistic assessment scores are now viewed as just one more piece of descriptive data the project gathers.
WGWP teachers also created an attitude survey, based on the Emig/King Writing Attitude Scale, to probe students' perceptions. The survey included 40 items and was given both at the beginning of the school year and at the conclusion. Survey analyses show student confidence and enjoyment increased through the course of each year, and three-fourths of all students believed their writing had improved.
Several differences along racial lines were also noted. African American students were more likely to admit surprise by what they had to say when writing, and more likely to see writing as a means to express their feelings, than were their European American classmates. African American students were also much more likely to claim benefits from peer responses to their writing. Finally, African American students were more likely to state that they followed their teachers' suggestions even when they did not understand or agree with them.
1. WGWP builds upon the linguistic strengths African American students bring into the classroom, respecting the students' bidialectical abilities and giving them the opportunity to express themselves naturally as well as the time to self-edit their writing into standard "edited" form.
2. WGWP creates a culturally friendly learning environment through the following practices: (a) African American culture, literature, and artifacts have become incorporated permanently into the classroom; (b) teachers have broadened their own knowledge base and understanding of African American culture; and (c) teachers focus attention on building healthy personal relationships with their students.
3. WGWP teachers utilize direct instruction, embedded in meaningful contexts, while advocating process approaches to writing instruction. Non-mainstream students receive explicit instruction in the "codes of power" (Delpit, 1995) while developing a variety of linguistic and communication skills.
4. WGWP also demonstrates that female, European American teachers can be successful in helping African American students, particularly males, achieve academic success through "culturally relevant" instruction (Ladson-Billings, 1990). This was an issue of prime concern to the WGWP teachers when they began their action research project.
Additional Benefits While these teacher-researchers note the specificity of their particular setting and situation, WGWP provides a model for collaborative action research methods and multicultural educational reform that could be applied to other school districts.
As of 1994, two school districts had initiated programs based on the WGWP model. In addition, fifteen K-6 teachers in Webster Groves School District began an action research project concerned with writing instruction at the K-6 level. Finally, Webster Groves School District is considering applying the WGWP action research model and principles to K - Grade 9 mathematics.
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