April 11, 2013 | Myrna Anderson

Calvin faculty are working with teachers from area schools to improve their teaching of writing, math.

The Calvin faculty will be helping teachers from two Grand Rapids-area schools assign more writing and teach writing more effectively.

Funded by a $200,000 Improving Teacher Quality Grant from the Michigan Department of Education, education professor John Walcott and English professors Elizabeth Vander Lei and Dean Ward will work for a year-and-a-half with teachers from Lighthouse Academy, a public charter school, and The Potter’s House Christian School.

“The schools we’re working with want to improve their students’ writing, and we want to work with them so that their students are better writers, more effective writers and more willing writers,” Walcott said.

Across disciplines

The project is focused on writing across the curriculum: incorporating writing into every academic subject. Vander Lei and Ward will teach the teachers to create writing assignments that emphasize the content of various disciplines (math, science, history, etc.), how to fit writing assignments into a curriculum, how to help students complete assignments and how to grade writing.

"As students become stronger writers, they also become engaged with school and with the school content,” Walcott said.

There are challenges to teaching the teaching of writing, said Ward (who teaches a class titled “The Teaching of Writing”). “One is persuading every teacher that they’re capable of teaching writing,” said Ward, “and that can be a little bit of a hill to climb.”

As his colleagues tackle writing curriculum and pedagogy, Walcott, who specializes in urban education, will be teaching about how best to meet the needs of all students. Increasingly, he said, public and private classrooms include students who are English language learners. “Too often we have the gap between teachers and kids: the language gap,” he said.

Walcott hopes to show the teachers ways that they can make the English language relevant to their students. He also wants to demonstrate how the various cultural perspectives students bring to learning can enhance what goes on in the classroom. “When students feel like they’re part of the culture, they’re affirmed,” he said.

Education and justice

Walcott comes from a background that combines cross-cultural education and missions. Born in Muskegon, Mich., and raised in Grand Rapids, he graduated Calvin in 1983 with a BA in secondary education with a religion minor. He taught for five years in the Grand Rapids schools, then served as a missionary for six years in the Dominican Republic. 

Walcott next worked as a teacher and principal of The Potter’s House Christian High School, which he helped to found. “That was a great experience,” he said. In 2007, Walcott left the Potter’s House to earn a PhD in education at Michigan State University and, this fall, began his first year as a member of the Calvin faculty.

“I work in a great department with great colleagues,” he said. Walcott teaches IDIS 205, a class titled “Societal Structures and Educational Institutions as a Social Enterprise.” “Students just call it 205,” he said. “We deal with a lot of issues related to social structures that play … a significant role in education. But we also talk about justice and equity and shalom.”

The project with Lighthouse Academy and Potter’s House will command a lot of Walcott’s time in the next year-and-a-half. “I’m really looking forward to being in the classroom with these teachers and school administrators,” he said. “It will be a good professional time, but it will also be enjoyable.”

Mathematics professor Jan Koop also recently landed a $200,000 Improving Teacher Quality Grant: her fifth in seven years. Koop will work with
K–6 teachers from Wyoming's Parkview Elementary School, AnchorPoint Christian School, New Branches and Grand Rapids' William C. Abney Academy. Following the pattern she has established with four previous similar grants, the teachers will participate in an intensive one-week summer session at Calvin, regular workshops at their respective schools throughout the school year, and another one-week workshop during the following summer. The emphasis will be on developing deep content knowledge, exemplary pedagogy, and hands-on instruction.

Koop has previously worked with teachers from the William C. Abney Academy, West Side Christian, Godfrey-Lee, San Juan Diego Academy, Oakdale Christian, Alexander (GRPS), Shawnee (GRPS), Wyoming West and Gladiola elementary schools. Evaluation of previous grants consistently shows that the professional development opportunities improved teachers' math proficiency and attitudes toward teaching mathematics. "These grants provide almost the only chance these teachers have for sustained professional development in mathematics," she said. "I enjoy working with the teachers, and it informs my teaching at Calvin. It keeps me 'real'."

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