Back in 2015 I wrote:
I believe in the power of writing to change the world. I believe in the power of writing teachers to make writers. I believe in the power of writers to transform – no, transfigure – into something new, something more by learning to wield their pens (or crayons or keyboards) to shape our world into something new and better while uncovering truths about our past and present. (see My Superpower)
I still believe that with every fiber of my being, but recently I was reminded of another powerful belief I possess. I believe in Kentucky education. I am a product of public education. I graduated from a New York State School district when that system was one of the best in the country, therefore the world, and then from a State University of New York University system college. I also have advanced degrees from public universities in Kentucky and Texas. I believe in the mission and the work of publication education even if the powerful forces controlling both my country and the state I call home no longer believe in public education and certainly do not support public education at any level. Why do I believe in Kentucky education? I believe in Kentucky education because I see evidence every day of the amazing educators at work in the Commonwealth and the rock stars they teach. I am privileged to direct the Morehead Writing Project and that work brings me into contact with teachers and students from all around Eastern Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky gets a bad rap because we are poor, because educational attainment is low, but there are amazing things happening in Eastern Kentucky classrooms and communities and that is why I believe in Kentucky education — especially Eastern Kentucky education.
I teach at Morehead State University which is arguably one of the most important educational institutions in the Commonwealth — certainly the public university with the most important mission — because we serve the population of Eastern Kentucky. My students are not privileged. Most of them are working or caregiving while they pursue their education — many of them are doing all three. We have a high population of students with military backgrounds or from military families. My students are working hard for an education with the dream of a better life for their families and a better future for our region. My students face a wide range of barriers to their educational attainment and still they persist and still they impress me with their passion, their intelligence, and their compassion. I believe in my students and they reward that faith every semester.
This week I spent the day at Bath County Middle School. It was like coming home because I spent so much time there over the past school year as we implemented our LRNG Innovators Challenge grant project at that school. I know this work changed the practice of many teachers and changed the lives of many students, but my work on this project renewed my faith in the future of education despite the fact that 2017-18 was a bad year for public education. Let’s talk about the administrators and teachers who agreed to take this leap of faith with me to write and win a grant awarded to only 10 projects nationwide (and only 30 in total). I proposed a limited-scale project, but these educators decided to go all in and support every kid in the school (in sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade) to experience genius hour and makerspace with the goal to create a project to share with the community at the end of the school year. This meant an uncomfortable and challenging year for every educator in the school as a project of this scale meant everyone needed to stretch and learn along with their students. This offered great opportunity and discomfort for my Morehead State University teachers-in-training as they worked to support BCMS students on this journey into the unknown. All these educators impressed me more than I can say, but it was the students who restored my faith in the future of Eastern Kentucky, of the Commonwealth, and of America. Their hearts, their minds, their creativity, and their work ethic impressed me every day. I loved watching them coach, support, and challenge each other. I was inspired by their ideas and projects — so many amazing projects from handcrafted instruments to engines to agricultural research to delicious baked goods. Projects preserving the history of Bath County and projects inspiring its future were created in the same classrooms. I am so grateful to Bath County for taking this journey with me and I am so excited about where it will take us next year.
That was why Vickie Moriarity (ELA at BCMS and one of the grant collaborators) and I were excited when Harlan County Schools asked us to come talk with their teachers about genius hour, makerspaces, and project-based learning because they are interested in the benefits of these educational approaches. We are looking forward to working with Harlan in the future and we are so proud of the administrators supporting this work and the teachers implementing it. This innovative work is challenging on every level and not every educator is willing or able to take those risks, but Harlan County does. (Yes, we will come work with you, too!)
That might be enough, but this is only the beginning of the amazing work that touched my life this year. The Morehead Writing Project held two Teen Writers Day Out and one Tween Writers Day Out events. These writing marathons involving writers from a number of Eastern Kentucky schools gathering on the campus of Morehead State to write and share their writing are always powerful occasions and this year WMKY recorded and broadcast some of the pieces which was even more amazing. Every time we hold one of these events I am reminded that powerful voices can emerge from very young writers and that amazing writing is supported by amazing writing communities.
Then there was the College, Career, and Community Writers Program work that spanned the school year with teachers from Bath, Fleming, Montgomery, and Rowan counties which led to a new grant supporting more focused work at Fleming County High School in the coming year. These teachers had to give up days in the summer as well as many Saturdays to complete this work and that does not include the countless hours of extra scoring and data gathering required to document the work and the growth of their students. NWP’s C3WP work is the future of writing instruction and has the potential to improve writing and transcend our national fixation on testing.
Last, but certainly not least, I am in the middle of MWP’s Online Summer Institute. This year we have our largest cohort – so big in fact that we decided to divide it into two groups – but once again I am struck by the dedication of teachers giving up such a large chunk of their summer for professional development. Many of these teachers are balancing this work (which is intensive) with summer jobs, family responsibilities ranging from new babies to ill parents, and other professional responsibilities. Yet every day these people amaze and delight me with their writing, their joy for learning and teaching, and knowledge and skills they share with our community.
This is why I believe in Kentucky education. Eastern Kentucky educators and students are amazing and I will fight you if you don’t believe in them, too.