Kelly Singleton zips around a corner, through a doorway and into the Decker Writing Studio on the second floor of Southern Oregon University’s Central Hall, where the interview she rushed here for has started without her.
“Sorry,” her expression says.
“You’re fine, relax,” says Margaret Perrow, SOU’s associate professor of English and the director of the school’s Oregon Writing Project. “I’m just giving him the big picture.”
For Singleton, the big picture is somewhat crowded, but that’s the way she likes it.
Besides teaching advanced placement English at Phoenix High, Singleton, who graduated from SOU’s Master’s of Arts in Teaching program in 2009, is currently leading an OWP professional development workshop at Klamath Community College. The workshop, titled “teaching argument-writing,” will be completed over the course of five Saturdays — the first session was Jan. 9 — and is the latest example of a fast-growing partnership between SOU and KCC.
Officials at both schools signed an agreement last June to make transferring from KCC to SOU more feasible and concurrent enrollment possible.
Singleton braved U.S. Highway 140, driving over packed snow, in order to teach the first six-hour seminar. She estimated that the class included 11 teachers, none of whom teach at a level lower than high school.
Working yet another commitment into an already jam-packed schedule wasn’t easy for Singleton, who joked on Monday about the height of the stack of homework assignments she has yet to correct. She does it, she says, because her work with the Oregon Writing Project, an affiliate branch of the National Writing Project, is important — for both her own continued education and the community at large.
“I believe in the writing project,” she said. “I think it’s a really great program and if I can help out and earn some professional development, and become a better teacher myself while I’m at it, it’s kind of a no-brainer for me.”
The argument-writing workshop is one of several offered to teachers through the OWP, which partners with school districts to support writing instruction across grade levels and subject areas. Other offerings include a grammar-writing class and an introduction to writer’s workshop.
The OWP used to be funded by SOU but has been grant-funded since 2010. Tracking down those grants is the job of Perrow, who leads workshops herself and was the original designer of the argument-writing class now led by Singleton.
“So we work cross grade level, cross content area, but we’re all about writing and we’re all about teachers’ professional development that supports teacher leadership so that teachers can go teach other teachers,” Perrow said. “The best teachers of teachers are other teachers. That’s one of our premises. And the other piece of it is … the idea that in order to teach writing, teachers have to do some writing, so we really focus on that kind of practice.”
Singleton took the OWP’s argument-writing class during the 2013-14 school year, beginning in October and wrapping up in May. At the time, the Common Core state standards now in place were only the storm clouds on the horizon, so the timing, for Singleton and her colleagues that participated in the workshop, could not have been better.
That’s because the Smarter Balanced tests associated with Common Core place an emphasis on precisely the kind of writing that the OWP class tackled, approaching a question or subject from all sides in order to dissect it.
Singleton began putting the tools she was learning to use as she was taking the class.
“It was great timing,” she said, “because I teach an AP class and one of the essays in the AP language and composition exam is an argument essay. So I was feeling very behind there and in addition the Smarter Balanced is a lot of argument and reasoning basics. So being able to have that background, I felt much better prepared to teach my students.”
The addition of an argument writing workshop on the OWP’s schedule wasn’t a coincidence, explains Perrow.
“You know, there’s been a lot of shifts in the landscape of standards in education,” she said. “The Common Core prioritizes argumentation at all grade levels, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and it’s the area that probably, in teaching writing, teachers struggle with the most themselves as writers and as teachers. And students, too. So that’s why argument writing (was offered). But we wanted to do it in a way that’s meaningful, that’s real-world and authentic, and give teachers the experience of the argument writing process, too.”
When it came time for Perrow to find somebody to teach the OWP’s argument-writing class last summer, she turned to her former student. At first, Singleton wasn’t so sure. She knew if she said yes, she’d be directing teachers who were older and more experienced than herself. But Perrow was persistent and eventually, Singleton agreed to take on the class as a co-facilitator with Debby Swope, a seventh-grade teacher at Grace Christian Middle School.
Singleton lights up as she describes a few of the lessons, which were designed by Perrow to be fun, interactive and applicable in real life, as opposed to an arbitrary, pro-con approach. Those who attend the workshop leave with a completely new understanding of how to teach a subject that can be as challenging as it is crucial.
“It’s a lot of fun, laughing,” Singleton said. “We get to make fun of ourselves. … In the morning we talked about the very basic arguments — arguments of fact. So we solved a murder mystery and wrote our argument for why we think it is that specific outcome and added the next layer in the afternoon. We labeled a new mascot for Klamath Community College and we wrote an argument for why that should be the new mascot. We share and we read together, and hearing the different approaches that everybody takes is so much fun.”
The feedback Perrow has received from teachers who have gone through the workshops has been positive. One fifth-grade teacher said the class inspired a re-evaluation of how writing should be taught. A high school teacher appreciated how the lessons were relatable to their own classroom and that those who participated could share resources.
A teacher at Rogue Community College was excited to report that she is already seeing results.
“My students wrote much more compelling argumentative papers this term than last,” she said. “Much of that may have had to do with my own level of enthusiasm and engagement that was generated by the workshop.”
Regarding Singleton’s class, another teacher wrote that, “it’s refreshing when a class or training presents material that is immediately useful in the classroom.”
Compliments like that make Singleton feel good, but it’s helping fellow teachers sharpen the tools of their craft that makes all the extra work — and driving — worthwhile. Because, she says, they all have the same goal.
“I want to prepare these students the best I can for what is coming,” she said, “not just on any test but what they’re going to be asked to do in college. To apply what you use in an argument in all different essays in all different subjects, that’s what I think is important. So if they have those basics and they understand how to construct that idea, then I will have considered it a success.”