San Marcos Writing Project Aims to Improve a Lost Skill

By David Ogul

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The way Laurie Stowell sees it, writing has been the poor stepchild of public schools for far too long. The Cal State San Marcos professor of literacy is trying to change that through the San Marcos Writing Project, a comprehensive effort aiming to boost the skills of K-12 writing teachers through professional development workshops, seminars and an abundance of resources.

“Everybody needs to be able to write well,” Stowell said. “No matter what profession you go into, writing is an important skill to have, and it’s a skill that needs to be taught, and taught well, in our schools.”

The San Marcos Writing Project is among more than 200 nationwide and one of 17 that fall under the California Writing Project umbrella. Stowell not only heads the San Marcos Writing Project, she’s also part of a five-member executive team leading the statewide effort.

Like others around the country, the San Marcos Writing Project is a resource for K-12 teachers and school districts in the region that provides a variety of workshops and in-service presentations at local schools. In addition, the San Marcos Writing Project sponsors a New Teacher Institute on Writing, which includes workshops for instructors who just completed their credential program; a series of Preparing College Ready Writers sessions; and a five-week summer institute for teachers that stretches from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

The Writing Project just completed a four-year, Department of Education research grant to determine how to best support the writing of middle and high school students, and it also hosts several Young Writers Camps for two weeks in the summer for students in grades two through 12.

“It is the best professional development option around because it is so relevant,” said Oceanside Unified School District instructor Irene Diggs, who is currently serving as a teacher in residence at CSUSM. “It really inspires teachers to enhance their practices and results in engaging students in different ways.”

Stowell certainly has the chops for the job. A former sixth- and eighth-grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio, Stowell has a bachelor of arts in education, a master of arts in reading and a Ph.D. in language, literature and reading development. She has been a CSUSM professor of literacy since August 1992.

“She’s such a selfless, passionate, inspiring educator,” Diggs said.

As Writing Project director, Stowell’s challenges are many. Public school teachers are working with a diverse student body, large class sizes and an abundance of English learners, not to mention the pressure of preparing their students to do well on standardized tests – tests that don’t emphasize good writing.

Students aren’t doing so well on those standardized tests, either. In fact, just 27 percent of fourth graders, 26 percent of eighth graders and 25 percent of public high school seniors were deemed at or above proficient in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.

As if all that weren’t enough, studies have shown that too few teachers have taken a college class on how children learn to write.

El Camino High School English teacher Carrie Targhetta is among those whose credential program did not include how to teach writing.

“I just had to pick up things through self study, through talking, and through collaborating with other teachers,” Targhetta said.

Targhetta was introduced to the San Marcos Writing Project in 2009 when she took part in the summer institute.

“It revolutionized the way I taught writing,” she said. “I went back into my classroom and threw out about 70 or 80 percent of what I had been doing and started from the beginning.”

Her students now dissect bits of writing that connect with and are meaningful to them, analyze why a particular piece or passage has meaning, then incorporate the tools they’ve learned from their analysis into their writing.

Key concepts for the Writing Project include becoming familiar with the latest in writing pedagogy. And ensuring students are writing. Daily.

“When kids write every day and when they have the skills to write in all kinds of situations, be it college essays, job applications, in their journals, they are going to grow into good writers who can do better on their tests,” Stowell said.

Though the challenge may seem daunting, Stowell remains undeterred.

“I get to teach teachers how to teach reading and writing,” she said. “It’s a dream job.”


Marilyn Huerta
Communication Specialist
mhuerta@csusm.edu