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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, July 13, 2024


If high school students learn to develop and polish their writing skills in English class but are not encouraged to put those skills to use in their other fields of study, for many that learning will get lost.
Evidence of this is seen daily, as secondary students routinely collect their diplomas without the ability to write two successive sentences that are cohesive, clear and grammatically correct. About 80 percent of the freshmen admitted to the University of the Virgin Islands each fall are required to take a year of remedial English before they can even embark on the writing course requirements toward an associate or bachelor's degree in any field.
This year's recipient of the territory's Christa McAuliffe Fellowship for high school teachers is going to spend two-thirds of a year in California immersing herself in a program that is aimed at changing all that – by developing and reinforcing students' writing skills in all their subject areas of study.
Amy Roberts, who has taught English for 17 years on St. Thomas, first at Charlotte Amalie High School and currently at Ivanna Eudora Kean, was selected by the territory's McAuliffe Fellowship committee in April.
Her motivation for applying for the fellowship was dismay over statistics she found when she returned to teaching from vacation last summer – and determination to do something about it: "I saw the results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the government test used throughout the nation to assess basic skills," she says. "The Virgin Islands came in dead last."
The only element of the test administered in the territory, she says, was testing of 8th graders' writing skills. Test scores were ranked in four levels – advanced proficiency, proficiency, basic and below basic. "Out of the 39 states and jurisdictions that participated in this particular test," she says, "we had the highest percentage of students – 39 percent – who did not even rank at the basic mastery level. We also had the lowest percentage of students scoring at the proficiency level – 8 percent."
She recalls, "I came back from summer vacation, and those were the headlines. I was very disturbed – but not surprised."
And then she decided to do something about it. She applied for the territory's 2000 McAuliffe Fellowship.
The nationwide fellowship program is named for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, who was aboard the space shuttle Challenger that exploded 73 seconds after being launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members aboard. A primary or secondary school teacher recipient is selected annually in each state and territory.
For the teachers, Roberts says, the award represents "a chance for them to implement a project or take a sabbatical." In her case, it will be both. After teaching as usual this fall, she will leave in January 2001 for a semester and summer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She'll be studying with the head of the pioneering Central California Writing Project and taking related courses.
In existence for 24 years at Santa Cruz, "the project, among other things, sets up summer institute workshops for teachers in all subject areas at all grade levels to teach writing within their areas," Roberts says. "The idea is that all teachers should reinforce writing skills." For those who don't now have the skills or motivation do so, she adds, "the project philosophy is, ‘We can give it to them. Whether you're a math teacher, a science teacher, a health teacher, you have opportunities to teach writing, too.'"
Like the "arts in education concept" advanced through federal National Endowment for the Arts funding, the project has as its fundamental premise the idea that skills learned in one subject area foster the acquiring and implementing of skills in other fields. While this concept is widely addressed with regard to reading, it has gotten far less emphasis in educational circles in the case of writing.
Roberts, whose other Eudora Kean involvements include co-coaching the Quiz Bowl team for the last four years and being active on the school's technology committee with the goal of setting up a writing publication center, says her goal "is to come back to the Virgin Islands and initiate a Virgin Island Writing Project – in the form of a summer institute for teachers on the teaching of writing."
At Santa Cruz, about 80 miles south of the San Francisco Bay area, she will be studying with Don Rothman, who 24 years ago founded the writing project that has now spread across the nation. "I met him 15 years ago when I participated in the Central California Writing Project summer institute," she explains. "I approached him" about getting the project to the Virgin Islands, she says, and he was very receptive.
The McAuliffe Fellowship application process was a new experience in itself for her, Roberts says. "It was the first time I've written something that had not a single footnote, but cited several different web sites," she explains. "It's a whole different world, now. There's endless information available."
A panel of nine V.I. educators selects the fellowship recipient each year. The amount of the award is defined as "the average teacher's salary for that particular state or jurisdiction," which would make it a little less than $30,000 in the territory, Roberts says. All high school teachers are eligible to apply. Yet, "There were only six proposals submitted this year," she says. "That's pretty sad."
As far as implementing a Virgin Islands Writing Project, Roberts says, "It would have to be sponsored by the Education Department and will require writing a lot of grants and applying for funding through the National Writing Project, which is in 49 states and territories including Puerto Rico."
She sees her role in the project as being "that I would be the initiator and the facilitator to get it launched. I imagine that for the first couple years, we would need to bring in experts from off island to lead the workshops." She adds that she is "hoping to enlist support and actually the active involvement of the University of the Virgin Islands."
It's "a really ambitious project," Roberts, a St. John resident, says. The National Writing Project people "figure it's about $40,000 to set up a summer institute, and they give you half that in matching funds." The territory would have to come up with the other half "in direct funding and/or in-kind donations." She expects to contribute to that match personally, because once she comes home from California, outside of her regular classroom duties, "I'm a volunteer."

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