September 19, 2017  

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CATCHING UP WITH DR. REBECCA POWELL

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Dr. Rebecca Powell

Dr. Rebecca Powell is an assistant professor of English at The University of Southern Mississippi, where she teaches English licensure courses at the University’s Gulf Park campus in Long Beach. Powell also serves as the director of the Live Oak Writing Project, a collaborative program between the Gulf Park campus and Gulf Coast public schools that helps teachers improve as writers and effective teachers of writing. Powell’s research interest includes adolescent writing experiences, K-16 writing pedagogy, articulation, community literacy and place studies. Her studies and reviews have appeared in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, Environmental Rhetorics and the Ecologies of Place; Teaching English in the Two Year College; Applications of the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing; Crosspol: A Journal of Transitions for High School and College Writing Teachers and Xchanges. Her current projects include researching the circulation of writing experiences through people’s lives and communities, and the implications of place studies for teacher education. She took a few moments to discuss the importance of the Live Oak Writing Project and the importance of learning to be an effective writer.

Q: Tell us about the Live Oak Writing Project and how it came into existence.

A:  The Live Oak Writing Project is an affiliate of the National Writing Project. Area teachers and administrators (Frances Weiler, Mary Kaye Deen, Marilyn Weaver, and Stacy Ferguson) recognized the need for writing specific professional development in coast counties and petitioned the National Writing Project to begin the project. Dr. Elaine White led the site for 10 years and created a community of teachers dedicated to improving the teaching and learning of writing.

Q: What goes into preparing for the event each year? Who are the participants, and how many people do you expect to come this year?

A: Live Oak Writing Project is less of an event than a community. Live Oak holds grant-funded professional development programs throughout the year, so there’s no one event for which we prepare. Currently, we are finishing the College Ready Writers Program, professional development in argument writing, with 12 area teachers from Bay Waveland, Long Beach, Hancock, Biloxi, Vancleave, and Pass Christian School Districts. This summer we will hold the annual summer institute and begin work with Harrison Central High School teachers on a yearlong iteration of the College Ready Writers Program. Dozens of area teachers work closely with the project each year, and their work influences classrooms and schools districts in coast counties. Throughout the year, thousands of area students are impacted by the work of Live Oak Writing Project teacher consultants.

Q: Is the program only for educators, or is it also available for students? Why is it important for people to consider participating in this program?

A: Live Oak Writing Project holds a summer Youth Writers camp and writing events such as the Letter to the Next President, the Scholastic Writing Awards Workshop and Poem in Your Pocket Day for students. This year’s “Youth Writers: Adventures with Harry Potter” will take place June 12-23. Campers will spend their mornings writing and their afternoons playing Quidditch, exploring potions and romping through the magic of Potter. The camp is open to third-eighth graders and last each day 9 a.m.-3 p.m.  

Q: What are the dates for the Live Oak Project, and how can people sign up for it?

A: Summer institute applications open each year in February and close in March. Follow our Facebook page for more information. Other professional development opportunities are offered through school districts and by arrangement. Our programs usually have a waiting list, so prospective teachers need to apply early.

Q: When did you become the director of the Live Oak Project? What special skills do you bring to the job, and how have they helped you in advancing this program?

A: I became the director of Live Oak Writing Project two years ago. I worked with the Borderlands Writing Project in New Mexico and my familiarity with the research, programming and philosophy of the National Writing Project, the longest running and most successful writing-focused professional development in the nation, has eased the transition.

Q: What type of activities/workshops are offered during the Living Oak Project? How do these learning programs help participants become skillful writers?

A: The National Writing Project has two philosophies: 1) Teachers know the most about teaching; and therefore, teachers should teach teachers; 2) Writing teachers should be writers themselves. Thus, the project aims to immerse teachers in their own writing practices and the best and most recent research surrounding the teaching of writing. Unlike other professional development opportunities, the Live Oak Writing Project is not selling materials or a curriculum. We are empowering teachers to make informed decisions based on research and arming them with the practices that create passionate, skilled student writers.

Q: In your opinion, why is it important to be a great writer or understand basic writing principles?

A: We live in a nation that wrote its being into existence. There’s no stronger argument for the power of writing than the U.S. Constitution. On the national scale, we see the power of writing in raising awareness, shaping laws and steering national conversations. In our everyday lives, Americans are writing more than ever before. The College Board’s study, entitled “Writing: A Ticket to Work or a Ticket Out” estimates two-thirds of salaried employees in major companies have significant writing responsibilities. Writing, quite simply, grants political and economic power.  Without it, you’re voiceless.

Q: As a professor of English, explain why it is important to have a good foundation in reading and writing, and how these concepts are needed and valued across all academic areas.  

A:  Of course, reading and writing matter in all disciplines, but I would also argue that it matters even more to civic life. A population that doesn’t seriously engage the topics of the day through reading and writing is doomed. Researchers are beginning to talk about reading, particularly the right to pleasure reading (reading for enjoyment), as a matter of social justice. Because recent studies have found that pleasure reading is closely linked to success in college and the workplace, and interestingly enough also correlates to mental well-being and improved health outcomes, we have begun to talk about not just achieving basic literacy skills but fostering the reading lives of all students.

Q: Why did you choose to study English and become a professor of English?

A: As an undergrad, I became an English major because I recognized the power of stories to create community and to make change. After teaching high school English and working as a copywriter and freelancer, I returned to graduate school to study how literacy (the materials and practices of reading and writing) do and do not circulate through communities and places. Communities value literacy differently and those values shape how people interact with reading and writing. For example, what does it mean to live on the Gulf Coast where the materiality of literacy (books, writing utensils, internet infrastructure, computers) has been destroyed every 50 years or so by hurricanes? How does that shape or not shape people’s interactions with reading and writing? I am endlessly curious about these questions because they can help us understand why and how school-based literacies serve and fail our communities.

Q: What do you hope participants take away from this year’s Live Oak Writing Project?

A: Live Oak Writing Project continuously attracts the best teachers. These teachers join our community and work to improve the teaching and learning of writing for area teachers and students.