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Pieces of Eight

Melissa Morlock and Randall Martoccia, two participants in ECU’s Tar River Writing Project, research technological teaching strategies. (Photo by Todd Finley)

Tar River Writing Project Inspires Teachers, Writers

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

With its array of warm-hued floor lamps and an always-on coffee maker, the home for the Tar River Writing Project in ECU’s Bate Building feels more like a cozy writers’ lair than a classroom.

And that’s by design. For the second summer in a row, ECU English professor Will Banks and English education professor Todd Finley are helping the region’s public school teachers to get in touch with their creative side.

“We want teachers to think about themselves as writers, and to explore how this work can transform the ways they teach writing,” Banks said.

Now entering its second year at ECU, the program’s $43,000 grant from the National Writing Project provides opportunities for 16 public school teachers to hone in on and improve their skills as writers and as educators.

During the four-week course, participants earn three graduate credits, learn about and evaluate different styles of teaching strategies, examine how to integrate new technologies into the classroom and share with their peers their experiences as classroom teachers.

“My job is to take the content and integrate good pedagogy into teaching that content,” said Finley, who teaches in the College of Education’s Curriculum and Instruction department. “It’s important that they can take what they learn here and use it in their own classrooms.”

Moreover, said Finley, the program fosters opportunities for strong community building and the creation of both personal and professional alliances that will last well beyond the month-long intensive course.

Banks, who brought the Tar River Writing Project to ECU after being active in the National Writing Project, said another benefit is that the teachers are encouraged to conduct research in their classrooms.

“Central to this mission is that teachers not only write in imaginative and exploratory genres, but they also investigate the concerns they have about teaching and literacy and look for ways to conduct research in their own classrooms to better understand the complexities of writing instruction,” Banks said.

Natasha Martin, who just finished her first year teaching English at Greene Early College in Snow Hill, is one of several teachers new to the profession who participated in the program.

“Being a new teacher, I don’t have a lot of frameworks in place, so it’s been good having other people here to talk about what they’ve done that’s worked in the classroom,” she said.

Banks said he hopes the support offered to these new teachers early in their careers will help with teacher retention in the area’s public schools.

The Writing Project grant pays for tuition for each participant, as well as books and materials. Once the teachers complete the summer institute, they are then eligible to participate in year-round development activities in the program’s advanced Teacher Research Institute. Working with the project’s associate directors, Jennifer Sharpe-Salter and Jonathan Bartels, the teachers have an opportunity to become “teaching consultants,” and offer professional development for their colleagues in their respective school districts.

In the fall, the teachers say they’ll return to their classrooms invigorated, sharing their ideas with their students and colleagues.

“The interaction with other teachers who find value in writing as a tool of learning has been inspiring,” said Terry Van Sickle, who has taught for several years but is entering her second year at West Craven High School in New Bern. “When I return to my school, I plan to incorporate some of my experiences and new knowledge into a Writing Across the Curriculum initiative at West Craven.”

In the meantime, they’ll spend the next few weeks focusing on and developing their own creative writing, reflective essays and lesson delivery techniques with the aim of helping them each to become better students, teachers and writers.

More information can be found at

This page originally appeared in the Aug. 1, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at