The History of Indiana Teachers of Writing

ITW began in 1981 with five core university teachers. These early leaders, inspired during a 1980 meeting of the Indiana College English Association, received grants from the Lilly and from the Indiana Humanities Council to begin the organization and start the first conference. With the creation of the original black and white pen logo, the nation’s first K-college writing teachers’ organization began.

It adopted a constitution, brought in new members to form a board, divided into committees, and instituted the Journal of Teaching Writing. IUPUI accepted a long-term affiliation with the organization and aided in supporting a professional staff for the journal studies briefly outlined below.

Teaching Literature vs. Teaching Writing
Through most of the twentieth century reading and writing had been viewed as separate activities. Writing was associated with an academic community focused on rhetoric while reading education came to be the study material of psychology. The creation of ITW was a response to a classroom emphasis of reading over writing in the late 70’s. Since the beginning, ITW has focused on writing issues from workshop teaching to writing process to writing evaluation to classroom routines and procedures that enhance writing opportunities.

Phonics First vs. Whole Language
The founding of ITW coincided with a controversy that continues today: phonics vs. whole language instruction for reading. This approach to literacy instruction had swept the nation dominating the teaching of early reading and writing in the classroom. However, this switch in teaching approach coincided with a drop in students’ reading scores (actually influenced by a variety of factors). Proponents of phonics argued direct cause-effect with low standardized tests of basic reading skills. Unfortunately, isolated skill testing became the norm. Holistic approaches required different and more intense scoring procedures, expensive in the minds of Indiana politicians.

Indiana Portfolio System
Seeing the opportunity for inspiring young writers with their own work, ITW leaders joined forces early on with the Indiana Department of Education to develop a portfolio system. With this system, every significant project of the writer could be saved. The Indiana portfolio project was piloted and remained strong until the increasing use of computers rendered paper portfolios obsolete. Schools were unable to develop and manage digital systems because of inadequate resources.

ISTEP
As the Indiana accountability system moved towards standardized testing in the 1980’s, ITW took a lead role in designing the writing portion of ISTEP. The vision of this writing assessment was that it would be a workable, holistic way of measuring writing performance.
While ISTEP has provided access to new measurements of student performance, ITW has had to live with some of the undesirable consequences. Narrow writing prompts make grading fair and standardized, but they do not allow for creative thinking. Prompts list what an essay ought to contain and leaves no room for what the writer wants to say. Teaching to the test depersonalizes education and hinders teachers in guiding the interests and potential of their young writers. Yet today, Indiana still lives with standardized writing performance tests that limit creativity and teaching.

Conferences
ITW’s conferences have brought in a variety of topics and speakers to inspire the development of Indiana’s writing teachers. From TV personalities and radio hosts like Jean Shepherd to the engineer Ed Kline, the ITW stage has admitted a diversity of writers from various fields. Currently, ITW sponsors a fall and spring conference. It now focuses on bringing in expert practitioners to teach and coach fellow writing teachers.

Decreasing Teacher Development
In the late 1990’s and the 2000’s, the shift toward standardization, teacher accountability, and fewer resources challenged teacher professional development. Within ITW, college members began to drop as they perceived the organization directing its efforts more towards the high school and elementary teachers. The recession tightened the state’s education budget, and these problems were further enhanced in 2012 when Indiana again cut its teacher development funding.

A Resurgence
These circumstances have forced ITW to reevaluate its programming. The annual spring conference started in 1982 and the fall preconference were dropped temporarily. The fall conference was shortened and moved to a weekend because teachers could not get subs for their classes. Despite the decreasing funds, ITW leaders made sure to keep subscription costs low so as not to burden members. However, despite economic challenges for teachers, ITW still drew over a hundred attendees for its 2014 conference. Since then, participation continues to grow at the fall conference. The 2017 spring conference had to close registration because of overwhelming response. ITW is growing its membership base again. The Board of Directors has recruited more writing teachers at all levels, encouraging participation by newer teachers to the profession. There is a resurgence of interest in the teaching of writing, and ITW is currently working with literacy experts at the IDOE regarding collaborative projects.

(Updated by Sue Blackwell, Executive Director, May, 2017)