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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Making the grade: NMSU Borderlands Writing Project helps T or C teachers, students

When it comes to reading and writing, New Mexico children rank near the bottom on the National Assessment of Educational Progress report with 4th graders at 79% below proficient in reading and 82% below proficient in writing, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Group of women, some standing and some sitting
Participants in New Mexico State University's Borderlands Writing Project outreach in Truth or Consequences. From left standing: Barbara Pearlman,Hot Springs High School; Linda Adkins, Kasey Bassler, Shenandoah Montoya, Brandi Lindsey, all from Truth or Consequences Elementary school, Karen Cummins, district gifted specialist; and Delana Marrufo, Truth or Consequences Elementary. Seated: Truth or Consequences Elementary Principal Melissa Sanchez-Robinson and Patti Wojahn, NMSU associate professor of English. (Courtesy photo)
Young girl holding drawing of a turkey
Truth or Consequences Elementary School kindergartener Amillia Garcia shows off her work based on lessons learned through NMSU's Borderlands Writing Project. (Courtesy photo)
Child’s drawing with writing
Student work incorporates drawing and writing in the emerging writers program at Truth or Consequences Elementary School.

For the last three years, English professors Patricia Wojahn and Chris Burnham in New Mexico State University’s College of Arts and Sciences have spent their Saturdays in Truth or Consequences teaching public school teachers.

“These are tough times for public education teachers,” said Barbara Pearlman, one of the first teachers to work with the two at Hot Springs High School. “The increasing challenges and what we are being asked to deal with in our classrooms go way beyond just the three R’s. Teachers can feel overwhelmed by mandates, changing policy and a narrative that often paints us in an unfavorable light. However, we have been extremely fortunate in Truth or Consequences to have the privilege to work with the Borderlands Writing Project.”

During the first two years of the project, Burnham and Wojahn began helping teachers across all disciplines at Hot Springs High School. This year, they are working to help kindergarten and first grade teachers build confidence in using writing to help their students learn. They are also helping teachers understand how the new Common Core State Standards can align with what they already do well. The aim is to allow the teachers to take the lead as practitioners and professionals.

“Our current goals include building and maintaining a Truth or Consequences Elementary School learning community focused around writing and improving the performance of current kindergarten and first grade students as they move toward the 3rd grade standardized tests and, most importantly, allowing them to practice writing for general, personal and academic purposes,”Wojahn said.

So far NMSU’s program, funded by National Writing Project grants, has reached out to more than 30 teachers in the Truth or Consequences School District, identified as a high-needs, high-poverty district. Those teachers are now sharing the program with students.

“The Borderlands Writing Project is one of many outreach efforts our faculty provide in this region,” said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Chris and Patti really care and it shows in their relationships with teachers at these T or C schools.”

Burnham and Wojahn, as executive director and director of the program, have provided training for the teachers in Truth or Consequences during the academic school year. The teachers learn new ways to help their students develop writing skills and form teams to encourage and support one another.

“We have used various writing assignments such as ‘I Am From’ poems, ‘Spinning Word Pinwheels,’ ‘Valentine Candy Heart’ poems and ‘Composition of Place’ with kindergarten and first grade students,” said Karen Cummins, a language arts teacher and gifted education coordinator in the Truth or Consequences district. “The student work has reflected an understanding and excitement for reading, writing and learning.”

First-grade teacher Linda Adkins and kindergarten teacher Delana Marrufo started with the program in January and already see its impact.

“My students are enjoying doing the projects I am introducing to them based on ideas from the writing group,” said Adkins. “I think it is helping them to push themselves as writers.”

“I have new ideas that are more hands on and give the students more freedom to express themselves,” said Marrufo. “My students are proud of their work and know that it is valued when I show them slideshows of their work. This is something I never did before.”

Truth or Consequences Elementary principal Melissa Sanchez-Robinson has noticed the difference in her school.

“It has been exciting to observe the increase of energy and enthusiasm amongst the students and teachers in regards to writing,” said Sanchez-Robinson. “The teachers have enjoyed implementing the various ideas shared, while observing student success.”

"We've found over time that the Truth or Consequences teachers are deeply committed to improving their students' performance and that they are willing to work over and beyond expectations in order to do this,” Burnham said. “ We admire them greatly and find in them great hope for the future."

Shenandoah Montoya has been an early childhood teacher in Truth or Consequences for 8 years and says she hopes to see more teachers go through the program to create teams throughout the school system.

“My students are being exposed to a greater variety of learning and opportunities to share their work through not only publication in class but through a very encouraging opportunity to show the ‘group of teachers’ their work,” Montoya said. “They get so excited about sharing their work with teachers and seeing their work ‘teach the teacher.’ They love it!”