Winter 2020

Strange Beasts and Bedfellows: The Whys and Hows of K–16 Alliances

Founded in 2015, the MLA’s Working Group on K–16 Alliances, which I was an original member of, sought to connect the K–12 and postsecondary educational communities in order to build support for teaching modern languages, writing, and literature at all levels.1 Bridging the gap between K–12 and postsecondary humanities education is a large and daunting task, but it can be done. The work of the MLA group and its successor committee has led to the discovery of a few strategies you might implement at your institution to engage secondary schools in communities near you. These strategies include participating in collaborative programs, such as summer institutes, writing camps, and writing contests, with like-minded organizations; publishing the writing and research of K–12 teachers; creating writing centers in local middle and high schools; fostering learning and teaching opportunities for secondary school teachers and their students; and organizing conferences with an eye toward attracting K–12 instructors.

Collaborative Programs

I’d like to share specific examples of how we at the University of Connecticut (UConn)—and others—have implemented collaborative programs with secondary schools. Our collaborations with educational and professional organizations have helped bridge the divide between secondary and postsecondary institutions in order to bolster humanities education at all levels.2

Summer Institutes and Writing Camps

In many ways, summer institutes work like cooperative programs, distributing university-level research to the public. A summer institute can help expose K–12 teachers and graduate students to current research on the teaching of writing. The National Writing Project (NWP), an organization that has been building alliances between secondary and postsecondary education since 1974, collaborates with higher education institutions to organize invitational summer institutes. These institutes typically run for four weeks and offer participants six graduate credits. Coursework focuses on both theory and practice (e.g., Research in the Teaching of Writing, Writing Workshop). Institutes distinguish themselves by attracting teachers from all levels and disciplines, which promotes both vertical and horizontal professional communication. The long-term benefit of this level and degree of communication for both teachers and students is tremendous. At UConn, these institutes are affiliated with the English department, though NWP sites around the country have historically been housed equally in English departments and schools of education.3

Our collaborations with educational and professional organizations have helped bridge the divide between secondary and postsecondary institutions in order to bolster humanities education at all levels.

Although summer institutes can host only a limited number of teachers each year, the benefit over time is far-reaching. In the history of our NWP site, the Connecticut Writing Project at UConn, which dates to 1982, we average fourteen to fifteen teachers per summer, from grades K–16, and from just about all disciplines (though science teachers have been scarce and math teachers almost nonexistent). That amounts to more than 570 teachers in the last thirty-eight years, which may sound like a small number, until one considers the ripple effect those 570+ teachers have had on their colleagues and students, influencing statewide curriculum and instruction throughout the decades.

Similar opportunities exist for those who teach languages other than English—for instance, the long-standing summer programs offered by the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota and the summer and school-year offerings organized by the Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language, and Literacy at the University of Arizona. And certainly other models exist.

While not every educator works at a university with an NWP site that offers an annual invitational summer institute for pre-K–20 writing teachers, the NWP’s model for cross-level and interdisciplinary professional learning provides a helpful example of collaborative learning that fosters sustained intellectual and practical alliances built around research-informed pedagogy. Although some things have changed for the NWP since federal funding became irregular in 2011 and nonexistent in 2016, so that many writing project sites have had to adapt to the lack of funds and become more flexible (e.g., offering shorter-term institutes of a week or two, offering a virtual institute, or holding traditional four-week institutes only every other year), the NWP still provides one of the best frameworks for K–16 (or pre-K–20) alliances.

Besides summer institutes, writing project sites sponsor all kinds of activities in public, and occasionally private, schools, including professional development workshops, teaching observations, coteaching, and demonstration lessons. These sites also host on-campus writing groups, writing retreats, and professional development workshops on writing.

Summer writing camps for K–12 students are offered by NWP sites all over the United States. Examples include the Oklahoma State University Writing Project’s Teen Writers’ Camp, which has focused on genres such as the graphic novel and songwriting, and the University of Georgia Red Clay Writing Project’s Camp Red Clay for Kids. These programs allow educators from different teaching contexts to collaborate on projects involving program delivery, curriculum building, and assessment, giving them tools that they can take back to their home schools. These programs often bring K–12 students into direct contact with university teachers, who may participate as visiting contributors, even if only for a day or two. Such programs also enable students from otherwise marginalized groups to visit college and university campuses, helping make clear to these students that they would be welcome to apply to and enroll at these institutions later in their academic careers. These opportunities are usually advertised on NWP Listservs, in NWP print mailings, and on NWP Web sites.

Writing Contests

Writing contests provide another opportunity for K–12 students to hone and sometimes even publish their writing. Hosting writing contests can help students from diverse backgrounds feel connected to higher education. We at UConn have our own thirty-one-year-old contest, Connecticut Student Writers, which each year receives around eighteen hundred submissions from K–12 students from over four hundred classrooms and over two hundred schools. We host several other contests, including a Region-at-Large contest (for regions without a state contest), and we will soon be an affiliate partner for the Scholastic Writing Awards, a statewide scholastic writing contest for students in grades 7–12. We also host Connecticut’s Letters About Literature contest, which each year receives between one thousand and fifteen hundred submissions from fourth- through twelfth-grade students across the state. Different types of educators are involved in these contests. Between twenty and thirty K–12 teachers volunteer to be judges for the regional contest. For the statewide contest we plan to use a similar number of university faculty members from UConn as well as faculty members from other colleges and universities.

K–12 students and teachers can be integrated into college writing programs in many ways.

The winners of these contests are published in different places. Our own magazine, Connecticut Student Writers, publishes the writing of seventy-eight students (six per grade level) and the art of between twenty-six and thirty-nine students (an average of two or three works per grade level). The Scholastic Writing Awards program also publishes the work of its winners in a nationally distributed magazine of student writing, and while the Library of Congress no longer sponsors Letters about Literature and therefore no longer publishes the winners, we publish the writing of the statewide winners on our Web site.

There are a number of ways to get started on an endeavor to publish student writing. The easiest might be to piggyback onto an existing program such as the Scholastic Writing Awards or Letters about Literature, which many states continue to support through the sponsorship of a state Center for the Book or a university writing project. A teacher or professor could contact the Scholastic Writing Awards program about becoming a regional partner or contact their state’s Center for the Book about sponsoring a Letters about Literature contest. Because so many NWP sites sponsor some type of youth writing program, finding and reaching out to one of these sites, even one at a university other than your own, could be a good place to begin. The NWP home page allows users to locate NWP sites all over the country. Writing contests can be especially effective when paired with dual or concurrent enrollment programs.

Publishing K–12 Teachers’ Writing and Research

Another great way to bridge the divide between secondary and postsecondary education is to encourage K–12 teachers to publish their writing and research. When I took over as director of our writing-project site, I inherited a tradition of publishing a chapbook of creative writing by the most recent summer institute participants. I expanded on that tradition when I decided to begin holding an annual creative writing contest for teachers affiliated with our site. We now publish an annual journal showcasing the writing of the contest winners. We receive contest submissions from about fifty teachers each year. I have graduate students from our creative writing program serve as judges and pay them a small stipend.

I have also worked to promote the research of K–12 teachers by offering small research grants of up to $500. Teachers could use this money to buy books, attend a conference, or purchase technology. They were then required to write a short article about their research, which I would publish in a small journal.

Blogging is another great way for teachers to reach a larger audience. Recent articles by Paul Dicken and Leonard Cassuto in The Chronicle of Higher Education have urged higher education professionals to write for the public. One of the best ways to promote alliances with K–12 educators is to blog about our research and teaching. For the past decade I have published a weekly blog for K–16 teachers that is read by hundreds, and sometimes over a thousand, teachers every week. Sometimes readers tell me they even share my posts with their students.

Writing Center Outreach

Shortly after I was hired at UConn in 2007, I was approached by my colleague Tom Deans, who was interested in restarting a high school writing center program. He wondered if we could work together to tap into my network of middle and high school teachers to find schools interested in establishing writing centers fashioned after the university’s model.

Twelve years later, Tom and I are still working to establish peer writing centers in area middle and high schools. To date we have helped create centers in about a dozen schools, and since 2009 we have held an annual fall conference open to teachers from around the state that has helped a number of additional schools establish writing centers without our direct intervention.4

At UConn we use the writing project site to recruit teachers from area high schools, and a handful of middle schools, to host and run writing centers. These teachers will occasionally offer courses based on our one-credit practicum course for undergraduate student tutors. We dedicate a graduate student—typically one recruited from the dual degree bachelor’s and master’s program in English and secondary English education—and up to four undergraduate tutors to work with the secondary school teacher to recruit and train high school students to run a peer writing center. Because of the instantaneous and widespread interest in this collaboration, we began hosting an annual fall conference, entering its twelfth year this fall, that draws well over one hundred teachers and students.

Teaching and Learning Opportunities

K–12 students and teachers can be integrated into college writing programs in many ways. We help foster a community of K–16 learners when we allow high school students to take college-level courses and when secondary school teachers are allowed to take master’s courses or to teach university-level writing courses.

Early College Experience

As the director of the Connecticut Writing Project at UConn, I had the opportunity to become involved with the Early College Experience (ECE) English program, which I am now the assistant coordinator of. The ECE program is the oldest and largest dual enrollment program in the country.  Dual enrollment programs offer college-level first-year courses in high schools, which allow qualified high school students to earn college credit, sometimes transferring in a semester’s or more worth of credits and thereby saving thousands of dollars. Several years ago our program received national accreditation from the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. As a result, we were told to conduct more site visits to participating high schools. In the process we learned a lot about what was taking place in these high schools. Most important, however, we began to build stronger relationships with teachers in these schools. These improved relationships helped us all feel more collectively and equally involved in the education of high school seniors and first-year college students. Site visits also helped establish regular contact between our faculty members and high school teachers. Each high school teacher was able to develop a personal and professional relationship with a graduate student or university faculty member whom they were encouraged to perceive as a peer and a collaborator, not as a superior or an evaluator.

I began volunteering to conduct site visits to observe teachers, and now I visit about twenty teachers a year and help organize two annual conferences for ECE teacher professional development (one each semester). My colleague Scott Campbell, the coordinator of these conferences, also runs a three-day summer institute for high school ECE teachers that is very popular and well attended. High school teachers must attend one of these conferences every two years in order to maintain certification. Similar concurrent enrollment programs around the country—including joint enrollment honors programs, for instance, which are similar to dual/concurrent/ECE programs except that they specifically recruit high school students into a university honors program—offer yet another way for university faculty members to connect with high school educators and their students. If your university or high school lacks a concurrent enrollment program, a great place to start learning about such a program is at the Web site of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

MA in English for Teachers

Offering courses for high school teachers allows postsecondary institutions to develop a core of highly qualified high school English teachers who are tied to our departments in myriad ways. In the state of Connecticut, teachers are required to earn a master’s degree to maintain their initial certification and to earn a second graduate degree or its equivalent to attain professional certification. The latter must include content-area-specific coursework. In my department we seized on this requirement by offering teachers an opportunity to earn that second degree (or at least to take some of the coursework for that degree) with us. Since 2010 we have offered a nonresidential track to the MA in English specifically for secondary school English teachers. This not only helps us fill classes and make sure courses run,  it also helps us meet the certification and professional development needs of the teachers. We also try to offer courses in areas like rhetoric and composition, young adult literature, and ethnic literature that are necessary for and of interest to these teachers in time slots that are favorable to their schedules. We’re also working on developing some of these courses as summer or online courses to further accommodate the needs of these teachers. We advertise this degree track to teachers as a way for them to qualify to become ECE teachers or to participate in the intensive portion of our writing center outreach program, which is when a graduate student and undergraduate tutors are dedicated to coming to a school for the purpose of training secondary students to run their peer writing center.

High School–College Partnerships

Partnerships between high schools and colleges can take many forms. Having K–12 English teachers teach first-year writing classes is a great way to build a pool of teachers for these courses. High school teachers do especially well with first-year sections designated for non-native English speakers and other students who aren’t quite ready for our regular first-year classes. In the past we have had as many as twelve high school English teachers and one Spanish teacher supplementing our core of graduate students and regular adjuncts.

This type of partnership is mutually beneficial. These high school teachers offer our students their teaching expertise. They also teach evening sections, which helps accommodate students who may have to work during the day. For the high school teachers, the benefits of teaching with a foot in each world is tremendous. They can bring their expertise with high school students to bear on their work with university students who are only one year out of high school, and they can bring their experiences with college-level writing courses, and the expectations of those courses, back to the high school classroom.

The opportunity to foster improved collaboration between the English department (or world language department) and the university’s school of education is another largely untapped source of outreach and contact. Schools of education regularly work with public schools through clinical placements, student teaching, and graduate internships, and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation requires every English department to offer a handful of core classes on topics such as advanced composition, grammar, young adult literature, ethnic literature, and world literature, in addition to a variety of historical and genre survey courses, which all preservice English teachers are required to take (NCTE Guidelines). And yet despite these requirements, English departments and schools of education, especially at large institutions such as UConn, communicate and collaborate very little.  Offering these courses can be advantageous to teachers, higher education institutions, and students of all ages.

I teach several courses that help integrate high school teachers and students into our university’s community. These courses include Advanced Composition for Prospective Teachers, which all the secondary English education majors are required to take. In this course I have my students work as reading and writing mentors to sophomores at the local high school.5

I also teach a one-credit induction course of sorts for incoming English majors who express interest in applying to the School of Education. As part of the requirements for this course, my students interview in-service middle and high school teachers. This is not merely another way to build relationships with secondary school teachers; after teaching this course for the last nine years, I now find that some of those middle and high school teachers direct their students to my class, making the course something of a recruitment tool for the English major.


Another way to collaborate with secondary schools is to hold conferences that are expressly designed for K–12 teachers or that they are welcome to attend and participate in. Again, schools of education do this all the time. Central Connecticut State University has for years run a terrific conference for K–16 educators called Literacy Essentials, but English Departments don’t typically do this. Dual or concurrent enrollment programs might; our ECE program does. But there are other avenues one might also consider.

For nearly fifteen years, our first-year writing program has held a conference on the teaching of writing. While mainly geared toward college-level writing instructors, and especially toward university faculty members involved in first-year writing programs, this conference has always been advertised to the secondary school teachers in our network, especially those high school English teachers affiliated with our NWP site and ECE program. There have always been secondary school attendees, and in fact a few over the years who have given papers or even organized panels.

Other colleges and universities like Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus and Champlain College offer young writers’ conferences for high school students and summer institutes for high school teachers, which are similar in design to what NWP sites offer. Capitalizing on conferences as a means of K–16 bridging can be as simple as making area school teachers and school districts aware of opportunities to come to an on-campus event involving university faculty members. For instance, Stacie McCormick, a faculty member in the English department at Texas Christian University, is currently planning a symposium to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. By reaching out to partners in the College of Education and recent alumni of undergraduate and graduate programs who are now working in secondary school settings, McCormick has been able to build attendance for the upcoming conference while also offering high school teachers a meaningful opportunity for professional development. Such outreach can eventually lead to more sustained partnerships, as seen, for instance, in the partnership between several faculty members in Texas Christian University’s Department of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies and Forth Worth district school teachers, who are working together to develop new curriculum for the entire district in order to infuse Latinx studies across all grade levels.

Surely there are other programs and resources beyond what I’ve described in this essay, and I invite readers to share those with me and the readers of Profession. In addition to the resources listed at the end of this essay, I recommend starting with What Is “College-Level” Writing?, volumes 1 and 2, and Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom.

Overall, I and others involved in the MLA  Committee on K–16 Alliances have found that we have many opportunities for bridge-building and that these opportunities are as rewarding for university faculty members and our students as they are for the K–12 educators and their students. The MLA has been a tremendous source of professional support for so many of us, but by allying ourselves with other professional organizations that are more directly connected with our colleagues in K–12 education, we can broaden our knowledge and our influence. I speak for all members of the MLA committee when I say that creating these types of alliances and collaborations benefits all participating institutions by promoting forms of communication and collaboration that both affirm and embody the vitality, dynamism, and relevance of our fields.


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL):

Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) Aligning for Student Success:

Association of Departments of English (ADE):

Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL):

Bread Loaf Teacher Network:

Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) Summer Institutes:

Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language, and Literacy (CERCLL):

Central Connecticut Student Writing Project:

Champlain College Young Writers’ Conference:

Common Core State Standards:

Connecticut Human Rights and Youth Action Summit, Thomas J. Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut:

Connecticut Student Writers:

Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University, Summer Young Adult Literacy Labs:

Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University, Ubuntu Academy:

Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut:

English Language Arts Teacher Educators (ELATE):

Kennesaw State University Writing Center, High School Partnerships:

Library of Congress, Center for the Book:

Library of Congress, Letters about Literature:

MLA Committee on K–16 Alliances:

MLA Working Group on K–16 Alliances:

Narrative 4:

National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP):

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

National Writing Project (NWP):

New England Young Writers’ Conference:

Oklahoma State University Teen Writers’ Camp:


Right Question Institute:

Scholastic Art and Writing Awards:

Secondary School Writing Centers Association (SSWCA):

Texas Christian University Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies:

University of Georgia Red Clay Writing Project:

University of Connecticut Early College Experience (ECE):

University of Connecticut ECE English:

University of Connecticut ECE English (Blog by Scott Campbell):

University of Connecticut, Letters about Literature Contest:

University of Connecticut MA in English for Teachers:

University of Connecticut Writing Center, Middle and High School Outreach:

The Write Space: A Blog for Teachers and Writers (by Jason Courtmanche):


1 The stated goals of the working group were to contribute to the development of the MLA’s advocacy policies and procedures on K–16 issues; identify ways to integrate the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages into the MLA’s advocacy for teaching English and other languages at all levels, paying particular attention to the indigenous American languages; identify secondary school audiences for MLA publications; advise on the development of public-facing publications; organize MLA convention sessions addressing K–16 issues; and work with other MLA committees (e.g., the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities and the Committee on Community Colleges) to strengthen pathways to careers in education for graduate-student members of the MLA.

2 The National Council of English, the National Writing Project, and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages were the major organizations with which we first collaborated. Reaching out to English Language Arts Teacher Educators came later.

3 Though our summer institutes are housed in the English department, the credits that students earn in them are accepted by every graduate degree program.

4 You can read more about our collaboration in an article Tom and I recently published in the journal WPA: Writing Program Administration (Deans and Courtmanche), but we’re not alone in this type of outreach. The most prominent example of an association that works with local high schools to establish writing centers is the Secondary School Writing Centers Association, out of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. The Kennesaw State University Writing Center has similar partnerships with high schools in Cherokee County and Paulding County, Georgia.

5 The students in my course generally read two novels in parallel with the high school students, and my students each take on two or three high school students as mentees. My students use e-mail to discuss the novels with these high school students, to help them generate ideas for writing, and then to offer feedback on drafts. I conducted a two-year study on this now fifteen-year-old partnership, a version of which was published in Nathaniel Hawthorne in the College Classroom.

Works Cited

Cassuto, Leonard. “How to Go Public, and Why We Must.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 Jan. 2018,

Courtmanche, Jason. “High School–College Partnerships and the Teaching of Hawthorne.” Nathaniel Hawthorne in the College Classroom, edited by Christopher Diller and Samuel Coale, AMS, 2016, pp. 161–71.

Deans, Thomas, and Jason Courtmanche. “How Developing a Network of Secondary School Writing Centers Can Enrich University Writing Programs.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 42, no. 2, Spring 2019, pp. 58–79.

Dicken, Paul. “You Want to Write for a Popular Audience? Really?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 June 2015,

NCTE Guidelines for the Preparation of Teachers of English Language Arts. National Council of Teachers of English, 2006,

Sullivan, Patrick, et al., editors. Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom. NCTE, 2017.

Sullivan, Patrick, and Howard Tinberg, editors. What Is “College-Level” Writing? Vol. 1, NCTE, 2006.

Sullivan, Patrick, et al., editors. What Is “College-Level” Writing? Vol. 2, NCTE, 2006.

Jason Courtmanche is assistant professor in residence in English, affiliate faculty member in teacher education, director of the Connecticut Writing Project, and assistant coordinator of Early College Experience, English, at the University of Connecticut. His publications include the book How Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Narratives Are Shaped by Sin (Edwin Mellen, 2008) and, more recently, many chapters and essays on teaching literature and writing. His blog on teaching, The Write Space, can be accessed at

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