WSUV professor first recipient of new grant

Michael Dunn will work with elementary school students

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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A researcher at Washington State University Vancouver is the first recipient of a new type of grant from the university’s College of Education.

Michael Dunn, who trains teachers of special education on the Vancouver campus, was awarded the Judy Nichols Mitchell faculty fellowship. He will receive $10,000 annually for the next three years to run research projects focusing on elementary school students in Clark County who are struggling with writing.

The fellowship represents a fairly new concept in college grant-giving, as it’s meant as seed money for researchers who stand a good chance of attracting larger federal or private grants once they’ve produced small-scale results.

The new Mitchell fellowship is available to any education researcher in the statewide WSU system. The leadership of the College of Education in Pullman nominated the Vancouver professor for the award, said Kim Holapa, the college’s director of development.

The fellowship is named after the late Judy Mitchell, who was the dean of the college of education from 1998-2009.

Mitchell had created the concept of a faculty fellowship at the college. Such fellowships are funded through private donations, not tax dollars, and are relatively small, Holapa said.

“It’s a creative way to encourage faculty to think bigger,” Holapa said. “The hope is that they use this funding for preliminary research and put themselves in a position to apply for larger grants.”

Basically, the fellowship is an investment of the college’s foundation into someone it believes can bring more research dollars to the school.

This particular fellowship is special because it was instigated by the late dean of the college. After Mitchell’s unexpected death in 2009, her children chose to add more of her estate into the fellowship’s endowment, which meant it was ready to pay out much sooner than it originally would have been, Holapa said.

Dunn is the first recipient in part because his work carried the promise of attracting additional federal or private grants, she said.

The former elementary schoolteacher has been working on finding better ways to teach kids who struggle with writing.

Nearly 40 percent of Washington fourth-graders don’t have the writing skills expected at their age, according to state school records. Dunn long ago noticed that some kids get stuck when they’re asked to create a story on paper.

“They have a hard time getting ideas on paper,” Dunn said.

And while he’s talking about the process of making up stories, the implications go far deeper. Creating a story -- planning its elements, organizing the flow and assembling it on paper or screen -- is an essential skill that carries over to conducting science experiments or compiling political histories, for example, Dunn said.

At some point, Dunn asked students who were unable to produce text on the page a deceptively simple question -- why don’t you draw it first?

Out of that came the system he’ll be refining through the research process -- ART, which stands for Ask, Reflect, Text.

It begins with formulating questions, such as who should be in the story and what they’ll be doing and how.

Next comes reflecting on possible answers to those questions, which is where the pictures come in. The students illustrate their answers in simple pictures. Expressing their basic story blocks in pictures means they don’t have to worry about spelling, for example, while they’re being creative. There’s time for that in the next step.

Finally, they write out a story based on the pictures they drew.

Dunn suspects that current tests classify some students as having a learning disability who merely need a little extra attention with their writing skills, or a different method. Establishing this, and parameters on which students to reach with ART, will be the focus of his upcoming research in the county.

Dunn already has used his teaching method on small numbers of students in the Evergreen school district, with promising results. Students with and without learning disabilities showed improved results on writing tests after his 25-day interventions, he said.

The research so far has focused on second- to fourth-grade students. Dunn hopes to attract more grants as more results become available -- from the Gates Foundation’s Pacific Northwest Community Grants, for example. And he wants to expand the work to other school districts, including Vancouver.

In the next year, he plans to focus on children of Native American heritage, he said. As the research goes on, he hopes to involve more general-classroom teachers and grow his efforts to teach more kids how to put their thoughts to paper.

It’s a goal that would have sat well with the fellowship’s namesake. Mitchell, the late dean, spent her life teaching kids to read and write.

“That was her research agenda,” said Holapa, the development director. “Literacy was her thing.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.