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Obituaries » Dr. Ellen H. Brinkley

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September 11, 1944 - November 11, 2020

In accordance with her wish cremation will take place and she will be laid to rest during a private ceremony at First United Methodist Church. Memorial contributions may be made to First United Methodist Church, c/o the funeral home.

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Age 76, passed away at home on Wednesday, November 11, 2020. She was born in Charleston, WV, on September 11, 1944, the daughter of the late Carle and Dorothy (Davis) Henson. Dr. Brinkley was a national and State of Michigan leader in supporting the teaching of writing in public schools. Graduating from the University of Charleston in West Virginia with a BA degree in English (1969), and from Western Michigan University with an MA in English (1973). In the 1980’s Dr. Brinkley taught at Madeira High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. In that role, she became a fellow and a teacher consultant for the Ohio Writing Project. The National Writing Project is the nation’s largest network of teachers and scholars focused on improving the teaching of writing and learning and has over 175 sites in almost all states. In 1985 Ellen received the Center of Excellence Award from the National Council of the Teachers of English for her work developing a writing center and supporting student writing at her high school. She returned to Michigan and became an instructor at WMU, while she also worked on her PhD in English at Michigan State University. Her doctoral work focused on composition and reading theory and English education, and her dissertation on assessing curricula in English was completed and doctorate awarded in 1991.  At WMU she became an assistant professor of English that same year, and soon thereafter an associate (1995) and full professor (2001). At WMU Dr. Brinkley was a much admired and loved professor and colleague.  She taught a dozen different undergraduate and graduate courses for aspiring and practicing English teachers.  She served on dissertation committees, was elected to, and served on many departmental committees including serving as chair of the governing Policy Committee.  She was a caring and passionate teacher who always found the best in her students, inspiring them to care deeply about the ideas, voices, and writing of young people. While at WMU she was best known as the founder and Director of the Third Coast Writing Project, a National Writing Project site, which she established in 1994. As site director, she coordinated and led a variety of summer and academic year programs, overseeing the professional development in the teaching of writing for hundreds of public-school teachers who themselves became consultants and led school-based professional development. To support these teachers and their work, Dr. Brinkley wrote and was awarded grants for more than 1.4 million dollars. Pen Campbell and Corey Harbaugh, teachers who worked with Dr. Brinkley in the Third Coast Writing Project, said of her, “Ellen Brinkley invited and inspired teachers to find their voices as writers, and, in turn, to invite and inspire their students to do the same.”  Dr. Brinkley believed public schools should welcome examination of controversial topics and ideas, and her 1999 book Caught Off Guard: Teachers Rethinking Controversy and Censorship helped teachers foster intellectual freedom and navigate controversial issues.  This book showed schools how to develop district-wide policies supporting freedom of speech, and deal with community pressure and questions of religion in schools and censorship.  She was a tireless speaker and public schools advocate giving over sixty public addresses on censorship and on the teaching of writing and English. Dr. Brinkley was also an active scholar. In addition to her book and professional presentations she also published 10 book chapters and 30 articles in professional journals, and was the primary investigator on many grants including from the Michigan Department of Education, the National Writing Project, and the Michigan Council for the Arts and Public Affairs. At the national level, Dr. Brinkley was Chair of the National Writing Project Rural Sites Network, overseeing 60 national writing project sites across the country (1999-2003).  She was highly active and served as a leader in several national commissions and committees in the National Council of the Teachers of English. She was a leader in the National Writing Project, for eight years organizing their Directors’ Retreat.  She was also active in The Conference on College Composition and Communication, the International Reading Association, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. Over the last 30 years, Dr. Brinkley emerged a one of the leading figures in the development and assessment of writing in the State of Michigan.  She served as president of the Michigan Council of the Teachers of English (1992-93), planning, and leading their annual conference, and overseeing the work of the organization’s committees, programs, and projects. For the Michigan Department of Education, Dr. Brinkley served as one of four primary authors of the State of Michigan High School Language Arts Standards and Content Expectations (2005-2006). She was the primary author and project manager of the Michigan Proficiency Examination Framework for Writing (MEAP, 1993).  She co-authored the Guidelines for the Preparation of Teachers of English Language Arts (1996). Multiple times she was elected state chair of Michigan Writing Project Sites, and she was a founding member of Michigan for Public Education and their newsletter editor since 1994. Dr. Brinkley worked with SW Michigan area English teachers to publish Home and Other Places: Voices of SW Michigan (New Issues Press, 1998).  She was an active consultant to school districts in SW Michigan including in Kalamazoo, Grand Haven, Benton Harbor, Jackson, Allegan, Fennville, East Grand Rapids, Berrien Springs, and St. Joseph. In 2002, Dr. Brinkley was the recipient of the highest honor of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, the Charles Carpenter Fries Award presented “in recognition of a distinguished career in the teaching of English and dedication to the advancement of the profession.” As founding Director of Third Coast Writing Project @ WMU, Ellen was a recognized leader in the National Writing Project’s Rural Sites Network, and under her leadership, TCWP was one of six national sites selected to participate in the three-year Rural Voices, Country Schools project. The project focused on effective teaching in America’s rural and small-town schools with a special focus on writing and honoring local voices and places. The project led to the publication of Home and Other Places: The Voices of Southwest Michigan, a collection of writing from students, teachers, and others around rural SW Michigan. The project was also included in a collection of NPR stories in the Rural Voices Radio project which was broadcast across the country. Perhaps Ellen’s greatest impact through TCWP was on the teaching of writing in schools and on teachers who learned to become writers themselves. Hundreds of teachers wrote side by side with Ellen and learned to write side by side with their students. Countless pieces of writing exist because Ellen Brinkley invited and inspired teachers to find their voices as writers, and to in turn invite and inspire their students to do the same in their classrooms. Through Invitational Summer Institutes, professional development offerings, and the numerous other TCWP programs and events, Ellen modeled the essence of a true and gifted educator. Her intelligence, professionalism, firm, but gentle grace, her joy and deep belief in the power of teaching and writing inspired and sustained the many, many teachers whose lives she touched. Those lucky enough to work with Ellen witnessed the power of writing to create community and collegiality, especially through the random acts of poetry that erupted whenever Third Coast colleagues traveled or worked together. Limericks were written and left on bar napkins and in other public places. But only in the best of taste. Ellen saw to that. Though of course, as a lifelong opponent of censorship, she certainly never stood in the way of art. On December 22, 1967, she married the love of her life Paul “Max” Brinkley who survives. They were by each other’s side for more than 52 years. She is also survived by two children, Matthew (Nikki) Brinkley and Sarah Brinkley; two grandchildren, Maisy Newton and Elliot Brinkely; a sister, Mary Jo Moore; many dear friends. She was also preceded in passing by a brother, Carle Henson II.