A week or so ago, I learned that the federal funding for the National Writing Project has been terminated. I am so disheartened, and have been seeing this incredible organization in everything I do in my classroom ever since. This change in funding seems like one more strike against rational, thoughtful, smart teaching, one more blow against the possibility of this generation of kids actually becoming educated in a productive way. My work with the National Writing Project has supported my growth and that of my students by encouraging inquiry and sharing and creativity in my classroom since 1996, and I am so thankful for it.
I knew about the National Writing Project even before I was a teacher. In 1980 a friend came to town to spend a few weeks at my house while she went to the Northern California Writing Project’s Summer Institute. It looked like a lot of fun to me. Lots of writing, and reading and comradery with colleagues. I wanted some of that, and was disappointed that it was only open to teachers. Sixteen years later I, too, was a teacher and I finally received an invitation to that same Summer Institute. I was ecstatic.
That summer lived up to my expectations and beyond. I wrote so much, and read so many great professional books and articles – my head was spinning. The reading and writing was topped off with daily presentations of effective lessons, given by experienced teachers. Even though I was a high school ELD teacher, I found things I could use in every presentation, from Kindergarten teachers all the way through middle school and college. I could hardly wait to go back to school in the fall and try on my new ideas.
How has the National Writing Project impacted me and my students since this summer so long ago? Through workshops, institutes and other inquiry-based collaboration, I have learned to question the things I do in the classroom, and to look for different ways to teach my students. Ways that would respect their capabilities and encourage them to reach and grow. I learned to expect more from my students, all of whom are English Learners. I learned that if I asked more of them and gave them the support structure they needed to be successful in school, they would stretch and try new things. They would learn to challenge themselves and ultimately, they would prosper because of it.
Through my work with the National Writing Project, I met colleagues from all over the United States, and learned to collaborate, both online and in person over how best to meet the needs of all our students. I read the work of experts in the field and found that the ones who made the most sense to me were invariably Writing Project fellows. I noticed that they shared a common interest in looking at what wasn’t working as well as we’d like it to, and figuring out new and better ways to teach. I attended smart and practical professional development sessions, and when I discovered something that I found effective, I shared it in presentations with other Writing Project fellows.
Never have I felt such collegial support on such a wide scale as I have experienced with the National Writing Project. I was encouraged to share my ideas in writing, and to publish them for others to read. My colleagues in the Writing Project were encouraging and supportive of the things I had figured out about teaching my students, and always ready to share their ideas and experiences in return.
Early in my time with the Writing Project, I did an inquiry project with a group of students. I was given permission by my building administrator to work with the same students for two years, as we were making incredible progress in reading at the end of the first year. None of the students in my class had ever read voluntarily, and over those two years something magical happened. Many of these students became people who read for pleasure. I tried new things, and working closely with my Writing Project mentor, asked deep questions of myself and my students. At the end of the second year, as I prepared a presentation to deliver at the National Writing Project’s annual meeting, I shared my ideas with my students first, and asked them for feedback. I told them that I wanted to make sure I was telling their story accurately. They responded confidently, with suggestions for improvement and clarification. At the end of that year, they wrote that the inquiry and trying out new things had made them feel respected and capable as students. That is what the Writing Project does – help create successful and confident teachers and students.
I know without a doubt that I am a better teacher and my students are more successful because I’m a National Writing Project teacher. I believe it is imperative that this opportunity continues to be available to teachers and students everywhere.