The National Writing Project: A University-based Teacher-centered Partnership Program

by James Gray and Richard Sterling

When the Bay Area Writing Project opened its doors to teachers in the summer of 1974, it offered teachers a program unlike any other they had experienced. The BAWP vision, conceived by a small group of classroom teachers, faculty and administrators at UC Berkeley, moved to improve writing in the schools by creating a new model for continuing education, one that recognized the expertise, knowledge and leadership potential of classroom teachers. We were prodded to action by what we saw as the failure of the profession to understand that writing is fundamental to learning. We found this lack of interest, this almost total neglect, inexplicable.

New teachers were trained to teach reading but not writing. Not a single university in the country offered a course on the teaching of writing for students in teacher training. Little writing was going on in the schools and little was being written by students at home. Federal research money was available in the field of reading but not in writing, and the Modern Language Association, at its huge annual conferences, scheduled no sections on the teaching of writing. An academic whose field of interest was rhetoric was frequently regarded as a pariah by his colleagues. If in the schools there were teachers who cared about teaching writing and were successful, they had learned on their own in the cauldron of their classrooms.

More fundamentally, neither the universities nor the schools gave any serious attention to the continuing education of classroom teachers. Some schools offered teachers a staff development day at the beginning of each new school year. After the coffee and doughnuts, teachers would gather to hear the annual speech, then go to a favorite restaurant for a long and enjoyable lunch, and at some time in mid-afternoon reassemble back at the school for department meetings to decide who would get the set of A Tale of Two Cities the first six weeks. If there were occasional workshops offered during the school year, they usually focused on particular school problems (tardiness, behavior in the halls, detecting lice in the hair) and seldom, if ever, on the content of methods of teaching. In their teacher education programs, universities gave all of their attention to programs that prepared students for teaching credentials. There were no regular programs­except continuing education and summer school courses­for practicing teachers. The rare special programs for teachers that universities might offer, such as the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) English Institutes of the late 60s, were all based on the traditional 'top-down' summer school model: the professors spoke and the teachers­no matter how successful or informed they might have been­listened. At the end of the four or six week summer programs, there was no attempt to keep the teachers involved, no plans for the teachers sharing what they had learned with other teachers, nothing!

And teachers sat at the bottom of the hierarchical totem pole of educational policy makers. Their voices were seldom asked for or heard. Decisions on curriculum, instruction and staffing were made by those who were not teaching in the classrooms­that is, school board members, school and district administrators, university administrators, staff members of county and state departments of education.

Those of us who planned the new Bay Area Writing Project were determined to make a change­to do it better.

Doing it better meant turning past models and worn-out traditions upside down. The changes that we made led to the birth and extraordinary success of th Bay Area Writing Project which in turn led to its replication across California and the entire country. Over its twenty-two year history the Writing Project has continued to evolve and refine itself as it continues to grow at the local site level, statewide, and nationally, yet the initial changes the Writing Project made in the early 70s are the changes we believe must still be made in order to make school reform possible and effective.

The Writing Project is basically one of teachers teaching teachers. It is one in which teachers come together regularly, year after year, in a variety of summer and school-year programs led by classroom teachers who have been trained by the writing project to talk to each other about teaching, about approaches that have worked, about successful ways to solve the problems teachers face. It's a model based on the assumption that the best classroom teachers­and we know they can be found in all regions of the country­make the best teachers of other teachers. Such teachers are believable to other teachers as no outside consultant can ever be. They know the classrooms and they know the students and they know the problems. These Writing Project teacher teaching-teacher programs have captured the hearts of teachers all across the country. Over 146,000 teachers each year now attend National Writing Project programs, and close to 1,250,000 teachers have participated in Writing Project programs since the BAWP offered its first program in the summer of 1974.

Everything starts with the design and content of the Invitational Summer Institutes at the local NWP sites, the linchpin of all Writing Project programs. Each institute is planned and coordinated by a team, usually one university and one classroom teacher. But most of the teaching is done by the participating teachers, usually 25 per institute, who have been drawn from all levels of instruction, elementary school through university. Each participant is scheduled for one to two hours to demonstrate an approach to teaching writing- -some actual practice that the participant has had success with in his or her classroom. Most participants have never been asked to do anything like this before. Keith Caldwell, a participant in the project's first summer program, asked the other teachers in his school year workshops that followed the Institute: "How many of you have ever been asked to demonstrate some teaching practice to other teachers?" In 1974, and for many years to come, not one hand was raised. In addition to the demonstration of successful practices, participants also write a great deal, choosing varied forms and subjects, and discussing their pieces in regularly scheduled editing/response groups. Lastly, teachers read, discuss and write about key research and important works in the literature of the field.

These teachers, all successful in their own classrooms, discover quickly that teaching teachers is not the same as teaching students. After the experience of a five-week Institute where they all have witnessed and participated in each other's trial run workshop, and have participated in one-on-one coaching sessions with other teachers and the staff, most of the teachers develop a good sense of what it takes to become equally successful as a teacher of other teachers.

The summer institute is the Writing Project's first step toward recognizing teachers' authority and expertise in the world of teaching. When the Writing Project asks teachers to demonstrate what they know about teaching writing, it is tapping knowledge from practice, the single most important resource to improve teaching and learning in the nation's schools and the one most ignored by the education profession. When we train a corps of Teacher Consultants we are acknowledging that successful classroom teachers are the profession's natural teacher educators.

This preparation of teacher leaders is reinforced in several ways:

Given the traditional paradigm for education research that has prevailed for so long, and the usual ways that new knowledge is created, acknowledged and disseminated, it is perhaps not surprising that Writing Projects have been opposed by some. Indeed, the Writing Project's zeal in recognizing the expertise of our best classroom teachers and developing their place as leaders within the world of professional educators has been met with opposition by many in academe, particularly from researchers in the field of writing. Throughout the twenty-two years of the Writing Project, we have endured a steady stream of criticism from some academics while at the same time, ironically, other academics are seeking to bring in the Writing Project to their campuses. And what we have heard over the years is always a variation on the same note, that is, it is beyond belief that teachers could be recognized as knowing anything. A sampling of what has been said:

"The Bay Area Writing Project is nothing but sophisticated Show-and Tell."
"The writing project is the blind leading the blind."
"Teachers not only don't know anything, but worse, they don't want to know anything."
"Teacher knowledge is just impressionistic."
"Those National Writing Project teachers don't know anything!"
"What those writing project teachers need is MY COURSE!"

It is not surprising that classroom teachers have been ignored if those who are recognized leaders make such comments. Because we continue to hear such comments in the mid-90s as we once heard them in the mid 70s, it is likely that teacher-based reform movements such as the Writing Project will probably need additional time for total acceptance.

The Writing Project has always believed that any effective effort to improve teaching and learning must put classroom teachers at the center. It is in the classroom that the ultimate test of reform will take place, and, if changes are to succeed, they must be embraced by our strongest and best teachers. Otherwise reform will go nowhere.


Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

© 2014 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
Terms of Use Contact YNHTI