Monday, April 4, 2011

The National Writing Project: Social Enterprise in Education

Over 30 years ago a small group of educators in Berkeley, led by James Gray, launched the Bay Area Writing Project (BWP). They did so with a deep commitment to the value of knowledge gained through experience in the classroom by teachers. Inspired by the collaborative model of professional development developed by the Curriculum Study Commission at the legendary Asilomar English Language Arts Conferences, they brought together the best teachers of writing for five week summer institutes where teachers wrote, shared demonstration lessons of what they did in the classroom, and read the latest educational research and theory related to the teaching of writing. Most of all they fostered a reflective approach to teaching, which caught fire and grew into the National Writing Project (NWP). Sites spread around the country through the entrepreneurial work of leaders like Tom Gage (Redwood Writing Project), Sheridan Blau (South Coast Writing Project), and Don Gallehr (Northern Virginia Writing Project) (to name three I that I know). At the heart of the growth of the Writing Project is a principle that can be found in many social ventures today operating in the sphere of social entrepreneurship: co-constructing solutions with stakeholders.

The professional development model at the heart of the BWP and the NWP rests on three very basic principles:
  1. the best teacher of a teacher is another teacher (rather than an outside "expert")
  2. the best teachers of writing write themselves
  3. to improve student outcomes and learning teachers must live in a state of constant reflection and learning themselves

Rather than merely providing strategies or solutions, the Project encourages teachers to interrogate strategies, asking questions about who, when, why, how, and how often particular strategies should be used with particular students and groups of students. Like professionals in other fields, the NWP model supports the development of judgment, that is, the application of knowledge from research, theory, and practice to particular cases. Teaching, like writing can never be reduced to a series of steps followed in lockstep, as writing development is multi-dimensional (involves the development of different kinds of knowledge) and non-linear (happens at different rates of time for different individuals). The NWP approach supports the professional status of teachers in a way that no other program of professional development has ever done.

In 1991 the site began receiving federal dollars to support its work, which under the leadership of former Executive Director Richard Sterling helped to scale up the project, reaching the level it is now with over 200 sites around the United States. Federal funding also put within reach the vision shared by the leaders of NWP everywhere: placing a Writing Project site within the reach of every teacher; this dream is still alive!

So what now? In spite of the fact that we have lost federal funding, I want to argue that the NWP does not need saving. The network will survive. The principles that have guided us in the past will continue to help us provide the highest quality professional development available. We will need to reinvent our structure, perhaps competing for some funds at the federal level, but with an increased emphasis of working at the state and local level, with the local level being key as it always has been. Knowing the quality of teachers in the Writing Project, my prediction is that the network will not only survive, it will thrive as the leadership embraces the entrepreneurial spirit that supported the early founders of the NWP. Here's why the Project will prevail.

  • Writing remains a critical ability for economic participation, civic engagement, and personal growth.
  • The need for professional development related to writing has never been greater. Teacher education programs have been unable to provide much focused instruction to teacher candidates in writing; given the rapid changes in writing, technology, and culture ongoing professional development related to writing is a necessity.
  • The National Writing Project has the cultural capacity, tools, and knowledge to provide the very best professional development available today.
I look forward to working with my colleagues here in Northern Virginia at the NVWP and across the country in continuing to improve writing instruction in our nation's schools, to supporting the professional status of teachers of language arts, and to fostering the knowledge we need to fulfill our obligations to students.