Monday, April 4, 2011
I found out about the National Writing Project at my first ever NCTE in Orlando, FL in 1994. I was a Master's student at the University of Tennessee in Dr. Ted Hipple's Paideia program; Dr. Hipple encouraged his students to become involved with NCTE, particularly with ALAN, but I had a love for composition forming long before. Perhaps it was this love that led me to Dixie Gotswami's session where she and several other people were discussion the summer Breadloaf program. After the session ended I approached Dixie and asked her more about the program. She told me then about the National Writing Project, something I would not forget.
When I secured my first teaching job in Charlotte, NC, I was teaching French in a high-needs middle school. At the time the state required all students to take a foreign language at all levels (unheard of, right?), so my French certification would not be ignored. But my love was English--teaching writing and analyzing literature, so when I was able to apply for other positions, I felt very fortunate to secure one at a high school teaching 9th grade English. I knew I needed to brush up on my skills: I remembered my conversation with Dixie about the NWP. I did my research and discovered that the University of North Carolina at Charlotte had a writing project. I called and asked if UNCC had an institute: They told me they did, but that it was invitation only. I was disheartened. Yet, I persisted, calling them back the next day. The director told me to submit all the required application materials, and I would be considered with the other applicants. I was called in for the interview, got a slot in the 1997 summer institute, and my teaching has never been the same.
Through my participation in that summer institute, under the direction of Sam Watson, Karen Haag, and Nodgia Fesperman, I learned
*that sharing is the cornerstone to teaching
*that teachers are the best source of their own professional development
*that teachers who consider themselves to be writers help develop students who see themselves as writers
*that a good lesson can be modified to any grade or age level
*that grading, evaluation, assessment, and feedback are totally different entities when it comes to writing assessment
*that learning to teach writing, like learning to write, is a lifetime job.
I didn't realize I'd learned all this during that intense summer institute. I thought I'd learned some neat tools, how to revise my own writing, how to keep a daybook, and all about portfolios. As my first year teaching freshman English in inclusion and honors classrooms went on, however, I realized some powerful seeds had been planted. I couldn't even look at the hamburger model for the 5 paragraph essay. Certainly, I gave my students tips and tools to achieve success in the test writing genre, but what really became central in our daily interaction, because of NWP, was writing. We wrote something everyday, and I include myself in this because I wrote with my students, as I was taught in my summer institute. We wrote, and we read, and we shared.
Eventually I did leave the public school classroom, but I returned to Charlotte to teach at the same university where I had been enrolled in the Writing Project. While teaching in the College of Education there, a young man emailed me. It was a former student from my days as an English teacher in the high school. I remembered this young man as very quiet in a a large honors English class, with 32 students who kept me on my toes with their brilliance and craftiness. The email from the former student told me that he remembered the writing we had done, that he was working in a bookstore now, and that he was trying to make his living as a writer. I was pleasantly surprised. I don't take credit for this young man's life decision, but I do have to attribute some of my enthusiasm for teaching during those years to the National Writing Project.
As an Assistant Professor at UNCC, I was involved with the Writing Project under the direction of Lil Brannon. Tony Scott and I co-led a NWP Urban Sites grant , and Mrs. Karen Haag and co-led the NWP Teacher Research group. Both of these programs are advanced institutes for teachers to extend their knowledge in areas of significance and importance to them. The ongoing and sustained professional development offered by NWP supports conceptual growth over time, unlike the one-shot workshops and seminars that teachers are forced to attend against their wills in the name of student learning.
The teachers I met through NWP experiences illuminate the false stories of teachers who work for summers off and "free" benefits: Teachers like Lacy Manship, a kindergarten teacher who redefines literacy with her students.
Having moved to another university, I still feel the ripples of NWP through colleagues who were at one time participants. Each of us agrees that the experience of writing with, of talking about, of sharing over time with other teachers of writing changed us fundamentally as teachers.
As the funding for National Writing Project is labeled unnecessary spending, I join those who have been shaped by NWP in calling attention to power this project really has for teachers. I add my voice to those who declare that, indeed, I can attribute my success to the National Writing Project.