Recent cuts to the 2011 federal budget have ended funding for the National Writing Project (NWP), an organization I care about deeply (full disclosure: for several years it has provided me a part-time job, something most teachers need). NWP received $27 million in 2010 and distributed much of it to over 200 writing project sites around the country in operating grants of under $50,000.
When I was in my third year of teaching, I participated in the West Virginia Writing Project’s “Invitational Summer Institute,” an intense program of writing, of reading research and teachers’ stories of teaching writing, and of designing and presenting demonstration lessons. This experience, as it is for many of the thousands of teachers each year who participate in NWP programs around the country, was career changing. Life changing, in some ways.
Before that, in my education classes and in professional development offerings by my school and district, I had understood that someone else had the answers and becoming a teacher, a good teacher, was a matter of doing what I was told in ways that I was told research said would work. Unfortunately, research could be found that said just about anything would work. In practice, I, like most beginning teachers, found the actual classroom experience daunting, challenging, exhausting, and often filled with failure by students who seemed to lack the skills and motivation to achieve, especially when asked to set pencil to paper.
Dr. Fran Simone, who served as director of West Virginia Writing Project at that time, created an atmosphere in which each teacher felt valued as a member of a professional community searching for the best possible answers to the questions and challenges the classroom experience presented. We became better writers and created a caring community by sharing our stories, which were often personal in nature. Over a few weeks of full day workshops and evenings working on our own writing, we learned more from each other than from any article or book that we read, though we learned from them as well, especially the ones written by other classroom teachers whose writing was more accessible than university based researchers, and whose classroom experiences rang true. Through this transformative experience, I became a better teacher, a better person—one who began learning to nurture the voices of students, to encourage their self-expression and through that to impact their skills and their motivation to learn.
In the years that followed that experience, I implemented many of the practices and lessons I had observed—not all at once, but as I was ready and able. Eventually, I became a leader and innovator, and have been recognized by NWP and the College Board for the work I’ve done at Ruffner Elementary School. In a perfect world, the type of professional learning community created through the NWP model would be re-created in every school and district in the country. However, it rarely occurs in schools.
Perhaps it is too much to expect teachers to share their successes and failures, frustrations, their personal stories with those who evaluate them and pay their salaries. Perhaps only an outside player like NWP, a university/district collaboration, can fill that role.
During my twenty-four year teaching career, I have had the opportunity to do for others what Dr. Simone did for me: facilitate professional learning communities with teachers who come voluntarily during the summer to improve their classroom practice involving writing. Now this program may come to an end. It will not cause closures of schools or layoffs of large numbers of teachers. It will not immediately impact student achievement throughout the country. However, multiple studies have found that students of teachers who have been through NWP programs on average write significantly better than students of teachers who don’t.
In a time when the challenges teachers face and the expectations the public has for them continue to mount, we should be putting more funding into cost effective programs such as NWP, which leverages support at three dollars for each federal dollar.
Some argue that the role of the federal government should be limited to defense, enforcing laws, and providing (as little as possible) for the neediest among us. Education, they insist, is only a local concern. But it takes more than a village to raise a nation of children who will be able to compete in this global economy, and we should not be throwing out any effective programs that are improving their chances of doing so.