Please restore federal funding to the National Writing Project!
I say “please” because I’m a nice person and because I believe in courtesy, but I have to say that I’m pretty upset. Which is pretty uncomfortable for a “Nebraska nice” native Nebraskan like me. I’m upset because the National Writing Project and its affiliated local sites produce the best professional development for teachers that I have seen in almost 20 years in education. Its programs have been doing immense good for students, for teachers, and for communities, and it has been doing so for over 30 years for a tiny fraction of a sliver of the federal budget. And yet this program is being cut. It makes me incredibly sad. And mad. Mostly mad.
But I’m trying to channel that anger into productive blogging. In 2000 I applied for my first NWP-funded Summer Institute with the Nebraska Writing Project because people who had been through it before told me, “It will change your life.” Though these were teachers I most respected, I had my doubts. I’d been through enough wretchedly worthless teacher in-service to be pretty cynical about such things. But they were very persuasive. “No, seriously,” they said. “It will change your life. It will seriously change your life.”
I’m using italics to try to capture the emphatic quality of the urgings of these teachers, but typography can only do so much. It was like they were in some kind of super-powerful teacher cult. They were smiling really broadly when they said these things, too, and their eyes were bright. That’s something you just don’t see in veteran teachers very often. So I applied. And by the end of June of 2000, I was in the cult, too.
It seriously changed my life.
To which, I know, some people will say, “Yay for you. Who cares?” Which I totally understand. Just because we’re teachers doesn’t mean that we aren’t self-indulgent and full of exaggeration. But I want to be clear that the way it changed my life meant that it would also change the lives of the 1,000+ students I taught after that summer. And that it would change the lives of the hundreds of teachers I have worked with since that year. And that it would then go on to change the lives of the thousands of students that they have taught. And that those teachers would go on to tell their teacher friends about this amazing program that seriously changed their lives.
I could go on and on, but let me bring it down to three core beliefs of the National Writing Project which drive its work and which account for its success:
1. The best teachers of writing are writers themselves.
My experience with the National Writing Project immersed me in my own writing and made me a writer again. This, in turn helped me understand how to help my students become writers—writers who sincerely care about what they are writing, why they are writing, and for whom they are writing. As it turns out, this caring thing makes all the difference. When I write along with my students, we inspire and support one another. We understand one another. Our writing improves tremendously. More importantly, however, we all learn that we can write and that our words can really mean something, to other people as well as to ourselves.
2. The best teachers of teachers are other teachers.
The worst thing about most other professional development and in-service programs is that they employ “consultants” or “experts” who then tell teachers how they should be teaching. This approach goes over about as well as one might expect. In contrast, when teachers are teaching each other as in the National Writing Project model—sharing good ideas, engaging in classroom inquiry together, learning new technology, practicing writing activities—that’s when real learning happens. And that’s when teachers start wanting to teach better because they see so many possibilities for doing so.
3. Teachers thrive when they are supported in a network that also serves as a professional and intellectual home.
Teaching is really, really, really difficult. So teachers need lots of support and a place where they can find it consistently. Over 200 National Writing Project sites around the country do this for teachers every day.
Summer Institutes like the one I first attended are just the beginning for most teachers who go on to become teacher-consultants in their communities who write and earn grants, conduct in-services, sponsor after-school writing groups, attend and present sessions at conferences, access technology and publishing forums for their students—all through their connections with National Writing Project sites and networks. These sites are invaluable resources to teachers in so many ways.
On Saturday, I will drive three hours to a town in northeast Nebraska in a carpool with two other teachers who have become two of my best friends. We will be meeting up with other teachers in other towns to participate in a writing marathon, one of the most engaging writing activities I’ve ever learned how to do, and one that I learned from the National Writing Project. We’ll explore the local landscape, write, eat, laugh, talk about teaching and writing, and then drive back. We’ll be tired but refreshed, renewed in our understanding of the power of writing and our commitment to teaching it well.
I know that we will talk of the federal budget cuts, too—of friends who have lost jobs and of resources our students will no longer be able to use because of these cuts. We will become sad and mad all over again. Mostly mad. But also more determined than ever to tell our stories and to restore funding to a program we know is one of the best models for real education reform in this country.
Please click here to hear the voices of my former students and I sharing our collaborative poem about our lives and our school, “I Am From.”