Sunday, March 20, 2011

Preserving National Writing Project

As a teacher, I am required to complete 100 hours of "professional development" each year. For most teachers, this requirement largely consists of spending a lot of time listening to a teaching "expert" (who is likely to be something other than an actual classroom teacher) tell them how to do their jobs more effectively. As you can imagine, most teachers see right through this charade because, as any professional in any line of work knows, what works theoretically doesn't always work in reality. Many teachers feel that professional development time is so ineffective and so practically useless that it should simply be abolished, as I myself did only a few short years ago. 

Enter National Writing Project. NWP is comprised of a network of local sites that work to bring meaningful professional development to teachers -- by having teachers teach other teachers. While this concept may not seem revolutionary to those outside the field of public education, we teachers know that this kind of professional development is actually pretty revolutionary. While most teachers possess Masters degrees and other advanced education credentials, we are still too often seen as well-paid babysitters, and, I would argue, because our field is one that has traditionally been staffed by women, public perception is largely that we need oversight and guidance and regulation to show us the "right" ways to do our jobs. NWP rejects this idea outright and believes, instead, that it is classroom teachers who know what's what. And, perhaps even more impressively, NWP believes in paying teacher-experts for doing the work of sharing their knowledge with their colleagues. To the best of my knowledge, NWP is the only organization that hires full-time teachers to do all of the in-service workshops for which they are contracted, and this difference is what makes them so highly respected among those administrators who are savvy enough to hire them for professional development work in their districts.

Because NWP uses the teachers-teaching-teachers model, the work that NWP does in schools is powerful in a way I can only describe as transformative. I attended the San Diego Area Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute (SI) in 2008, and I am not only a very different teacher, but also a very different person for it. When I entered the SI, I felt like a had some really good ideas as a teacher, but that I didn't quite know how to bring them together into a cohesive approach to teaching that would resonate with my students in ways that were really meaningful. I got feedback from students each year saying that they loved this or that writing assignment or lesson, but I could tell that the work that they did in my class was not something that would move forward with them and serve as a tool for them in future classes. Before the SI, I considered myself someone who could write. Now, after the SI, I call myself a writer. And this is the same experience my students seem to have before and after they take my class. They come in feeling they can write, but they don't see writing as a part of their identity, in spite of the fact that it is a necessity in almost every line of work and they use it every single day (every few minutes if we count texting!) for the purposes of communication and socialization. NWP taught me how to approach writing in my classroom so that students could understand its centrality in their lives and find the motivation to develop it as a skill. Years after I've had students in class, I get emails thanking me for showing them how to love writing and how to do it well.

As NWP plummets off the end of the federal budget's chopping block, I am deeply saddened by the loss of all those would-be incredible writing teachers who will never discover that they can be incredible writing teachers. I'm so sorry for all of the students who will not have the transformative experience of having an NWP teacher. Most of all, though, I'm desperately hoping that our politicians will take the time to consider NWP's record and restore its funding because the research speaks for itself. NWP has proven success in raising student achievement and building better teachers. In the meantime, I will always be an NWP teacher, whether NWP exists in its current form, in a new privately-funded form, or in no formal form at all because what I've learned through NWP is not only a set of teaching practices but a mentality about teaching that has become a part of every lesson I teach. That mentality is one that asserts that all students have knowledge to share, that all students can become better writers if we teach the right skills in clear and effective ways, and that all teachers can learn the skills necessary to be able to teach writing effectively within their disciplines if we invest in their training and provide them with on-going support. I invite our policy-makers and politicians to take an hour out of one of their days and visit an NWP teacher's classroom to see our work in action. I think they'd find what everyone who cares about education is currently searching for: teaching that consistently works for students and an approach that can be applied across grade-levels and academic disciplines to raise student achievement and engagement.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Jersey Rain" by Robert Pinsky

Now near the end of the middle stretch of road
What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
That often I cannot tell good fortune from bad,
That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.
The source of art and woe aslant in wind
Dissolves or nourishes everything it touches.
What roadbank gullies and ruts it doesn't mend
It carves the deeper, boiling tawny in ditches.
It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,
The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather
To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to drench my state-
The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams and beads
Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, source of life.