The Humanity

I didn’t say this because I wasn’t sure I should. I’m a teacher, and I’m also a human being.  I know, I know, it’s hard to believe.  First I don’t sleep in my classroom… then this.

People from the National Writing Project don’t ask me to be ashamed of spending time writing.  They softened my attitude toward writing, and myself.  They suggested that the more I wrote, the better I would be able to teach writing to others.  In the world of public education, this is heretical.  Teachers should be grading papers all weekend– not practicing what they preach, right?

I took writing courses in college. The first one usually sent me back to my dorm for a good cry.  The other one bored me to tears.

I still wrote on my own.  Journals, fiction, poems.  I couldn’t stop myself.  But I felt awkward sharing my work, and the process of submitting to journals and magazines was discouraging.

When I started teaching writing to high school students, all I really knew how to do was give assignments and grade them.  Nothing in my education classes covered writing instruction.  During my first Writing Project class, they didn’t tell us how to teach writing.  Instead, we wrote.  We met in an old house that had been converted to a meeting space.  The first time I was asked to read my piece, I wanted to run upstairs and hide in the claw foot bathtub.  I thought I might die.  I didn’t.

With practice, sharing what I wrote was not the same as taking off my clothes.  I realized that I hadn’t charmed anyone with writing since elementary school.  In 3rd grade, I wrote little storybooks for my classmates about the Stuff family.  The Stuffs were little blobs whose chapeau looked suspiciously like those of  the Berenstain Bear family.  I churned out volume after volume for my classmates.  My audience was authentic and receptive.  It made all the difference.

Because my Writing Project colleagues were so open and supportive, I began to think that maybe I could find an authentic receptive audience for my adult writing, too.  They liked my ode to macaroni and cheese, and my serious pieces on teaching.  Maybe I could get things published.  Maybe people could give me helpful suggestions.  Maybe I wasn’t a great writer or a bad one.  Maybe, like most people, I was somewhere in between.  I observed myself as a writer, noticed what I did and what helped me.  I listened to other teachers discuss their writing and how it evolved.  I did my own research about methods of teaching writing.  I was learning to teach writing, not just assign it.

How could I teach my students those things if I didn’t really believe them myself? How could I encourage them to open up when I was so shut down myself?  You can’t teach what you don’t know.

People aren’t multiple choice, and they’re not matching.  Writing addresses their unique human needs, providing the opportunity to reflect and explore and connect. National Writing Project colleagues treated me like a human being.  They empowered me to be more human with my students, and make writing a more authentic and productive part of my classroom.

The National Writing Project has recently been defunded at the federal level, and many of us who have benefitted from their efforts are disheartened.  Taxpayer dollars have been very well spent by this organization, as research has proven, and it deserves continued support.

For more information, see: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3507

Why We Should Fund the National Writing Project

The National Writing Project has a suspiciously vague name, and does suspiciously vague things.  focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.  They “focus” teachers on “efforts to improve writing.” Using our federal tax dollars.  It sounds like a lot of liberal flimflam.

But some of the most effective work happens when you start with people who are experts (teachers, not administrators or college professors) and give them room and protection to work in the gray areas.  It happens when you provide an opportunity for teachers across grade levels and disciplines to collaborate.  The National Writing Project does have quantitative research to prove its effectiveness (see http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/2668 ).  The qualitative information I can add should merely reinforce this.

Many, if not most, education programs start with a deficit mentality.  What are teachers missing, and how can we pour it in their heads and convince them to do it?  The problem is, people tractable enough and naive enough to follow blindly are not the people we want alone in classrooms with our children, day after day.

Teachers are experts in education.  They are the ones in classrooms.  They are the ones who know the kids, and what works and what doesn’t.  You wouldn’t ask the CEO of a hospital how to perform brain surgery.  You’d ask a brain surgeon.

The National Writing Project treats teachers as experts.  Because they start with this premise, teachers are immediately set at ease and empowered.  No other education training I’ve had has offered the inspiration and intellectual challenge I have gained working with Writing Project colleagues.

My classroom is such a demanding, fast-moving place that I need direction and support for careful inquiry into educational theory and practice.  I need people around me who will give me that space, and encourage me to go beyond easy answers.  I have found those people in the Writing Project’s classes and conferences.  My creativity, flexibility, and intellectual curiosity have all been strengthened by the organization.

We spend enormous sums testing students, often to tell us what a teacher could have explained with two minutes and three words.  We spend tons of money training teachers who are already great at what they do, and already know better than anyone what is needed by their students.  Our funds would be far better spent in helping teachers to lead the way, through programs like the National Writing Project.