'Teachers Teaching Teachers' Is Key to Writing Project's Success
Each summer, 25 teachers gather at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. for a five-week summer program. But unlike many of their colleagues, who venture into the groves of academe to learn from university faculty members, these teachers come to learn about writing from other schoolteachers.
Under the auspices of the National Writing Project (nwp), they and 2,100 other teachers will gather next summer at about 85 college and university campuses in 41 states.
The premise behind the writing project is simple: teachers can best learn from other teachers how to write and how to teach writing. Project officials have developed seven "assumptions" on which the project operates.
The writing problem affects both the universities and the schools. This common problem can best be solved through cooperatively planned university-school programs.
Student writing can be improved by improving the teaching of writing, and the best teacher of teachers is another teacher.
Change can best be accomplished by those who work in the schools, not by transient consultants who briefly appear, never to be seen again, and not by packets of teacher-proof materials.
Programs designed to improve the teaching of writing should involve teachers at all grade levels and from all subject areas.
Classroom practice and research have generated a substantial body of knowledge on the teaching of writing.
The intuitions of teachers can be a productive guide for field-based research, and practicing teachers can conduct useful studies in their classrooms.
Teachers of writing must write themselves.
Boosts Writing Skills
The project that has given a boost to the writing skills of thousands of teachers from all disciplines started in 1974 in San Francisco, when James R. Gray, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley school of education, and other Bay-area educators organized an institute on writing for 25 elementary, secondary, and university teachers.
Mr. Gray, who now directs both the Bay Area Writing Project and the National Writing Project, said that the idea for the first institute grew out of his experiences in staff-development programs. Staff-development should be, but seldom is, "a continuing process for teachers until they retire," he said.
Moreover, he said, most staff-development programs are "top-down;" they operate on the premise that university professors know more, and teachers know less. "I didn't believe that," he said. "I didn't believe that college teachers knew more about how to teach 10th grade than 10th-grade teachers."
From that first institute, where the teachers worked together, sharing methods, strategies, and philosophies of teaching writing, they returned to their schools as "teacher consultants" to conduct in-service programs for their colleagues. The response was enthusiastic, Mr. Gray said, and the Bay Area Writing Project (bawp) was born. Supported by the University of California, the California State Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (neh) the project spread from San Francisco to other parts of California.
The Bay Area project was a deliberate effort to create a successful local program, Mr. Gray said; he did not aspire to expand the program. But when the National Endowment for the Humanities suggested in 1976 a willingness to provide funding should the project become national, Mr. Gray decided, after much thought, that it would be possible for other campuses to use the Bay Area model. The goal was to establish a network, not to direct the program from Berkeley, he said.
The national project and the participating sites have been funded by a wide variety of sources, including foundations, state education departments, the National Endowment for the Humanities (which established a "matching" system), and local school districts. The Carnegie Corporation of New York funded a three-year assessment of the Bay Area project's impact on student and teacher performance.
Preparations for the five-week summer institutes begin in December, when officials from each site that will offer an institute begin accepting applications for the program.
Any teacher, from kindergarten to university level, may apply. The $250 tuition is usually paid by the teachers' school districts, and participants also receive a $200 stipend to pay for books and transportation, and to compensate in part for the wages they won't earn from summer jobs when they attend the program.
Program directors, who may come from uni-versities, or primary and secondary schools, look at three qualities in the applicants: the teacher's use of writing; the way in which the teacher works with other teachers; and an open approach to ideas, according to Donald R. Gallehr, the co-chairman of the National Writing Project Advisory Board and the director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project at George Mason University. Participants are chosen in April.
Teacher Forums Provided
The institutes provide teachers with several forums in which to explore methods of writing and writing instruction. Several mornings a week, they take turns presenting to their colleagues material that they might use with their students. "It gives the others a chance to see what it's like," Mr. Gallehr said, "and breaks down a lot of assumptions--one of which is that it's easy."
They also have sessions that cover "personal writing," which may include articles, fiction, or poetry.
"We tell them to pick a topic and write about it from several points of view," Mr. Gallehr said. No other restrictions are placed on the writing. During the course of the program, he said, "Teachers start to understand how writing gets a life of its own."
The teachers-teaching-teachers method, project directors agree, may be the principal reason for the program's apparent success. If a university professor tries to tell a classroom teacher how to teach writing, Mr. Gallehr said, the teacher is apt to respond with, " 'But you don't know, because you don't teach fourth grade.' The credibility isn't there. If another fourth-grade teacher says it, they believe it."
For teachers, Mr. Gallehr said, the most important questions are,"How do you teach it? Does it work?" and other very pragmatic concerns.
Hard data on the effects of the project are hard to come by, Mr. Gray said. What the project directors do have, he added, are "overwhelming data that teachers have been turned around" about writing.