National Writing Project

You Expect Me to Do What? or How the Boston Writing Project Helped Make Me the Teacher I Am Today

By: Johna Dowdall
Date: January 2005

Summary: Johna Dowdall describes her first year in her own middle-school classroom. She feared she wouldn't survive this baptism of fire, until she had a chance encounter with the National Writing Project.


A little more than a year ago I stepped into my very own classroom, my first classroom, the culmination of years of hard work and study. I had no fear. I did have unlimited patience, unbounded enthusiasm, a steady flow of ideas, and a killer filing system. I had worked all summer matching lessons to frameworks and developing the perfect authentic assessments, and I was completely prepared to generate some serious learning. I look back now and I think, Who was I kidding? By the end of the first week, my papers littered every flat surface in the room, I talked to myself a lot, and unexpected noises made me jump.

Maybe it wasn't quite that bad (except for the papers—to this day, they litter every flat surface), but one week was long enough to let me know that not only was I not completely prepared, I was already three weeks behind in the paperwork. I wanted my mother and a secretary, not necessarily in that order.

I should have known better. I'd spent the last thirteen years in a special education classroom as a teaching assistant. I knew that teaching was only the most obvious event taking place in the room. There were plenty of other situations to address every day, sometimes every minute: behavior problems, paperwork, preparations for class, communications with parents and staff, intercom interruptions, geese landing in the field right outside the window—lots of stuff!

I work at Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Massachusetts. Quincy knows how to treat their new teachers. The front office people meet all new employees and make it a point to get to know them. The orientation process is extensive and allows new teachers a chance to mingle with both new and experienced teachers. There is a well-staffed mentor program and I received a sincere promise of help from everyone I met. And, of course, there is the eternal flow of memos and directives to keep every teacher up-to-date on the latest educational developments in each school, across the city, throughout the state, and spanning the nation.

This was all good but somehow it wasn't enough. My mentor and my colleagues were very helpful. They provided encouragement and lesson plans and a willingness to listen. But I don't think they knew how insecure I was about teaching the right lessons in the right order or how frustrated I was that I kept forgetting to schedule meetings or to call back parents. I couldn't remember how to put an Individual Education Plan (IEP) together, so it always took three times longer to complete than it should have. I struggled to create and modify lessons in five different subject areas. And my students kept coming back every day! And I had to come up with something for them to do every day! (Actually, I knew that I'd be seeing them every day, but knowing it and living it are two totally different concepts.) I was mentally and physically worn out by the end of September.

And that's when fate intervened. I was invited to join the National Writing Project for a free weekend on Nantucket Island. I didn't know anything about the NWP and I was a bit curious about the project they were working on, but my main objective was to get away from the overwhelming situation at school. An island in the North Atlantic in November—I couldn't think of anywhere else I'd rather be.

But this wasn't going to be an ordinary island retreat. I had been embraced by the Boston Writing Project's New Teacher Program. I was surrounded by new teachers—people who knew and lived exactly what I'd been living for the last two and a half months. We had hours to spend with each other and hours to write about our experiences and our unique (yet completely shared) problems. This was not a hit-and-miss encounter between classes looking for quick solutions; this was saturated help, a think tank of baby teachers! There was no concern about appearing incompetent or being judged. For two days we shared an open and honest connection as we related our triumphs, failures, and ongoing bewilderment.

It was a no-brainer that I would accept an invitation to join this group again. This time there was a specific assignment: Research a problem or question relevant to your teaching. I chose to build my inquiry on the bullying problem I had in my class at the time. The results of the inquiry were amazing. I know, you're all thinking, "Oh my gosh, this new teacher has solved the bullying problem once and for all!" Sorry. I didn't even come close. Instead, I stumbled upon a new way to look at my class. Before I started observing and interviewing and making surveys, I had always been focused on what I was doing in the classroom—I was so worried about doing everything perfectly that sometimes I barely noticed the students. My inquiry required that I focus on them—their actions, their relationships, their moods, and their responses. It became a habit to actively see and listen to them.

Taking part in the NWP New Teacher Inquiry was like landing on the square that says "Jump five spaces ahead." I stopped trying to shape my class into what I thought it should be and started looking at what it was. I'm sure I would have eventually realized that it was necessary to focus on the students rather than worry about whether I had the perfect lesson plan for that day. Working on the inquiry brought me to that discovery much sooner and in a very rewarding way. Even more important, it helped make me what I am today: a second-year teacher.

About the Author Johna Dowdall is a teacher-consultant with the Boston Writing Project. She teaches seventh grade at Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Massachusetts .

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