National Writing Project

Talking with Jeff Wilhelm: A Preview of the 2005 NWP Spring Meeting

By: Mary Ann Smith
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: The featured speaker at the 2005 NWP Spring Meeting, Jeff Wilhelm has published 12 books and taught writing to a wide spectrum of students and teachers. He is passionate about the power of teachers taking on the role of learners in inquiry-based projects...


Jeff Wilhelm is a fast talker—and a strong-minded one. Ask him a question, and you get an outpouring of opinion. Want to know what he thinks about technology? If you don't use it in your classroom, "you're behind the curve." In fact, according to Wilhelm, "you could be considered illiterate."

Wilhelm will be the featured speaker at the 2005 National Writing Project Spring Meeting, April 7–8 in Washington, D.C. Wilhelm will speak at the Friday session, following Thursday's NWP activities on Capitol Hill. He is ready to bolster the importance of teachers, particularly in a technological age. "Kids need teachers more than ever," he said in a recent conversation, "especially to help them learn how to phrase good questions, set up experiments, engage with materials, and learn how to read and how to write."

He speaks from experience. In Maine, Wilhelm worked in local schools as part of the Adolescent Literacy Project, a partnership of the Maine Writing Project and the Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University. At one point in the curriculum, he and his seventh-graders tackled the question "What are civil rights, and how do we protect them?" They read widely, shared information, and wrote arguments. From this launching pad, students took on inquiry-and-design projects. One group of young women, for example, asked "Are girls harassed in our school?" They conducted surveys and collected more data through hidden cameras in the school hallways. In the end, they disseminated what they had learned by producing a video documentary.

Last year Wilhelm moved from the University of Maine to Boise State University in Idaho, where he is now an associate professor of English education. His field work is as a teacher-in-residence at Foothill School, the school one of his daughters attends. In Idaho, he also has taken the role of directing a brand-new writing project site—the Boise State University Writing Project—and he is currently preparing for the site's first summer institute.

The author of 12 books, Wilhelm has centered all his recent work on organizing curriculum around inquiry. His latest book, Inquiring Minds Learn to Read and Write, will be available through Scholastic this summer. Its subject—how to get students to engage with ideas in their writing and reading—is sure to spark discussions when the NWP network meets in the spring.

Indeed, the subject has implications for teachers as they pursue their own research questions. Again speaking from experience, Wilhelm illustrated what teachers can do when they take on the role of learners in an inquiry-and-design project. He recalled a group of Maine teachers in the Adolescent Literacy Project who had been called in to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with a particularly puzzling problem. It seems that the NOAA had no data about lobster populations and no way to predict how these populations might fluctuate. Local lobstermen with crucial local knowledge refused to share what they knew—that is, until the teachers came calling. In fact, the teachers found their subjects happily cooperative and found themselves learning how to interview, crunch data, and create an oral history video—one that gave the NOAA the information it had needed for so long.

Wilhelm contends that when you inquire, you end up designing something. "The metaphor for knowledge is design," he explained. And he will have much more to say in his fast talking way to the National Writing Project Spring Meeting participants.

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