National Writing Project

Jim Gray and the Writing Project: One Life's Work

By: Art Peterson
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 1
Date: 2006

Summary: Jim Gray's friends describe the qualities that made him a great man, the very qualities that make NWP a great institution. They share ways he influenced their lives, their teaching, and the field of education.


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"What a week it's been, losing Rosa Parks and then Jim Gray. Between them we've been left quite a legacy and the inspiration to keep fighting the good fight," reflected Susan Freeman, Central California Writing Project co-director, upon hearing of Jim's death.

What would Jim Gray have thought of the link Freeman makes between his work and the contribution of the great civil rights activist Rosa Parks?

Jim's friend and colleague Sheridan Blau, director of the South Coast Writing Project (California), takes a stab at a piece of an answer with words delivered at Jim's memorial held December 17, 2005, at the University of California, Berkeley: "Jim would have been at once embarrassed, amused, and thrilled to hear us speak of him as we have been doing today. He knew he had achieved a kind of greatness in successfully founding and nurturing to maturity the writing project, and he was justly and beamingly proud of what he had accomplished. But his pride was like that of a proud parent who wouldn't presume to claim responsibility for the achievements of a gifted child. While accepting some credit for nurturing the child, he would insist the offspring had many mothers."

Blau recalls a visit to Jim's office in the early days of the project. "He had on the wall photographs of every site director in the first decade or more of the California and National Writing Projects. He kept adding photos as long as there was enough wall space and there were few enough writing project sites to hold the growing number of portraits that he so proudly displayed."

So, when it comes to greatness, Jim would have put an asterisk after his name that would allow him to name—he was very good at names—dozens, maybe hundreds of others who have made the writing project the force that it is today.

In 1974, Jim Gray (second from right) gathered exemplary teachers of writing for the first writing project summer institute. Among them were (left to right) Arnold Solkov, John Bens, Jean Jensen, and Jo Fyfe.

Like just about everything Jim said, this delegation of recognition was mostly true, but it was also a stance that clouds the main point. "The writing project is what it is because of who Jim Gray was," wrote BAWP teacher-consultant Lynda Chittenden. In other words, the very qualities that made Jim Gray a great man make the writing project a great public institution. In the days after Jim's death, friends and associates spoke to these qualities.

Jim the Advocate

If you made it through Jim Gray's crap detector, you would have—outside of your immediate family—no greater fan. BAWP teacher-consultant Grace Morizawa echoes the words of countless others when she says, "I've always felt his hand out to make me the best teacher I could be." So many have said of Jim, "He brought out the best in me." And this prod toward excellence is, not coincidentally, also what hundreds of teachers claim for their writing project experience. The respect that the writing project has for teachers and teacher knowledge did not come about by accident. Rather it was the direct result of Jim's ability to convey to almost all those he met the feeling that "this man is rooting for me."

Jim the Enthusiast

Jim's passion for teaching and learning, for books, language, and writing is much documented. One of the earliest adult sightings of this fervor comes through in a story told by Leo Ruth, his colleague during their early days of teaching at San Leandro High School in the Bay Area. As young teachers Jim and Leo decided to attend an early convocation of what has become an educators' tradition in California, the Asilomar English Conference, where they were told they would pick a topic and discuss it with fellow English teachers in small groups.

"To say that weekend had a powerful impact on Jim would be an understatement," Ruth says. "He bounced in Monday morning announcing he had `nineteen new ideas about teaching composition' and he insisted on sharing them with the rest of the department. He gathered us together for a voluntary evening meeting and we sat around talking about writing. It was probably the first inservice workshop that Jim ever conducted."

Another of Jim's long-time friends and colleagues, Don Gallehr, director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project and NWP board member, connects the enthusiasm of those who today immerse themselves in the writing project experience with Jim's passion for the work he was creating. Gallehr speaks of Jim's capacity for celebration. "Jim continues to influence every part of my life, and the core of his influence is celebration. The summer institute is a celebration of good teaching by sharing and making public the practices of the best teachers. The read-around of class anthologies in countless classrooms across the country, the publications by the National Writing Project of successful inservice programs . . . these are celebrations of what works."

And we can add to this list the teachers who after four weeks in a summer institute return to their classrooms with an enthusiasm close to that which Jim brought back from Asilomar many years ago. This too is the legacy of Jim Gray's celebration.

Jim the Humanist

To call Jim a humanist here is to say he consistently saw individuals, not groups. To be with him was to understand that you were the focus of his attention. "Jim Gray taught me to be a student of others, because that's what he was," writes former BAWP co-director Bob Pressnall. This focus on one person at a time could come off in small ways. Mary Schoenfeldt, who worked as office manager for BAWP in the 1980s recalls, "One day Jim was walking down the hall and stopped at my office door. `I'm thinking of nicknames for people around here, and I can't decide on yours—it is either `Sparky' or `The Puritan.' If you knew my personality you'd understand how funny the first choice was, and how insightful, in a Jim Gray way, the second was."

It seemed as if Jim believed that a good part of his job was sizing people up. And no one would argue that he was not capable of blunt assessment. Wendy Strachan says that when she completed the summer institute in 1980, Jim leaned toward her "and said with that characteristic sideways tilt of his head, `You're a little earnest Wendy, but good luck.'" Strachan set out to put her earnestness to good use, going on to establish a writing project site in East Asia.

But in general Jim's encounters with almost all he met were characterized more by warmth than bluntness. Nicole Magnuson, who now works as NWP's manager for site development, recalls, "I became very fond of Jim because when I joined the staff of NWP, he maintained a tradition of going to lunch with each staff person at least once a year. He was genuinely interested in each person he met."

This ability to engage with people one at a time was also Jim's gift to the writing project. Those of us who do the work of the project accept as a core idea that among teachers and among students there are no carbon copies. Our job is to follow Jim's lead, and play to the strengths of all those we work with.

Jim the Facilitator

"Facilitator" is the type of word that would make Jim cringe; he was, in his mind, proud to be a teacher. But there is no question he was a teacher who facilitated. UC Davis professor Sandra Murphy recalls, "I was enrolled in the M.A. program at Berkeley. Instead of recommending things I should read, he'd say, `Go see so-and-so; he's working on that, doing great things.' He sent me then to see teachers in action, to talk to them about what I was trying to learn and write about. It was a lesson I never forgot."

Even late in life Jim was still facilitating. Three years before his death, he met Horace Crawford at Weight Watchers. Crawford says, "I had been thinking about writing a book about my life. When I mentioned this to Jim, he immediately encouraged me to do it. `How should I begin?' I asked him. Jim looked up with a twinkle in his eye and said, `Begin just like in David Copperfield.' I looked it up, and the first words were `I am born.' So that is where I started my story."

Jim was inclined to let his students play a major role in their own learning, and his example has not been lost on writing project leaders and teachers, who prod their charges to learn rather than force-feed a single mode of learning.

Jim the Lover of Life

For an educator of the first rank, Jim did not talk much about education. When you met him he'd want to know about your family or he'd tell you about his. Or maybe he'd ask about your rose garden. (He had one too.) He'd have stories about catching bass and crappie in the lake near Marysville or he'd want to know how many "Gray's CD Picks" you had purchased and what you thought of a particular version of Vaughan Williams's "Lark."

Robert "Silky" O'Sullivan recalls a very late night phone call he received from Jim. "A few days earlier I had dropped off an audio cassette of my wife directing and accompanying on the piano an African American church choir performing largely jazzy interpretations of African American spirituals. The hour may have been late, but that did not curb his expression of enthusiasm for what he heard, and he wanted us to make sure we knew of his delight."

By example, Jim demonstrated that the most successful teachers are usually those who live most. And he brought this idea to the project by insisting that writing project sites become communities, not just for sharing pedagogy, but also as vehicles to promote a camaraderie extending into all aspects of life.

So what we see here is an instructive example of how a man's creation mirrors the man. As teacher-consultant Heather Severson reminds us, the idea that launched the writing project—teachers teaching teachers—is, like the man who conceived it, "brilliant, simple, and infinitely complex."

About the Author Art Peterson, a senior editor with the National Writing Project, taught high school English in San Francisco for 30 years and became a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project (CA) in 1981.

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