National Writing Project

Remembering Jim Gray

By: Mary Ann Smith
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 1
Date: 2006

Summary: Smith recounts experiences with NWP founder Jim Gray: her meeting with him 35 years ago, his classes, the first summer institute, his mentorship of her, and the evolution of the NWP professional community.


I met Jim 35 years ago when I interviewed for a spot in the UC Berkeley credential program. About two minutes after we said hello, Jim announced that I would be a great teacher. Years later when he interviewed teachers for the Bay Area Writing Project, I'd see the same enthusiasm—Jim throwing open the door for another teacher, and another, and another.

"Great" was a word that rolled off Jim's tongue when he talked about the people he most revered: teachers. He believed great teachers were a national resource, although untapped and unacknowledged. In the early years of the writing project, he asked teachers if any of them had ever been invited to share or demonstrate what they did and what they knew. The usual answer? "Never," Jim writes in his memoir, Teachers at the Center. "I do not know how that situation had come about. We floated on rafts of textbooks, and we should not have had to."

Coming of Age in His Own Classroom

In his own classes Jim did not rely on textbooks. One of my favorite memories of Jim's teaching occurred years later when I enrolled in his advanced composition class in summer school. Berkeley was uncharacteristically hot that summer of 1970; the antiwar protests were in full swing; and the campus was swarming with dogs. Jim worked in shirt sleeves and he was absolutely focused. Only occasionally would he lose his concentration and shout, "Get that damn dog out of here!" The rest of the time he talked us through each thing he wanted us to write, gave us models, and always gave us subjects for our practice writing.

To my horror, Jim sometimes used himself as the subject. "Describe me," he would demand, and then he would pace up and down in front of the room. Jim was a big guy with big ears and big feet. We were to write with the specificity he expected and then read out loud what we had written. It was a very delicate situation. Yet somehow all of us in the class realized our experience was unique in another way. We were being taught to write, rather than simply receiving assignments. And we were writing every day, with immediate response from a master teacher and from our classmates.

Jim Gray with Mary Ann Smith (left), then director of the California Writing Project State Network, and Carol Tateishi, Bay Area Writing Project director, in 1994.

Then in the fall of 1970, I entered the credential program and Jim's once-a-week methodology class. If he paced up and down in the advanced writing class, he never moved an inch in methodology. He sat behind a gray table in Tolman Hall, smoking cigarette after cigarette, pouring out everything he knew. It was vintage Jim, the expansive man who himself could never get enough of a good thing—whether it was good food, great music, art, or literature. That's how he treated his students: as if we deserved the best, the most, the truest. So he gave us everything he knew in incredible detail—the art of teaching from setting up dramatic improvisations to conducting classroom research.

Working with Teachers

In 1961, Jim had come to UC Berkeley as an English supervisor, a position that allowed him to cultivate his faith in the talent of other teachers. "Year after year," Jim explained, "I had gifted young teachers who, I always thought, could have chosen any career, but chose teaching because teaching is what they had always wanted to do."

Thirteen years of visiting classrooms made a huge impression on Jim. He could remember great moments he observed and recount them almost minute by minute. He could also give a fledgling teacher a near heart attack. I was so proud when Jim visited Loma Vista Intermediate my first year of teaching. I waited for his compliment after my students left. He smiled deceptively and then said, "This room is a pig sty." That was Jim too—sniffing out any sign of self-congratulation.

Conducting the First Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute

In 1974 Jim launched the first Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute, and I was a participant. This was one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences of my life. Jo Fyfe, with whom I cotaught, and I spent hours working on our teaching demonstration—showing how we used James Moffett's Interaction with a mob of eighth-graders. We wrung our hands over every word we wrote and, subsequently, read to our colleagues. We piled up pounds of handouts—most of them immediately applicable to our teaching—and slept not a wink for five weeks. We were never prouder to be teachers nor more intellectually immersed in our profession.

Creating a Professional Community

Jim never dreamed that a single institute would launch a network. He never dreamed the project would one day be a national model, its funding provided first by the National Endowment for the Humanities and, beginning in the early '90s, by the U.S. Department of Education. He never dreamed that once released from the isolation of their classrooms, teachers would choose to continue their support of each other throughout their careers.

"When I think of Jim," writes Mark St. John, "I think of the incredible community he created, and the thousands of souls that community has nourished. I have personally known few others who have done as much for the world." Mark and his colleagues at Inverness Research Associates have spent years evaluating the California and National Writing Projects. The National Writing Project community he describes has homes in 195 universities in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Celebrating a Legacy

Throughout his life, Jim considered himself a teacher. He always remained in some sense my teacher. He taught me how to be a director and when I actually became one, he dropped by my office every morning and asked me, "How are you going to screw up the Bay Area Writing Project today?" It was Jim's curmudgeonly warning that I not veer off the road he had so carefully and painstakingly paved.

Jim and Albert "Cap" Lavin, who helped create the Bay Area Writing Project in the early 1970s, reminisce 30 years later at the 2003 NWP Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Indeed, it is this road, this movement, this extraordinary project that is Jim's legacy. It has been called a national treasure. It has been called the nation's premier professional development program. It has been honored from day one for its teachers-teaching-teachers model. We have the writing project today because of Jim Gray, a high school teacher who revered teachers and who believed passionately that K–12 teachers deserved the same opportunities as professors to be continuing scholars, published writers, and leaders in the field. "That's such an obvious idea," he told everyone. It may have been obvious, but it was also—and continues to be—revolutionary.

About the Author Mary Ann Smith, NWP's Director of Governmental Relations and Public Affairs, is a former director of the Bay Area Writing Project and the California Writing Project.

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