National Writing Project

Social Action Collaboration Generates New Book

By: NWP Staff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 2
Date: 2006

Summary: In a four-year collaborative project with the Centre for Social Action (CSA) in England, NWP teachers explored new opportunities for student-driven learning in their schools using Social Action strategies, which had successfully engaged marginalized young people in complex and demanding work; now the teachers, along with CSA trainers, document their experiences in NWP's newest book, Writing for Change: Boosting Literacy and Learning Through Social Action.


Jossey-Bass, 2006. $22.95; 192 pages.
ISBN 0-7879-8657-7.

Excerpt from Preface

Young people have an extraordinary capacity to pursue learning that engages them—outside of school. Surrounded by and marketed an attractive set of options, from the media to the Internet to the friendship group, young people find ways to pursue issues that matter to them with tremendous energy. Inside of schools, though, teachers struggle to harness that energy for the purposes, knowledge, and skills that schooling is supposed to foster. Recent educational policy has focused on articulating and systematizing those purposes, knowledge, and skills while raising the stakes of their mastery for both teachers and students. Teachers may be experiencing something like Dewey's classic contradiction of the child versus the curriculum (Dewey, 1956). Do we attend to the interests of the students, perhaps fostering engagement at the expense of covering the standards and curriculum? Or do we push on through the expanding curriculum and battery of tests, perhaps sacrificing student engagement or choice? But what if the central focus of your curriculum—for example, the teaching of writing—can only be fully addressed when the child is really engaged with the task at hand?

Writing about the tendency to see attention to the child and his needs as in conflict with attention to curriculum, Dewey argued, "Any significant problem involves conditions that for the moment contradict each other. Solution comes only by . . . coming to see the conditions from another point of view, and hence in a fresh light" (Dewey, 1956, pp. 3–4).

In the Social Action approach, youth workers support young people in sharing and examining issues that affect them in their daily lives . . .

Shining A Fresh Light

Harnessing students' enormous energy, facilitating their engagement in learning, and managing high-stakes curricular pressures are some of the issues that led teachers and leaders affiliated with the National Writing Project (NWP) to begin a multiyear collaboration with practitioners engaged in youth work at the Centre for Social Action (CSA), based in England. For over twenty years, the CSA has been developing principles and practices for youth-driven action by working with young people in a range of settings outside of school. Experienced at working with young people in community settings where they can easily vote with their feet, the center's practitioners emphasize engaging and facilitating groups of young people in work that matters to them because it addresses and acts on the content of their lives and communities. Drawing on intellectual antecedents like Paulo Freire, these practitioners have refined an approach to group and community work they call Social Action. In the Social Action approach, youth workers support young people in sharing and examining issues that affect them in their daily lives, then learning skills and implementing plans to take productive action in their lives and communities.

In 2001, a team of educators at the National Writing Project, a U.S.-based teacher network with a thirty-year history of improving the teaching of writing, became intrigued by the Social Action approach and wondered whether it could shine a fresh light on the contradictions they were experiencing as teachers. As literacy educators, they too expected young people to engage in projects that mattered to them and to learn and use complex literacy skills to act in their lives and communities. They knew that in learning any set of skills, whether personal, athletic, or academic, engagement mattered. Young people cannot learn what they won't engage with. Social Action workers had figured out how to get the most marginalized young people engaged in complex and demanding work outside of school. NWP teachers interested in a more student-driven learning environment wondered, Could CSA approaches work with American young people inside of school, with its prescribed curriculum and compulsory demands? Practitioners at the Centre for Social Action wondered too.

Thus began an inquiry into the potential for the Social Action work inside schools. Through a four-year collaboration, NWP teachers and CSA trainers worked together to see how teachers would make sense of Social Action ideas in their practice. Although the center's experiences and ways of working initially seemed distant from the realities of U.S. schools, teachers from the National Writing Project soon identified important insights for their work and began exploring new opportunities for student-driven learning and literacy in their schools and curriculum. Together, they found that Social Action had tremendous potential for engaging students and creating a context for boosting literacy and achievement in schools. Working through processes facilitated by a leadership and editorial team, participating teachers refined those lessons with a view toward sharing their experiences with their colleagues.

In this book, some of the teachers and trainers who took part in the NWP-CSA collaboration share their successes, challenges, and continuing questions about using Social Action in their teaching. Following their accounts, workers from the Centre for Social Action describe the theory and principles that form the foundation of the Social Action approach and share some of the activities and resources used during the cross-national workshops, including a wide set of activities to get groups of people involved with Social Action.


NWP's newest book, Writing for a Change: Boosting Literacy and Learning Through Social Action, will be published by Jossey-Bass in late September. The book was edited by Kristina Berdan, Ian Boultan, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Jennie Fleming, Laurie Gardner, Iana Rogers, and Asali Solomon. To learn more about the four-year collaboration between NWP and CSA, visit the NWP website at Order copies of the book online beginning in late September at the NWP Bookstore.

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