National Writing Project

Writing for a Change

By: Richard Sterling
Publication: NWP Annual Meeting Speech
Date: November 17, 2006

All of us in the National Writing Project are about writing for a change in one way or another. Today I want to highlight our work, to celebrate these efforts—efforts to bring writing from behind its invisibility cloak—and to focus on the concrete ways in which our work with writing connects to the world around us.

Writing for Healing

One year ago at our annual meeting in Pittsburgh we welcomed our writing project colleagues from the Gulf Coast who were experiencing the difficult first months of recovery after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Writing project people across the country had already been fund raising, sending support, and writing—to offer what we could. But so much work remained and still remains to be done. Where does writing fit in such an overwhelming disaster?

Where does writing fit in such an overwhelming disaster?

"By inviting writing and reflection" is one simple answer. By now, all NWP sites have received a copy of Katrina: In Their Own Words (Louth 2006), produced by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project in Hammond, Louisiana, and writing project colleagues across the state. The deceptively simple idea that writing can make a change in ourselves or the world around us led Richard Louth and his colleagues to produce this anthology.

Quoting from the preface,

The initial intent of this project was to create an opportunity for students and teachers to write and share their reflections about the hurricane in order to begin the healing process. We wanted to provide an opportunity for their voices to be heard, first in the classroom, then through a blog, then a radio program. Because of the wealth of material, as the one-year anniversary of Katrina approached we decided to create this anthology, which features pieces from the radio show, additional blog entries, and more recently solicited writing and photos. . . . It is important for readers across the country to understand that there was a larger-than-life, shared experience here that no one who experienced it will forget, even those who experienced it 100 miles away from New Orleans. (xiii-xiv)

Woven into the simple phrase "writing for a change" is the thread of an idea—writing to make a change. The Katrina writing is just one example: in this case, one clear purpose was to begin the healing process—but the purpose was also to allow many voices to tell their own stories.

Operation Homecoming

The National Endowment for the Arts also funded a project of writing, called Operation Homecoming, "a unique program that documents and preserves the wartime experiences of men and women in uniform and their families" (New Yorker 2006, 112). Since Operation Homecoming began in April 2004, more than ten thousand pages of writing have been sent to the NEA. A series of fifty writing workshops were conducted by distinguished American writers and held at twenty-five military installations in the United States and overseas. Quoting from the New Yorker on June 12, 2006, "Most of the six thousand troops who participated in the workshops had just rotated out of front-line combat. They were told to write freely [italics mine], without fear of official constraints or oversight" (112).

Good writing does not just happen.

The purpose, as with the Katrina anthology, was explicit here, too—to allow our military men and women to share their stories and reflections. I cannot chose one example and do justice to the range of writing produced by them, but I do urge you to read the essays, letters, and emails for yourselves. And let me note that while excellent writing workshops were offered in Operation Homecoming, these writers had other teachers, too. Perhaps even some of us in this room. Good writing does not just happen. Their stories, as with those produced after Katrina, are a powerful tribute to what happens when people are invited to write and to tell their stories, and guided to do so with other colleagues who care about what they have to say.

Writing in School

Providing such opportunities to write—whether to soldiers returning home from war or families recovering from a natural disaster—seems to be a welcomed and accepted part of our culture. But I don't have to tell all of you that it has been a challenge to make the vision of writing in school match this broader vision of writing out of school. Last May, the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges published Writing and School Reform (2006), a report of five regional hearings held across the country as follow-up to the commission's first report on writing, The Neglected "R" (2003).

These hearings were attended by K–12 and university educators and administrators, including many writing project colleagues. Quoting from the report: "The Commission holds fast to its belief that writing should be at the top of the nation's school reform agenda because writing and communication are essential to the development of students' critical thinking skills and their ability to conceptualize and organize their own knowledge and thinking" (National Commission on Writing 2006, 28). Much still needs to be done to "make sure that the importance of writing becomes a critical element in the nation's ongoing discussion of its educational future" (29).

Writing for Change

Helping our students become writers for a change in their lives is at the heart of our work.

Helping our students become writers for a change in their lives is at the heart of our work. That means writing that helps shape critical faculties, that helps students understand the world around them and their place in it, and helps them make good decisions regarding their lives and aspirations. All this, writing can help make happen.

Words—that is, thoughts, whether they are spoken, written, or as today, composed of images, sounds, and writing—are the presentation of thinking. The writing project promotes thinking: we promote writing ideas and thoughts and narratives that define and set down our times. Writing is always about something, and as our students develop from the earliest grades through college, they move from themselves outward to the world, checking back from time to time for their own development.

So what is writing for a change now? When we teach writing, when we write ourselves, do we promote writing for a change? Do we ask our students to think about change for themselves for the world around them? Do we ourselves "write for a change?"

Writing and Social Action

Why do a significant number of young people leave school . . . because . . . they find school boring, uninteresting, alienating?

Let me describe briefly one of the chapters in the new NWP book Writing for a Change (National Writing Project 2006). The project on which this book is based grew out of a four-year collaboration between the Centre for Social Action in England and the NWP. I first learned about the Centre from Mark Harrison (who is now at the University of East Anglia) when I was visiting Leicester, England nearly twenty years ago. At the center of our discussion was a problem that had been on my mind almost the entire time that I have worked in education: Why do a significant number of young people leave school in Britain and the United States because, they say, they find school boring, uninteresting, alienating?

As I have mentioned in other talks, my own high school experience in the UK was similar to that described by my first-generation college students when I began teaching at the City University of New York—boring, uninteresting, and alienating. So the Centre's work with young people in out-of-school settings captured my interest personally and professionally. Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and I went to see this work for ourselves, and, together with our UK colleagues, we thought about ways to introduce it to the U.S. context, make adaptations when necessary, and see whether the lines between in-school work and after-school work might be blurred so that students would continue to gain academic strength while engaging in the Social Action process. The book is a story of these efforts, and Elyse, Iana Rogers, and other writing project staff who collaborated with teacher-consultants from across the country have much to say about this important work.

Youth Dreamers

The chapter I will describe provides one more concrete example of how writing for real purposes engages young people in our society in learning. Chapter four of Writing for a Change tells the story of Youth Dreamers in their own words—a chapter written by seven collaborating authors!

Quoting some excerpts from their engaging story:

We are the Youth Dreamers, a group of young people between the ages of eleven and fifteen who share the same goals. We want to make our voices heard, help our community, and be a part of making a future for the youth of today. We, the Youth Dreamers are part of the Stadium School, a Baltimore City public school that serves about 140 students in grades four through eight from the communities surrounding Memorial Stadium. . . . When we started this project, we talked a lot about issues in the community. We decided that one of the issues that really bothered us was that too many young people get involved in negative activities after school. (National Writing Project 2006, 25)

So here's what they did: These young people organized a youth center run by two adult directors, a board of directors that includes youth and adults, adult volunteers from the community, AmeriCorps volunteers, and a janitor. The teenagers tutor members and teach a variety of classes along with adult volunteers.

Again, let me quote from them:

The first thing we did to reach these goals was to write a pledge to show our commitment. . . . Next, we wrote a business proposal that includes a one-page budget of operating costs. The budget took a long time to complete because we had to do a lot of research about how much monthly expenses cost, how much it would cost to buy and renovate a house, and so on.

Then we began a letter writing campaign. We wrote lots of letters to our mayor, and other government officials, the Department of Public Housing, the Orioles baseball team, the Ravens football team, and some reporters at our local paper. We wrote more than forty letters and received only three replies. We did not stop. (26–27)

Their first official funding was a $3,000 grant from Youth as Resources for furniture. But then came their big break! Their work had drawn the attention of Senator Mikulski. She introduced a bill to set aside $70,000 for their youth center, and the bill passed! Since then they have written many other grant proposals.

They end their chapter in the book with a profound vision and a sobering caution:

We would like to see less young people on the corner and more going to college and becoming successful because of our project. Some people have become more positive about us, but we still have to deal with some adults' negative attitudes toward us. Sometimes they think this is just a cute project and don't take us seriously, but we want our youth center to be known nationally for its outstanding achievements, accomplished totally by the young people in Youth Dreamers. (30)

While listening to this brief excerpt, I hope you heard references to the planning, thinking, and writing that engaged these young people over time. I am inspired by their work and the teaching that supported it. And I was struck by the huge engagement of these kids! Every waking hour . . .

Writing in Today's World

In many ways new media is the new democracy.

Engagement, enthusiasm, commitment, and change—these are still the important issues for us and for our students. So what does this mean for our agenda moving forward; what does writing for a change mean now? You may remember that people said that the first war that was fought on TV was the Vietnam War, and this gave rise to the fastest-growing antiwar movement in our history (imagine what would have happened if such coverage had been around in World War I). Now blogs, streaming video, and YouTube selections recorded by individuals are commonplace and are beginning to have an influence that challenges the ways we view the world around us.

In many ways new media is the new democracy, and therefore the path to change. And our young people must have the skills and ability to participate in it. Language, particularly its written form, has shaped our world, it has changed our world, and it has been the first instrument of change.

We all have a new and public voice, and I believe we should put that voice forward to fight for what we believe about education. We are the experts. It means we have to re-engage in the fight for education for all children. One that empowers them to be readers and writers, speakers and listeners, and holds out a broad vision for full participation in our society—one in which every voice is valued and writing and reflection are seen as part of everyday life, in and out of school.


Louth, R., ed. 2006. Katrina: In Their Own Words. Hammond, LA: Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project.

National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges. 2003. The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution. New York: College Board.

National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges. 2006. Writing and School Reform. New York: College Board.

National Writing Project. 2006. Writing for a Change: Boosting Literacy and Learning Through Social Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

New Yorker. 2006. "Dispatches from Iraq: Soldiers' Stories." New Yorker, June 12, 112–127.

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