National Writing Project

Networks at the Center–Richard Sterling at the 2007 NWP Annual Meeting

By: Richard Sterling
Date: November 16, 2007

Summary: In his last Annual Meeting speech before retiring as NWP executive director, Richard Sterling reflects on NWP's core principles and relates them to the progress the network has made and the future ahead of us.


Richard Sterling speaks at 2007 NWP Annual Meeting.

It is so great to be here in New York! As many of you know, I first came to this country in 1963 when I was just 22 years old. I came by ship—landed at the dock on West 46th Street—just about four blocks from here! And all these years later it is still a thrill to be here. I couldn't have imagined then that today I would be standing here in front of an auditorium full of my writing project colleagues—the best college, university, and K–12 teachers in the United States.

I will be leaving my position as executive director of the NWP by the end of this year. Several drafts of this speech have already ended up in the recycle bin as I struggled to find elegant ways to say thank you to the people who have helped me, to state some of what we have accomplished throughout the writing project network, and to talk a bit about the future.

It has been my great fortune to be associated with NWP's legacy of teaching, learning, writing, and leading, so let me begin by thanking all of you and your writing project colleagues back home for making this possible.

Jim Gray, the founding director of the National Writing Project, had his own challenges in leaving the leadership of NWP in 1994 when I arrived in Berkeley. In my early days in California, I met with Jim every week to discuss ideas about the teaching of writing, but mostly we discussed teachers.

Jim told me countless stories about great teachers he had known and what a belief and trust in teachers can accomplish. He subsequently wrote Teachers at the Center to try and capture some of the big ideas that had shaped his vision and describe the people who were part of the ongoing development of NWP's core principles.

Core Principles

The best way I can think of to thank all of you for the opportunity to learn from and with you throughout my past 29 years of involvement—ever since the founding of the New York City Writing Project in 1978—is to reflect on some of these core ideas and to relate them to the future of the National Writing Project.

Listen to Teachers

What I didn't know about schools could fill several volumes, and what I learned would take a full series.

So let me begin with the principle that Jim and I talked so much about and that I learned first in this city. That is to listen to teachers and to hear, really hear, what they have to say. I learned what this principle means from my many colleagues in the New York City Writing Project—Sondra Perl, John Brereton, Carla Asher, Elaine Avidon, Linette Moorman, Ed Osterman, and Marcie Wolfe, to name some of my earliest and most influential colleagues.

What did I know about schools in the United States? I had been given a second chance at real learning when I arrived in the United States at the City College of New York, but I had not stepped into a K–12 school anywhere since I was thrown out of my own high school in London. What I didn't know about schools could fill several volumes, and what I learned would take a full series.

New York teachers taught me well and I use the lessons I learned from the Bronx, and Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island every day. These first New York City Writing project teachers invited me into their classrooms; they taught me how to see teaching and learning, and they conducted the first inservice workshops for the project with me in tow!

And the New York City Writing Project has provided continuous high-quality professional development for New York City teachers each year since 1978. And they haven't stopped learning.

Unending Learning

Which brings me to the second principle. In order to stay relevant to meet the needs of young people, learning has to be at the heart of the enterprise for both adults and students. This means that if you as writing project director, professor, or K–12 teacher believe that you already know everything you need to know about teaching writing, then the writing project won't make much of a difference.

Sondra Perl and John Brereton gave me a list of articles, and a book or two that I had to read before I would face 25 sharp, tough, and demanding New York City teachers in the 1978 summer invitational institute. And it turned out that what embedded that learning for me was my own writing. And as you all know, writing is truly at the heart of our mission and our success.

Reading and Writing

So learning means that writing teachers must read and write. Over the years, I have shared with you a few of the books and resources that have made a huge impact on my thinking. And you have produced articles, books, Web resources, blogs, podcasts, and more—all in response to reading, writing, and thinking about ideas to support real learning for today's young people. I think it's time that we claim this shared legacy, too—we are readers as well as writers.

You will be relieved to know that I am not about to launch into a recommended booklist or suggest the one title everyone should read this month! I simply want to thank all of the authors in this room and beyond for the deep scholarship, thoughtful commentaries, new research, and outstanding literature that make our collective efforts to improve the teaching of writing part of the larger endeavor to improve the quality of American education for all students.

This reading, writing, and learning can never stop if we are to meet the educational needs of young people.

I know, too, that writing project reading lists will continue to evolve as new scholarship is produced by colleagues across the country. And this reading, writing, and learning can never stop if we are to meet the educational needs of young people.

Shared Leadership

A fourth principle—one highlighted by Ann Lieberman in her research on the NWP—is that all of us are needed to guide the enterprise. Learning is both an individual and a social activity. Writing Project colleagues have guided me every step of the way in my learning—never more so than when I began my cross-country journey to California in 1994. Writing Project directors welcomed me to their sites, their homes, and their communities.

I have now traveled to all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, visiting writing project sites—a goal of mine just accomplished last year with my visit to Alaska, though sadly I missed going to the US Virgin Islands. And of course, there are new writing project sites every year.

The Model and the Network

Since I was totally urban—all I knew was London, New York City, and a handful of other big cities, I had a lot to learn. And what I learned is this: the writing project model works in every community, in every region of this country, and beyond with our new associated international sites—because, simply, the model is built on sound principles of learning.

There are teachers K–16 in every community who are deeply committed to their profession and to ongoing learning. The value of the writing project network is the people: we are a social network that values knowledge development, research, and writing.

Here I am also indebted to Mark St. John and colleagues at Inverness Research Associates, who helped make our own data visible to us and provided critical analysis to our network as we "scaled up" the work. And to Ellin Nolan and colleagues at Washington Partners who have helped us learn how to advocate for that scale-up and to provide clear information to policymakers.

Urban Sites

Developing a way to see the network in the same way that the model guides us to really see teaching and learning took some time. And here my memory may be not quite accurate, but what I remember is that in 1986 the original idea for getting the cities together—the first meeting of urban writing project sites—came from Joe Check, then the director of the Boston Writing Project.

Joe said, "Let's get together with other cities and see if we can help each other and see what we have in common."

We raised money, we got together to study our classrooms and our cities, and we learned a very important lesson. When our schools have problems, it may not be the mayor's fault, or even the local district's. We learned to think systemically; we learned to think outside of our neighborhood, even when the neighborhood was as big as this city.

For in the end all this work is collaborative in the deepest, most personal way. Urban Sites helped me understand work beyond New York City, and the National Writing Project helped me see across the nation. And what gave me confidence was knowing that this work does not mean working alone.

And Across the Network

From across the United States, people came out to help me on my journey to California in 1994. A few highlights: a four-day car trip across Alabama and Mississippi visiting sites with Sherry Swain, then the director of the Mississippi Writing and Thinking Institute, who gave me a cram course on rural education, illustrated by teachers, schools, and project workshops; and a two-day visit with Joye Alberts, then the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, in Stillwater, Oklahoma—which included my first and only ride on a modern, air-conditioned tractor!

It is in fact the leadership of extraordinary people like you that makes the work come alive for teachers and students across the country.

Everywhere in this network I have learned two things: first, the amazing generosity and caring of people in this community for their students and their students' lives, and second, the understanding that the writing project model works in every environment, in every context, and with every kind of teacher and student. And, by the way, I have also witnessed the great love people have for their own community: in almost every case,  people feel that where they live is the best place in America to live.

I arrived in the Bay Area, where I must thank more mentors: Miles Myers, then executive director at NCTE, but formerly of the Bay Area and California Writing Projects; and Mary Ann Smith, Carol Tateishi, Sheridan Blau, and so many others who were willing to engage me in talk, sometimes spirited, and from whom I learned new ideas and new information, and received good advice and direct help.

Expanding, building, and strengthening the NWP was the work when I arrived in California, and it is the work we continue to do every day. And I could go on to name and thank the extraordinary staff of the NWP. They are literally the best people I have ever worked with and they work tirelessly on behalf of our network. They bring an extraordinary array of talent from the latest in computer programming to deep knowledge of writing, research, and professional development. They are a force to be reckoned with!

Finally, my thanks go to Dan Boggan and all of the NWP Board of Directors. You have pushed my knowledge into new areas, challenged my thinking, and insisted on transparency in all issues. And on behalf of the entire network, I am grateful for your commitment to the NWP through this leadership transition. I cannot thank you enough for your collective efforts on our behalf.

Progress Report

Let us now take a look to see where we've been and how we're doing. In 1994 our budget was approximately $2 million; it's now $21.5 million. We were then a "loosely-coupled network of local sites," with strong local programs in many cases, but few opportunities for networkwide learning.

Over the last 14 years we have reviewed sites annually, provided technical assistance where necessary, and built a network that is stronger than ever—now with nearly 200 sites across the country. We are a dynamic, growing, active enterprise. We are still working to put a writing project site within reach of every teacher in the country.

Groups of our sites are at the center of the most challenging issues in education. Site leaders and teacher-consultants are focusing on adolescent reading and writing; learning more about teaching English language learners; finding ways to support new teachers; and addressing myriad problems that are at the center of schools' concerns everywhere.

The Legacy Study

But what we know from the Legacy Study is that, though it is still a fairly guarded secret, the NWP is about leadership. And while writing and the teaching of writing are at the heart of our work, it is in fact the leadership of extraordinary people like you that makes the work come alive for teachers and students across the country.

Our Legacy Study makes this point again and again. Over 90 percent of writing project teachers are still in education in one form or another many years after their participation in a summer invitational institute.


There are also challenges to our mission, and recent work with the National Commission on Writing sponsored by the College Board has been useful in identifying some of them:

How to develop in the mind of the public the idea that writing is central to human development in the twenty-first century? Not just reading, but reading and writing.

How to keep writing on the national agenda without its becoming subject to the narrow and restrictive ways that people will judge progress toward full literacy?

How do we work to prevent restrictive pedagogies taking hold in the absence of good professional development in these areas?

How do we prepare for the full use of digital tools by teachers and students in all parts of the country?

And how can we develop the ability to challenge writing assessment when it is poorly done whether computerized or not?


Despite these challenges to our mission, there is finally real recognition that we, as a national network, are a powerful resource for knowledge on a range of issues important to education and literacy. Perhaps what is even more important, we are viewed as a partner in the creation of new knowledge.

It has probably always been true that local sites have been recognized as the local experts in the teaching of writing by their school districts and on their campuses. It has also always been true that many of our directors and lead teacher-consultants have national recognition for their work and contributions. But it is a different thing to say now that the network itself is understood as a knowledge-making enterprise.

Much of this new recognition has come because our national programs, our resources, our publications, and our research have demonstrated the potential of the network in areas as diverse as supports for new teachers, working with English language learners, and improving the uses of technology in the classroom.

The NWP is not asleep. I would be surprised if you were surprised by what I have just mentioned. We are a nimble, dynamic network. We just have to ensure that we collaborate, disseminate, and implement what we learn works best for students.

Education and Democracy

Sooner rather than later there will be a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a new NCLB. I hope the changes, particularly around assessment, are workable and, above all fair, to the array of students whose backgrounds and talents are as varied and complex as theories of education.

Technology tools are truly a gift to those of us who teach literacy. As I have said before, writing is everywhere in the cyber world. To paraphrase Churchill "never have so many written so much for so few."

For who is reading? Who will listen and take notice? How can this new democracy increase participation of all groups in all of our political and social processes? We as teachers can surely carry that message. Perhaps then we will begin to see a society where voices from every sector in our community are heard, acknowledged, and listened to.

Perhaps then the ultimate reason for education in the vision of John Dewey will be made real, and we will have a democracy much closer to our ideals—a democracy much closer to the vision that brought us into our profession, and closer to the true purpose of creating an educated, informed, and literate populace.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for making my career such a joy! I never dreamed work could be like this; I never dreamed that it could be so much fun, and I never dreamed that I would have a position that would allow me to be among the most honorable people in the most honorable profession, who have allowed me to serve them in this exciting and fulfilling way.

Thank you.

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