National Writing Project

My NWP Odyssey

By: Ann Lieberman
Date: November 16, 2007

Summary: Ann Lieberman shares highlights of her work with the National Writing Project, from her first electrifying meeting with NWP teachers to the new understanding of leadership that emerged from the Legacy Study.


Ann Lieberman speaks at 2007 NWP Annual Meeting.

Learning About Networks - Vignette One

In 1997, while I was working as a professor at Teachers College, my colleagues and I were bringing teachers, principals, and reformers together in informal organizations to study and work for educational reform.

These networks seemed to accomplish so much and were so powerful that I set out to study how they worked, their problems, and what made them successful.

When I told my longtime friend Milbrey McLaughlin, a noted policy researcher, about the studies and what I was finding out, she said, "That is really interesting, but why don't you study a real network?"

Studying the National Writing Project - Vignette Two

So I set to work designing a study of the National Writing Project in hope that I would dispel the growing notion that teachers learn all kinds of things in summer programs and institutes that never reach their classrooms.

Our design was to study the summer institute and then follow six teachers into their classrooms to see if they used any of the strategies and learnings from the summer institute.

For many years people have said that the writing project has transformed their lives. We want to know how this happens . . .

I took UCLA, an older urban site, and Diane Wood, my partner in the study, took Oklahoma State University, a younger, more rural site. During my second visit to UCLA, Faye Peitzman, a co-director, had set up a meeting with a group of teacher-consultants after school to introduce the study to them.

As I entered Moore Hall (a place where I had been many times as a student), my legs got weak and I got a stomach ache. I began, "For many years people have said that the writing project has transformed their lives. We want to know how this happens . . . "

The room erupted with comments:

  • "It gave me a community of teachers who cared passionately about improving their practice."
  • "We have tackled the toughest problems of urban teaching and found many colleagues willing to engage in the struggle."
  • "Going to the summer institute as a new teacher not only kept me in teaching, but taught me what it means to be a real professional."

At 6 o'clock no one got up to leave.

The study had officially begun.

From Network Learning to Classroom Teaching - Vignette Three

After studying the summer institute, we went to six teachers' classrooms to see if anything from the summer institute had made its way into teachers' practice. Laura Jacobs was teaching second grade for the second year. Her big challenge was to figure out how to use the many strategies she learned at the UCLA summer institute with her bilingual students.

Proposition 227 had just been passed, a bill that was to end bilingual education in California. In her school, a very effective bilingual program had just been dumped. Laura, who speaks fluent Spanish, exchanged her four native English speakers with her fellow second grade teacher, giving her all Spanish-speaking students.

When I asked her whether she was using any of the things she had learned in the summer institute, she smiled broadly and said, "Just look." There was the author's chair in the front of the room. She paired students for book talks, created time for silent reading, instituted writing workshops, taught students how to use the computer to draft, revise, and publish their stories. There was a word wall. She even planned a "breakthrough event" when her students read poems to their mothers in both English and Spanish on Mother's Day.

"But," she said passionately, "it wasn't just the Mother's Day poetry lesson that was so great, but I had been living, teaching, and implementing writing project ideas since September. All those things: prewrites, cooperative learning, brainstorming, journal entries of all kinds, all of these things were the building blocks that I had learned."

Learning to Lead in the NWP - Vignette Four

You have a gold mine here, why aren't you studying the leaders in the NWP?

Upon completing our study, I remember going to the national office and saying to Richard, "You have a gold mine here, why aren't you studying the leaders in the NWP?" As a result, Linda Friedrich and I started a new study.

This time we worked collaboratively with thirty-one writing project teacher-consultants as they wrote short vignettes about a slice of their leadership work. After everybody had written and revised their vignettes several times, we realized that they had helped develop a new definition of leadership. In focus group conversations the vignette authors told us,

  • "We are that community-building type of leadership where we know where we're going is solid and we know that the more people who buy in, the stronger the work is going to be."
  • "A leader is someone who can help you puzzle through your own questions, rather than someone who can supply the answers for you."
  • "A teacher-leader is `somebody who's willing to stand up and say what's right—in front of the world.'"

A Network and a Learning Community: Joining Passion and Knowledge Within a Democratic Framework

Like Laura, I was excited about getting inside the writing project.

It stood for so many things that I believed in and had been writing about, studying, and teaching for years. Here I saw a large network grounded in teachers' knowledge where there were opportunities and support for learning; a group of colleagues who cared passionately about their students and learned to care about each other; a place where you could learn leadership, learn to be a writer and a teacher of writing, and tackle with knowledge and enthusiasm the inevitable problems of teaching.

As Milbrey McLaughlin had told me, this was a "real network": an organizational form that could grow and change; a way of working that was truly collaborative; a network that dignifies teachers and teaching—in short, a community that recognizes teachers' knowledge as a critical component of both competence and commitment to continuous learning.

Ann Lieberman is a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and coauthor, with Diane Wood, of Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting Network Learning and Classroom Teaching (Teachers College Press, 2002).

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