National Writing Project

Annual Meeting Earns High Marks

By: NWP Staff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 1
Date: January-February 2002

Summary: From November 15-17, 2001, over 650 site directors, co-directors, and teacher-consultants gathered in Baltimore for the NWP Annual Meeting.

 

For the past 24 years, the National Writing Project has conducted its November ritual, the NWP Annual Meeting, at which site directors and teacher-consultants come together to gain information, share expertise, and engage in inspired conviviality. In the beginning, the meeting consisted of but a handful of directors representing a small number of states.

But things have changed over the last quarter century. From November 15 to 17, 2001, 650 teacher-consultants and directors, representing sites in 49 states, attended the most recent annual meeting at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott Hotel. And even these impressive figures are about to change, according to NWP Executive Director Richard Sterling, who announced to the meeting's general assembly that "With the addition of New Hampshire, we will now have sites in all 50 states."

Now, with the writing project well out of its adolescence, discussion at this general session focused on an appropriate question: "How do we know we are making a difference?" Participants heard from and about some of those who are evaluating our work. Richard Sterling spoke briefly of the research that the Academy for Educational Development (AED) is doing. Working with 29 writing project teachers in five states, AED is looking at the writing that third and fourth grade students produce in these teachers' classrooms and the types of assignments the teachers give to generate quality student writing.

Later in the meeting, Laura Stokes of Inverness Research Associates, the organization that has been evaluating the National Writing Project since 1994, discussed their recent findings. Their research has shown that much of what writing project teachers are doing correlates with what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has identified as sound practice in the teaching of writing. For instance, NAEP has learned that students who write every day are more likely to write well. Correspondingly, Stokes and her colleagues found that writing project middle school teachers are twice as likely to have their students write every day as are teachers in the NAEP study.

The centerpiece of the general session was a presentation by Ann Lieberman of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For the past ten years, Lieberman has investigated the writing project, focusing on the question "How has the National Writing Project lasted so long while similar efforts have faded from the scene?" The results of her research will be presented next year in a volume published by Teachers College Press.

"In the beginning," Lieberman said, "we were told it all happened in the summer institute, but I also wanted to take a look at the rest of the summer programs and the work that went on in representative teachers' classrooms." From 1998 to 2000, Lieberman and her colleague Diane Wood, from the University of Southern Maine, worked with teachers at two writing project sites, Oklahoma State University and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), to examine links between NWP network activities and teachers' classroom work. Accompanying Lieberman at the general session were five teachers involved in the study: Lisa Ummel-Ingram, Mary Belvin, and Linda Thomas from Oklahoma State; and Marlene Carter and Laura Jacobs from UCLA. For the meeting, Lieberman had asked the teachers to focus on two or three students in one of their classes and present "snapshots" of their work with these students.

Laura Jacobs described a poetry project she did with her English-immersion students. She told the story of one student, Rosio, who was afraid to fail. Jacobs recounts how she persisted in her work with Rosio because, "I, too, was afraid to fail." At the semester's end, the class invited parents to school for a family poetry meeting. ("The mothers are coming; the mothers are coming!" the excited students said as the guests arrived.) Jacobs described one of the event's more poignant moments when Rosio read her special poem describing her mom. One line read, "Rosa is her name, like a flower."

Mary Belvin told the story of John. In a letter to his teacher at the beginning of the year, John had expressed his opinion on the subject of writing: "I hate writing. It's no fun, and it's stupid. If I didn't have to write, I would be doing something else, anything else, watching the grass grow." Belvin said she felt some empathy for John's stance, noting that for much of her life she herself "had felt some uneasiness about writing." Perhaps it was this admission that led her to work with John in a way that left him in a different place at the end the semester. "Now that I write a lot," he wrote in his final piece, "it's more fun."

Marlene Carter introduced us to her student Ebony, a student who initially tested at the 30th percentile and who spent the early part of a semester looking at magazines. Working with Carter, Ebony became one of ten students recognized in a major essay competition that focused on student work inspired by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. On a more mundane topic, but with an equally impressive performance, Ebony delivered a persuasive speech judged by her classmates as the best effort of the semester in that particular genre. The subject: All students need to bathe regularly.

In the process of accumulating these successes, Ebony raised her test scores dramatically. She was now performing at the 50th percentile and reflecting an attitude that suggested greater gains were to come. "We can easily write off students like Ebony," says Carter, "but this would be a big mistake."

Commenting on the work of these and other teachers involved in her study, Lieberman said, "What I saw was teachers given the experience of going public with their work." These teachers were doing what writing project teachers do: sharing a dialogue and a critique." It's the writing project, Lieberman said, that has given teachers "ownership of professional development."

And this contribution may be one of the reasons why, earlier in the general session, Patti Stock, incoming vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English, had welcomed directors and teacher-consultants with these words: "When the history of education is written, the National Writing Project will be recognized as the most exciting staff development program of the 20th century."

While critiques such as this are flattering, it is the close examination of our work—like that done by Lieberman, Inverness, and AED—that will give NWP the evidence it needs to support these and other kind words.

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