National Writing Project

Director's Update

By: Richard Sterling
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 1
Date: January-February 2003

Summary: Executive Director Richard Sterling recounts his meeting with the head of the new federal Office of Innovation and Improvement, describes his new course in professional development at UC Berkeley, and comments on the complexity of good teaching.


Dear colleagues and friends:

Every year, I look forward to the National Writing Project Annual Meeting. This year’s event was amazing. Take a look at some meeting-related numbers: over 850 people attended the opening session; we distributed more than a thousand programs; some 270 people presented, representing 80 writing project sites. All of these individual facts made this meeting a huge success, and I was overwhelmed by the comments of many who stopped me to praise the extraordinary gathering. I would like to congratulate everyone.

As we return to regular business, one important piece of news comes from the U.S. Department of Education: the announcement of the creation of the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), the new home for the NWP. Recently, we met with the new head of OII, Nina Shokraii Rees. Rees is the former deputy assistant to the vice president for domestic policy and now leads the OII as deputy undersecretary. Although this was just a preliminary meeting, she and her team spoke with us for almost an hour, during which time they asked many detailed questions about our work. It will be no surprise to you, I’m sure, that they were particularly interested in the research that documents student improvement in writing. We were impressed by all the people we met at this gathering and look forward to more opportunities to demonstrate the quality of writing project professional development and its impact on teachers and students.

Meanwhile, I am about to embark on an activity that will allow me, personally, to take a more detached look at what professional development should be. Once a year, I usually teach a course in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. This spring, I’m teaching a new course on professional development. This course is aimed at graduate students, some of whom are teachers, some of whom are doctoral students, and the idea is, in part, to help educators become demanding and educated consumers of professional development. Another purpose is to ask students to think about successful models of professional development that they have experienced and to ask them to develop some theories regarding peer-to-peer learning, in contrast to teaching K-12 students.

Of course, there are overlaps in these contexts. Teaching kids and teaching teachers are both complex activities. I became particularly aware of this when I conducted inservice work for the writing project. I noted that the most successful workshop presenters consistently connected theory and practice throughout the demonstration while making meta-comments on the workshop itself. For me, such workshops illustrate the complexity of good teaching. Accomplished teachers, like experienced workshop presenters, make decisions during every minute of a lesson, consistently revise their plans, produce new questions based on comments made by group members, and act as respondent and guide, all the while watching every student in the class.

Working both as teachers and teacher-educators, writing project teachers and site leaders across the country continue to demonstrate this high quality of teaching and learning. As we begin a new calendar year, let me say again how thrilled I am to be part of this wonderful organization. I look forward to working with you in the coming year.

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