National Writing Project

Diane Waff Named 2002 Hechinger Award Winner

By: Amy Bauman
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 2
Date: March-April 2003

Summary: Diane Waff, co-director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, has been awarded the 2002 Fred Hechinger Award. Waff has devoted her teaching career to "addressing the needs of students who are marginalized in our pluralistic, multicultural society."


In a piece written almost ten years ago for her chapter in the book Chartering Urban School Reform, Diane Waff, pictured at right, described herself as one of "35 beginning teacher researchers who wanted to become teachers who empowered their students to make changes in their lives" (Waff 1994, 192). Although the statement was meant to set the stage for the chapter Waff wrote describing the work she and her cohorts had undertaken to enhance the sense community in their Philadelphia high school, in retrospect it also spoke a great deal about Waff's goals for herself as a teacher and about the teacher she was already showing herself to be.

Waff's beliefs about teaching could have been reason enough for the National Writing Project to have named her recipient of the 2002 Fred Hechinger Award, but where Diane Waff is concerned, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The co-director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, Diane Waff has taught for 23 years. She has devoted much of her teaching life to, as she puts it, "addressing the needs of students who are marginalized in our pluralistic, multicultural society." In looking at where she has been and what she has done in those years, the path she has taken pursuing that thought is clear, unfolding across her vita like the well-laid plan that it is. Her motivation can be seen in her professional affiliations with groups such as Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity and Research for Action. Her thoughts call out from the titles of her many endeavors, presentations such as "Literacy and Community: Students as Co-creators of Classroom Texts" or "Gender Issues in the Classroom" and publications the likes of Creating Space for Diverse Perspectives and Student Learning. Her drive and the concerns she holds dear are plain in everything she does—and, more than that, they are backed up with the solid work of a professional.

As far-reaching as all of this is, however, the Fred Hechinger Award committee asks even more of its recipients—and Diane Waff has it to give. The Fred Hechinger Award, which was created in honor of the New York Times education reporter and columnist, is given to outstanding teachers who have successfully translated writing research into classroom practice. Although the award is now handled by the National Writing Project, the selection committee includes university-based researchers and former Center for the Study of Writing and Literacy advisors, as well as NWP teacher-consultants and directors. In plain English, the committee is looking for teachers who have not only had great ideas and researched them; the committee wants teachers who've researched those ideas and allowed their findings to influence practice.

Diane Waff is an excellent example of a teacher who has done just that. Through the research she has done over the years, she has examined issues close to her heart—issues of race, class, and gender oppression. But the research work, as she sees it, is only one half of the equation of a teacher-researcher's role. As Waff puts it, her research work is a "path toward getting smarter about how to improve education for all students, particularly those whose lives are constrained by economic, political, and social forces."

Download "Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power" by Diane Waff. | PDF

The next step on the path then, is to allow those findings to influence classroom practice . . . and Waff does that, too. In fact, how her findings affect her work is sometimes included right along with a discussion of the work itself. In "Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power," an article originally published in NWP's The Quarterly and included in its book Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching Writing, Waff discussed how she and her students used writing to examine issues of gender and power in the classroom. The examination revealed, as Waff candidly admits in the piece, that her female students did not find their school a safe place nor did they feel supported by her—their female teacher. In true Waff style, she reflects on that in an introduction to the piece in Breakthroughs. "This perception alerted me to acknowledge that my practice was inconsistent with my values and caused me to examine my own words and actions" (Waff 2002, 324). Further, in the article itself, Waff discusses how the realization and subsequent reflection actually changed her practice: "All of this experience has led me to look at my own behavior . . . we are on the road to building healthy classroom relationships that help students become conscious of fairness and equality both in school and out" (Waff 1995).

In a letter to the selection committee for the Hechinger Award, Susan Lytle, director of the Philadelphia Writing Project stated that Waff stands out among the many fine teachers of the Philadelphia site for her contributions to the educational life chances of Philadelphia students K-12 and to the learning of her colleagues, both within and beyond the project, especially related to issues of literacy and equity, race, gender, ethnicity, and teacher learning."

Waff, obviously pleased with the award as well, also sees it as a triumph for many teachers like her. "The work of teachers like me is often so below the radar of regular media coverage and large scale reform efforts that one might think teachers have nothing to contribute to the conversation about teaching and learning," said Waff. "Recognition of my work reveals the grassroots heart of the NWP and its power to sustain, affirm, and promote teachers both individually and institutionally."

In addition to her NWP work, Waff is the vice principal at Trenton Central High School in Trenton, New Jersey, where she is responsible for the school's curriculum, the professional development for its teachers, and on-site testing for its 3,000 students. But even with a workload that this position must certainly entail, Waff has her eyes set on the horizon, the next question, the next piece of the ever-changing puzzle of education.

"My work in teacher research has helped me to rethink conceptions of school reform, social identity, and the role of schooling," Waff said in the closing of her letter to the selection committee for the Hechinger Award. "Asking the question `What's going on here?' has not been an end in itself but has served as a stimulus for pursuing change."

Diane Waff is living proof of that.


The Fred Hechinger Award
The Hechinger Award is presented annually to a teacher who—through classroom practice, workshop presentations, and professional writing—makes significant connections between research and classroom practice. Find out more.


Waff, D. 1994. "Girl Talk: Creating Community through Social Exchange." In Chartering Urban School Reform: Reflections of a Public High School in the Midst of Change edited by M. Fine. New York: Teachers College Press.

Waff, D. 1995. "Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power." The Quarterly of the National Writing Project 17 (2): 15-18. Download | PDF

Waff, D. 2002. "Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power" In Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching Writing edited by A. Bauman and A. Peterson. Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project. Original edition.


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