National Writing Project

A Marriage That Worked: The Department of Defense Dependents Schools and the NWP

By: Mary Ann Smith
Publication: Phi Delta Kappan
Date: April 2000

Reprinted by permission of Phi Delta Kappan. Copyright Phi Delta Kappa April 2000. All rights reserved.

This marriage has brought teachers together across mountains and oceans to consider and reconsider a whole range of strategies in order to make every student a successful writer and learner, Ms. Smith says.

MARRIAGES in education are fashionable these days. For better or for worse, schools and districts are joining hands with organizations that promise new pathways to reform.

Often missing from the vital statistics of education, however, is evidence of the success of these partnerships. A case in point is the little-known liaison between the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) and the National Writing Project (NWP). Yet the progeny of this 24-year "arranged marriage" - a global group of expert teachers and an enviable set of student test scores - have much to teach school leaders, reformers, and policy makers.

The Partners

Unlike the typical American school district, in which local residents can drive or walk from a neighborhood school to the central office or to the school board meeting, the DoDDS school system spans the world. Its more than 80,800 students attend classes in Bahrain, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Iceland, Italy, Okinawa, the Netherlands, Panama, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The "central office" is in Arlington, Virginia, and the school board, for those who would like to drop in on a meeting, is the Congress of the United States.

Yet in other ways DoDDS is typical. For example, the district must attend to students with a whole assortment of needs. English language learners make up 5% of the student body, and students enrolled in special education account for another 8%. Students designated "gifted and talented" number more than 9,000 or about 12%. An estimated 70% of the students are children of enlisted men and women or noncommissioned officers.

The 26-year-old National Writing Project, like DoDDS, is an organization with a long arm: 157 sites in 46 states, providing professional development to more than 100,000 teachers a year. With the goal of improving the teaching of writing at all grade levels, K-16, these NWP sites sponsor institutes and workshops throughout the year. Most of the sites are housed at universities, which gives the project a healthy research emphasis to complement its other focus: exemplary classroom practices that support students of all backgrounds, cultures, and language groups.

The NWP works in a very particular way. Every summer the local sites offer fellowships to outstanding teachers of writing in the area. These teachers come together to demonstrate their best approaches to improving student writing. They also read research and write extensively themselves. As institute graduates, they return to their schools and districts to provide professional development workshops for their colleagues.

The First Encounter

In 1964, 10 years before he founded the writing project, James Gray arrived in Karlsruhe, Germany, to serve as DoDDS director of English language arts for Europe. Bored with his overflowing in-basket, Gray began visiting schools, starting in Paris. He was both "excited and disturbed" by what he came across, especially on the secondary level: a number of outstanding teachers on one hand and a rigid curriculum on the other, with literature, composition, and grammar taught separately and according to the days of the week. In a gesture that anticipated the writing project, Gray brought together seven of the best teachers he met and, with them, created a new English curriculum for the DoDDS secondary schools.

One of the teachers who joined Gray in this venture was Joan Gibbons, who, years later, would become the worldwide coordinator of English Language Arts for DoDDS. At the time, however, she spent her weekdays at Frankfurt High School and her weekends in Vienna, Austria, where she was studying for a promising career as an opera singer. At the end of her apprenticeship, she turned her back on an offer from Germany's Darmstadt Theater. Salaries being what they were, she could not support herself and her widowed mother. She was to become, instead, a leader in education.

After a short stint with DoDDS, Jim Gray returned to the University of California, Berkeley, where years later, in 1974, he initiated the Bay Area Writing Project. Before long, he wrote to Gibbons about his invention, and she reacted without hesitation: "I thought this was the way to go," she said.

The first DoDDS/NWP get-together was in Leicester, England, in 1978. "It was unbelievable how the writing project changed people's lives," according to Gibbons. Forty secondary teachers volunteered for the initial program. The next year, 40 elementary teachers lined up for the second round.

Opposites Attract

On the face of things, a marriage between the military and the writing project would seem a mismatch. Hierarchy is at the heart of the military. And though in peacetime the notion of volunteerism prevails, in crisis the country's defense department cannot always wait for sign ups. The writing project, in contrast, thrives on volunteerism and a reversal of hierarchy. Teachers choose to participate, and when they do, they find the project gives them top billing. They are the front line, the top line, and the only line when it comes to what actually happens in classrooms.

In one important respect, however, the military and the writing project are alike. Both are devoted to the continuing education of teachers. The military, for example, underwrites professional development programs during summer and the school year for its K-12 teachers. The writing project, too, offers financial support for teachers to study on college campuses, as well as opportunities for them to be researchers, designers of curriculum, published authors, policy makers, and, particularly important, the teachers of other teachers.

In the early years, from 1978 to 1989, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools and the National Writing Project took up a commuter marriage. Sometimes NWP teachers traveled abroad to conduct institutes and workshops for their DoDDS colleagues. Sometimes it was the other way around. DoDDS teachers came back to the U.S. for their customary biennial summer visits. While at home, they checked into dormitory rooms, particularly on the UC Berkeley campus, home of the National Writing Project, where they lived for two or three weeks while attending writing project institutes taught by their stateside colleagues.

The institutes developed a following among DoDDS teachers. Familiar faces showed up every summer alongside new ones. Participants expected certain rituals - for example, the time set aside each day for teachers to read their writing in the "author's chair." And while the content of the institutes changed from year to year - tailored to the needs of the teachers at hand, to current research, and to an increasingly diverse student population - teachers could also count on certain themes: writing in different genres, drafting and revising, assessing writing, writing across the curriculum, and attending to craft and correctness.

The DoDDS teachers, with the help of Joan Gibbons, also established several home bases. Gibbons started the first overseas site of the National Writing Project in the Atlantic Region of DoDDS, later followed by three others - Germany, the Pacific Region, and the Mediterranean Region. Together, the sites covered every U.S. military base in the world. Each site nurtured expert and credible DoDDS teacher leaders who could teach their colleagues through inservice workshops.

In 1986, Gibbons decided to take the pulse of the entire DoDDS community. She wanted to find out, through a survey on multiple priorities and issues, who was doing what and how often. She asked questions about writing, about emphasis on writing, and about the commitment of teachers to writing. She discovered a landslide: 99.7% of the teachers had participated in from one to 30 inservice hours on the teaching of writing.

The 11-Year Itch

In 1989, 11 years after she invited the writing project into the DoDDS community, Gibbons led her troops down a new path - one that would set the stage for an even greater emphasis on writing. Responding to the need for curriculum standards, she looked to California for a model. (A colleague would later ask her why. "They do such silly things in California," the colleague complained.) But for Gibbons, the fact that the writing project leaders, including James Gray, had heavily influenced the California standards gave them credibility.

Then in 1991, Gibbons began work on a worldwide writing assessment and turned again to California as a resource. She knew that writing project teachers had developed the California assessment of eight different types of writing - a whole system, in fact, that included scoring guides and classroom materials. With the help of her regional curriculum coordinators, she began modifying the system for DoDDS. The test would cover four genres- autobiographical incident, report of information, problem solution, and observation. Students would have three days in which to do their prewriting, drafting, revising, and writing of final drafts.

After the assessment was launched, the "community strategic plan" set the goal: 75% of the students at grades 5, 8, and 10 were to write at the proficient level or above by the year 2000. The assessment includes five levels: distinguished, proficient, apprentice, novice, and "not scoreable:'

With teachers and students on the line, Gibbons made two other bold moves. First, she invited the National Writing Project to conduct workshops that would specifically support the writing assessment. From 1993 to 1997, NWP provided 29 programs in nine countries, programs with countless teacher-led spinoffs. Second, she invited DoDDS teachers - those who were known as "good teachers of writing" - to return to the U.S. for nine days in June to score the papers. This experience also serves as superior professional development, according to Gibbons, because the teachers apply standards of good writing - in this case, development of ideas, clarity, reasoned arguments, description, and detail - to thousands of student efforts.

In 1997, 60 DoDDS teachers read 16,000 papers. To their surprise, three years before the deadline, 81.6% of the students scored at the distinguished and proficient levels. The fifth-graders were the top achievers, with 88% writing at or above proficiency. Tenth-graders finished at 80%, and the eighth-graders squeaked by with 77%.

On standardized tests, DoDDS students also made noteworthy accomplishments. The seniors' verbal SAT scores were 10 points higher than those of their stateside counterparts. The same students who took the writing assessment also fared well on other tests. Students in grade 5 scored in the 71st percentile on the language section of the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills. In the eighth and 10th grades, students scored in the 67th and 71 st percentiles respectively in language on the Terra Nova Multiple Assessments.

Lessons from a Marriage

Obviously, real marriages, especially those that have lasted more than 20 years, are not sanitized, smooth journeys. Behind closed doors in the DoDDS/NWP household, the partners had their ups and downs as they worked together on behalf of students. In the "simply annoying" category were less-than-comfortable accommodations for jet-lagged workshop participants: shared bathrooms and dimly lit dorm facilities that smacked too much of boot camp. More substantial were the clashes of philosophies: NWP workshops at odds with other DoDDS initiatives, particularly those based on content-free, behaviorist models. While many school districts juggle conflicting programs and directives, for the far-flung DoDDS it can be more difficult to bridge distances or reconcile differences. However, the most frustrating problem for DoDDS/NWP teacher leaders was the lack of consistent opportunities to teach their colleagues. With expertise equal to the best K-12 teachers in the U.S., they longed for the professional development demands and forums that exist when schools and districts live side by side.

Clearly there are no quick and easy solutions to problems like these. However, the fact that writing was the currency of the workshops did make some difference. Teacher participants could experience firsthand the value of writing as a tool for thinking through difficult issues, and many could find some kind of individual resolution to systemwide dilemmas.

In the meantime, the marriage has prospered, benefiting teachers and students to the extent that it can provide "lessons learned" for other, possibly similar liaisons. There are four lessons that stand out:

A good marriage avoids shortcuts. It would have been easy for DoDDs to skimp on professional development. A simple workshop for DoDDS teachers can cost a fortune just for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and meals. Similarly, a scoring session begins with 60 round trips from Europe or the Pacific. School districts in the states have been known to balk at sending a handful of teachers to a conference in the next town. That DoDDS has made a substantial commitment to the growth and learning of teachers shows up in the work of their students.

As for the writing project, it would be equally easy and more instantly alluring to develop a fast-track package, something that could be laid at the feet of teachers in a single setting or by express mail. To build an entire model centered on teachers, their leadership, and their capacities to improve what they do requires the big picture, not the passport photo.

A good marriage builds over time. DoDDS and the NWP began their association 22 years ago. The lesson here, however, is not in the longevity or monogamy of the partners but in the willingness of both to avoid anything that shouts "quick fix." Neither partner ever wiggled out of a program by saying "we've done that already." And if there was ever a fix, it was a fixation on continuity, on year-after-year activity, on careerlong support for teachers. Richard Sterling, the current NWP executive director, underscores the need for such support: "DoDDS teachers can dramatically improve the quality of lives, both now and in the future, of American children who are living abroad because their parents are serving our nation. These teachers deserve the best extended professional development we have to offer."

A good marriage depends on proven models. While it's true that initially DoDDS chose the "new kid on the block" for its professional development, it's also true that DoDDS chose the NWP because of the characteristics of the model. Districts do not have the resources to dabble. Yet more and more, they have to rummage through a savvy and slick group of professional development providers - organizations that know how to market themselves as magicians. To make a viable marriage, districts need to demand that organizations step forward with responses to questions like these: What principles inform your work? What role do teachers play in your approach to reform? How do you know when you've made a difference? What have you learned over time about professional development?

A good marriage rejects uniform approaches. If the Department of Defense Dependents Schools can sidestep the trap of uniformity, then maybe others can do so as well. In an era when some legislators are setting themselves up as experts on curriculum and instruction for local schools, mandating a single route for teaching and learning a given subject like reading, it is more important than ever to consider the alternative. DoDDS, through its marriage with the National Writing Project, has invited teachers to expand rather than shrink their repertoires of successful teaching practices. It has brought teachers together across mountains and oceans to consider and reconsider a whole range of strategies in order to make every student a successful writer and learner.

About the Author MARY ANN SMITH is executive director of the California Writing Project and co-director of the National Writing Project, University of California, Berkeley.

A marriage that worked. Phi Delta Kappan; Bloomington; Apr 2000; Mary Ann Smith; Volume: 81; Issue: 8; Start Page: 622-626


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