National Writing Project

The National Writing Project After 22 Years

By: Mary Ann Smith
Publication: Phi Delta Kappan
Date: June 1996

Summary: Mary Ann Smith discusses the lessons that the National Writing Project has learned during its 22-year history about teacher leadership, the teaching of writing, the qualities of worthwhile staff development and the bumpy landscape of education reform.


Reprinted by permission of Phi Delta Kappan. Copyright Phi Delta Kappa April 1996. All rights reserved.

Teacher-centered professional development programs can provide what is missing from the reform package of frameworks and assessments, Mary Ann Smith suggests. Indeed, teacher networks can be the bridges between such abstractions as standards and the concrete day-to-day reality of the classroom.

LESLIE MOITOZA teaches high school in a large urban district in California. It's summer. Moitoza stands in front of a classroom not her own, but a class room of colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley. She is spending five weeks in the Bay Area Writing Project summer institute. Right now, it is Moitoza's turn to demonstrate a writing approach that has made a significant difference to her students.

At 14 or 15 years of age, Moitoza's students know exactly what they wish their parents would grant them. "The lists are predictable," says Moitoza. "Later curfew, private telephone, a VCR." Through a series of writings, she has her students identify and describe their fondest wish and their parents' objections. They learn how to acknowledge the logic in what their parents have to say and to proceed with their own arguments. "In spite of," and "while," and "although," the students write, as they add substance to arguments that were emotional and one-dimensional before they began to probe them. Students take their finished essays home. Parents are impressed. So are the teachers who participate in Moitoza's workshop.

In fact, the teachers in the workshop also write arguments. They read and discuss their writing on the spot, wearing two hats as they go. One hat identifies them as writers doing what writers do: drafting, sharing their drafts, gathering responses, revising. The other is the teacher hat. In this role, they analyze Moitoza's approach, not only for its effect on their own writing but for its potential with their student writers.

At 166 sites around the world, teachers teach one another in nearly identical National Writing Project (NWP) summer institutes. More than a million teachers have voluntarily participated in summer or school-year programs since the project began 22 years ago. The lessons the National Writing Project has learned during these 22 years -- about teacher leadership, the teaching of writing, the qualities of worthwhile staff development, and the bumpy landscape of education reform are the subjects of this article.

The Beginnings of The National Writing Project

The dream child of former high school teacher James Gray, the project started in 1973 as an antidote to a pesky and embarrassing situation on the UC Berkeley campus. Nearly half of the entering freshmen, selected from among the top graduates in the nation, were landing in remedial writing classes. Clearly, writing was the short straw in teacher preparation courses, because most teachers had no idea, beyond the red-penciled papers of their past, how to teach writing. Something had to be done.

Something had to be done, too, about the teachers whose students were successful writers. Whatever these teachers were doing behind the closed doors of their classrooms was certainly worth a public hearing. It seemed a shame - no, a tragedy - that outstanding teachers went unheralded and unobserved by the very people who could benefit from their teaching approaches: other teachers. It also seemed wasteful that good teachers were not consistently and visibly active in the profession. Indeed, the profession could hardly be called a profession if its members met only on occasion and depended almost solely on outside consultants for nourishment.

The summer institute, as Gray and his teacher co-director, Cap Lavin, created it 22 years ago, was a simple, reauvely quiet response to what ailed student writers and teachers of writing. The same model is used today. At first glance, the institute is an assembly of good teachers. Beyond their excellence, however, these teachers do not necessarily resemble one another. Typically, they teach different subjects, at different grade levels (spanning kindergarten through the university), in different kinds of schools, using different approaches. The stage is set for creating a unique learning community.

During the five weeks of the institute, each member of this community gives a teaching demonstration for the entire group. Collectively, they develop the curriculum, the issues, and the questions that form the core of the five-week institute. Teachers like Leslie Moitoza can't help themselves. In spite of their nervousness, they smile for the entire 90 minutes of their demonstrations. It is as if they are savoring the long-awaited moment in their careers when someone has finally asked them what they do and why.

All members of the community write. To engage in the discipline makes the difference between seeing it from the outside and knowing it in the bones. And all members discuss and analyze research: articles and books that have relevance to their student populations and to the questions they have about the teaching of writing.

Initially, the writing project was also a substantial response to several anomalies in what passed for school reform. Much of staff development, whether or not it was "hands-on," dealt with issues of control: head lice or tardies or discipline. What to do when the children were deloused and relatively subdued was not a topic of conversation, except when a publisher's representative, university professor, or entrepreneur came to town. In other words, teachers had little to say about the content of the workshops they attended or about whom they found credible as classroom experts.

The Emergence Of Teacher Leaders

In the early days of the project, there was no guarantee that anyone would accept the idea of teachers teaching teachers. If the NWP held an inservice-training series -10 sessions, no less - would anyone show up? The answer was a resounding "yes." Teachers came voluntarily after school and on Saturdays. Many of them were starved for the time and the forum to talk honestly about breakthroughs and problems in teaching literacy. After 22 years, the hunger is unabated: 84,969 teachers nationwide participated in last year's inservice programs.

Teachers have been open to the NWP notion of inservice training in part because of the peculiar way the school culture operates and the need for alternatives. Instead of inviting teachers to watch one another teach, to debate best classroom practices, and to pool resources, the school culture walls them off and parcels out their time. It actually promotes professional distance. School often looks like the sandbox Jean Piaget describes, in which small children play side by side but not together. Indeed, in the public schools, according to Leon Botstein, "the teaching profession is bureaucratized, teachers are not treated as professionals, there is enormous regulation, the conditions of work are horrendous, [and] there is no professional community."1 No wonder teachers gravitate toward a community like the one offered by the National Writing Project.

James Gray is fond of the term "community of scholars." The National Writing Project is a breeding ground for teacher researchers, published writers, inservice leaders, keynote speakers, extraordinary classroom practitioners - each of them reinforced by others in the community. Since the NWP began, it has increasingly become the fashion to recognize the importance of teachers gathering together to study their craft. No longer is the National Writing Project the only game in town. Teacher-centered communities have cropped up in other disciplines -- seven others in California, for example (the California Arts, Foreign Language, History-Social Science, International Studies, Literature, Mathematics, and Science Projects). Teachers have additional resources nationwide as well. They can now join other colleagues for mutual support and learning in such professional gatherings as the summer institutes offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

It is also the current fashion to view teachers as integral to education reform. Teachers are one linchpin in the Clinton Administration's plans for grassroots, systemic reform in education. Teachers assume key leadership roles in state reform efforts as well. (Teachers in 23 NWP state networks contributed to the design and development of their state assessments, and those in 21 state networks helped devise state curriculum standards.)

But if teachers have become enormously important to the credibility of any reform effort, the use of teachers as leaders is too often random and token. Much of what could be genuine teacher leadership is simply a gesture to demonstrate teacher "buy-in" or to lend legitimacy to a topdown reform initiative. Teacher leaders are too frequently saddled with the questionable task of simply implementing someone else's curriculum. What this job entails, according to Kathy Medina and Mark St. John, is

a process whereby teachers engage in technical training and in turn proselytize their colleagues. The premises of this model relate to theories of learning we have discarded: the transmission of information to passive learners. This training and implementation model of school reform can only work when superficial changes in practice are warranted; not when a fundamental change in schools and an inner change in practitioners is the goal.2

More than ever, the National Writing Project is an alternative model that asks teachers like Leslie Moitoza to initiate change, to take the lead in improving the profession. This model, as opposed to the traditional model of teacher as passenger, demands that teachers get behind the wheel and make informed decisions about where to go and how to get there.

The Emergence Of Best Practices

From the beginning, NWP teachers have held up their classroom practices to the scrutiny of their peers. In an atmosphere of "critical agreement and supportive disagreement," as site director Don Rothman has described it, teachers have shaped and reshaped their notions about teaching and learning. The project has no master list of teaching strategies, no workshop notebook (although early on, callers to the project office asked, "Could you please send us the writing project?" - as if the project were some kind of catalogue item). If anything, Gray boasts more about the project's openness to new ideas than about its already-collected wisdom. In fact, he credits the longevity of the project in part to its avoidance of shrink-wrapped lessons and paint-by-number formulas.

At the same time, over the 22-year history of the project and after careful and close examination of exemplary classroom practices and research, expert teachers have agreed that certain strategies can improve the teaching of writing. Some examples:

Presenting writing as a process: encouraging and teaching students to behave like writers by creating their own topics, planning or prewriting, consulting peers and other resources, drafting and revising, editing for publication.

Having students write for different purposes and audiences: encouraging and teaching students to write in a wide range of situations, to tackle many different kinds of writing, and to think about readers (especially readers other than the teacher) as well as about their own intentions as writers.

Promoting writing as a way to learn: encouraging and teaching students to write in every class, to use writing as a tool for thinkin, solving problems, and understanding complicated concepts.

Emphasizing correctness as part of the procss of writing: teaching usage to students --not in seperate, unrelated slices, but in concert with the need for clear communication.

Creating a culture of learners and writers: giving students permission to take risks, make mistakes, help one another, and engage actively in writing, reading, speaking, and listening.

being a practicing writer as part of being a teacher of writing: becoming a full-fledged member of the learner/writer culture, both to improve the teaching of writing (who would take lessons from a driving teacher who doesn't drive?) and to improve as writer.

Other Lessons

In addition to the wisdom it has collected about teacher leadership and the teaching of writing, the National Writing Project continues to influence and learn about reform in education. Some examples:

Change takes time. The current undersecretary of education, Marshall Smith, and his co-author, Jennifer O' Day, lament the superficiality and lack of time that typically characterize professional development programs for teachers. They cite as exceptions the National Science Foundation summer institutes in mathematics and science and "groups such as the Bay Area Writing Project" that "attest to the power that inservice experiences can have on individual teachers."3 Sufficient time to study and critique a range of classroom practices is not a luxury for teachers. It is an absolute necessity. The National Writing Project avoids one-hit workshops and instant makeovers.

Top-down programs provide misleading models for teachers. The irony of the current reform movement is that it too often attempts to indoctrinate teachers by force-feeding them, while warning them that force-feeding their students is undesirable. In other words, teachers are often treated by state and national reformers as passive learners, the mere recipients of reform documents: curriculum standards, frameworks, program reviews. Their charge, on the other hand, is to do exactly the opposite with their students: to create learning communities in which students actively build knowledge, analyze and solve problems, cooperate on challenging projects, and debate what they read.

In order to offer students the kinds of experiences that reformers want them to have, teachers need to immerse themselves in similar experiences: to build, to analyze, to solve, to cooperate - in short, to try out the kinds of activities they might extend to their students. Enter the National Writing Project. As writing project director Sheridan Blau explains, "We have seen that teachers who become researchers, writers, authors- persons who are engaged in the construction of knowledge - will understand experientially what it means to construct knowledge in a community of learners and will devote themselves to figuring out how to turn their own classrooms into such communities for their students."4

Documents are not deeds; tasks are not teaching. If we could have written and read our way to reform in this nation, we might have succeeded long ago. However, the paper version of a national standard or framework cannot, by itself, transform teaching. Larry Cuban cites a case in California in which a document was intended to change the nature of classrooms. Researchers studied five elementary teachers who were using the new state mathematics framework that promotes thinking over rote memorization. Three of the teachers continued what they knew best: traditional whole-group instruction, recitation, and memorization. Even among teachers who followed the prescriptions of the state policy makers, their knowledge - and hence their practice - came from without, rather than from within. The result was an odd mixture of methods -- problem solving taught through the memorization of rules, for example. "So if one of the purposes of national curricula is to secure a higher degree of uniformity in what students learn, a growing body of evidence about teaching practices in pacesetting states reveals far more variation than policy makers ever expected, much less wanted," Cuban concludes.5

Similarly, new assessment tasks, hurled into classrooms from on high, will not necessarily land in hospitable environments. However innovative, a task is a task. It can be administered without changing the classroom one iota. To be influential and "authentic," a task needs to grow out of a classroom community that creates rather than administers. To be a learning event, a task depends on learners: teachers and students constructing and evaluating knowledge together.

Clearly, teacher-centered professional development programs can provide what is missing from the reform package of frameworks and assessments. Indeed, teacher networks can be the bridges between such abstractions as standards and the concrete day-to-day reality of the classroom. A teacher like Leslie Moitoza can bring to life - with tangible student papers as evidence - the expectation that our students learn to analyze problems and then to support their recommendations for solutions. In the context of a summer institute, Moitoza's colleagues can apply a standard or expectation to their own situations. It is hard to imagine a better marriage than the joining of standards with teacher programs such as the National Writing Project. On the other hand, the success of teacher networks lies, in part, in their independence from outside agendas. This independence has "fostered teachers' sense of ownership and professional safety perceptions that are essential to the difficult process of unlearning old practices and acquiring new ones."6

Content is no excuse for top-down professional development programs. Writing Project teacher Bob Tierney describes the ritual he and his science colleagues observe at the beginning of each school year. The department chair places the district and state curriculum in the center of a table and throws a blanket over it while each member of the department stands by. "There," the chairperson says, "we have covered the curriculum. Now we can teach."

Many professional development programs, without the mercy of a blanket, dedicate themselves to covering content: historical eras or modern scientific theories about which they deem teachers ignorant. The fact is that no one - not even the most honored university professor has the goods on all of history or all of the galaxy. Were expert teachers to be treated as experts, the way university professors are, they would be recognized for what they do know: areas of expertise, specific approaches, or particular pieces of content that hold promise for the entire field. Instead, there are programs, especially university programs, that give teachers credit for the configurations they manage in the classroom -- cooperative learning, for example -- while claiming the real stuff - content - as the property and deliverable good of the university.

But teachers can be excellent sources of expertise. Once honored for the theories they have already developed, teachers are eager to explore new theories. Once offered respect for their views, they seek the views of others. Thus, in shaping their own learning, teachers discard the notion of content as a "hand-me-down."

Research in the field of written composition has boomed in the last 22 years. To uncover this content, the National Writing Project takes the lifetime approach. A summer institute is enough time to investigate research that addresses each teacher's most urgent questions, to create a hunger for more knowledge, and to establish a community of scholars who will continue to read and study available research as well as to become researchers themselves. The pursuit does consume a lifetime, after all. Five weeks is an absurdly short time to conduct a survey course. And if the professional development program has follow-up sessions, as the National Writing Project does, the content will extend and develop beyond the wildest dreams of the ram-it-down-their-throats crowd.

Hugh Price has argued that inhaling new content is no longer a healthy experience. The challenge for teachers is to unlearn the inhaling method and instead to learn teaching methods that invite students to think about content. But the unlearning/ learning process takes time, confidence in teachers, and major, continuous investment in professional development, according to Price. "Simply put, there's no teacher-proof curriculum for cultivating higher-order skills in kids."7

Reform movements thrive when they are inclusive and open. Programs like the National Writing Project identify best practices and research without freeze-drying them or plunking them into statements that begin, "Teachers must." The programs that have come and gone in education are often those that have clung to a particular way of viewing the world, to tools that might or might not serve all kinds of students, or to officially blessed curricula. To last and to have lasting impact, professional development programs would do well to encourage informed debate and healthy unrest among their participants. The questions, not the answers, are what inspire teachers to think more deeply about the decisions they make. Similarly, professional development programs can gain more from emphasizing the principle of inquiry, as Judith Warren Little calls it, than from focusing on information.

Without denying that there are times when technical skill training is indeed appropriate, this principle anticipates a model based more persuasively on the pursuit of knowledge. It provides the possibility for teachers and others to interrogate their individual beliefs and the institutional patterns of practice. It acknowledges that the existing knowledge base is relatively slim and that our strength may derive less from teachers' willingness to consume research knowledge than from their capacity to generate knowledge and to assess the knowledge claimed by others.8

A Final Lesson

The National Writing Project became a federally funded program four years ago. For every dollar of federal funding, the project has raised four additional dollars from state and local sources. Under the new NWP executive director, Richard Sterling, this cost-sharing continues to climb, as does the number of teacher participants: more than 166,000 in 1993-94. The National Endowment for the Humanities, an earlier funding source, called the National Writing Project "the most effective and cost-effective program in the history of Endowment support for elementary and secondary education programs."

A final lesson of the NWP is the reason for that effectiveness: belief in teachers. If we do not put our faith and our energy into teachers, then nothing we do in education - no initiative, no standard, no assessment - will ever make a real difference to the lives of students. To put this more positively, teachers are our best resource and our best hope to rethink and reshape education for the next century.


1. Leon Botstein, "Educating in a Pessimistic Age," Harper's Magazine, August 1993, p. 19. 

2. Kathy Medina and Mark St. John, "TeacherLeaders: A New Breed of Hyphenated Americans," CAIP [Center for Academic Interinstitutional Programs] Quarterly, Spring 1993, p. 12. 

3. Marshall S. Smith and Jennifer O' Day, "Systemic School Reform," in Susan H. Fuhrman and Betty Malen, eds., The Politics of Curriculum Testing: Politics of Education Association Yearbook 1990 (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1990), p. 242. 

4. Sheridan Blau, "Constructing Knowledge in a Professional Community: The Writing Project as a Model for Classrooms." NWP/CSW [Center for the Study of Writing] Quarterly, Winter 1993, p. 17. 

5. Larry Cuban, "A National Curriculum and Tests: Charting the Direct and Indirect Consequences," Education Week, 14 July 1993, p. 27. 

6. Ann Lieberman and Milbrey W. McLaughlin, "Networks for Educational Change: Powerful and Problematic," Phi Delta Kappan, May 1992, p. 676. 

7. Hugh B. Price, "Teacher Professional Development: It's About Time," Education Week, 12 May 1993, p. 32.

8. Judith Warren Little, "Teachers' Professional Development in a Climate of Educational Reform," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 15, 1993, p.139. IC

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

The National Writing Project after 22 years. Phi Delta Kappan; Bloomington; Jun 1996; Smith, Mary Ann; Volume: 77; Issue: 10; Start Page: 688


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