National Writing Project

Director's Update

By: Richard Sterling
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 4
Date: Fall 2003

Summary: An update from Executive Director Richard Sterling.


Dear Friends,

As I write this letter, 175 sites across the United States are in the middle of their invitational summer institutes. This means that approximately 3,000 new teacher-consultants are joining the writing project community, bringing with them a whole new body of knowledge and expertise.

And word of that expertise—of the organization's collective expertise—is spreading. By now, for example, you will have become aware of "The Neglected 'R,'" the report by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. This report has caused much discussion in the press. And then there are the sales of Because Writing Matters, our book published by Jossey-Bass on improving writing in our schools, which have increased significantly in recent months. Perhaps this new interest in the writing project and what its teachers have to say will allow school districts to focus less on expensive commercial programs and more on professional development that relies on the expertise of teachers in their midst. Writing project professional development does just that, and it remains one of the most cost-effective strategies that schools can employ. But as always, it will be important to speak to school district leaders to continue to make that case.

Thinking about expertise also brings to mind the sad news of Nancy Martin's death. Nancy Martin, together with Jimmy Britton and several other colleagues at the London Institute for Education, was part of a revolution in the teaching of writing that helped many of us when we began our teaching careers. She was an extraordinary teacher, a powerful theorist and synthesizer of ideas, and most of all she loved being with and around teachers. (She even knew the headmaster of my high school!) Her influence was enormous, particularly among writing project sites.

Although I met her at the Bread Loaf School of English where she spent many summers, I particularly remember being awed by her on one occasion when she was the visiting consultant at the New York City Writing Project Summer Institute.

"Today we're going to do something completely different," Nancy announced upon arrival that morning. As she spoke she handed to each teacher two or three pieces of plain stationery and a stamped envelope. "This morning I want you to think hard about someone to whom you have been meaning to write for a long, long time. Then I want you to sit down right now and write that letter, put it in the envelope, and send it."

After a stunned silence, people slowly began to write, and little by little everyone in the room became lost in the charge. Some people became emotional; some were filled with pleasure as they recovered the event that had created the need to write. Others became sad as they recounted the lost time and connection. When people were finished they were, in a word, stunned—first by what they had written and second because by writing they had recovered an important part of their lives. When people had finished, Nancy in her very no-nonsense voice, said, "You see! Powerful stuff writing, particularly when you have something you want to say." And with that she finished her presentation and left. I, and many others who knew her or her work, will surely miss Nancy Martin.

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