National Writing Project

Respected Researchers Publish Book About NWP

By: Art Peterson
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 5
Date: November-December 2002

Summary: Ann Lieberman and Diane R. Wood analyze what makes the writing project model so successful and show how other professional development efforts can learn from it.


Those of us who are regularly called on to describe the work of the National Writing Project have down a little spiel that goes something like this: "The National Writing Project is a network of 175 sites, each based on a college campus. Every summer, each of these sites invites 20 or so teachers to an institute where they share their best practices. After honing their presentation skills during the institute, the teachers join a cadre of teacher-consultants who do professional development in local schools."

This description may work as a sound byte, but readers of Ann Lieberman and Diane Wood's new book, Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting Network Learning and Classroom Teaching (Teachers College Press, 2002) will realize that such a summary tells only a small piece of the writing project story. By 1997, the authors—Lieberman, senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Wood, assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine—had spent a number of years studying school reform networks. During this time, they had heard the stories of how one of these networks, the National Writing Project, changes lives. Since they were not regularly hearing these claims from participants in other networks, they began to wonder just what it was that attracted so many teachers to NWP.

They set up a research design that focused on two sites, the UCLA Writing Project in California and the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. The researchers wanted to look at these sites to get an idea of how NWP sites enable (or constrain) teacher development and student learning, how they build professional community, and how they function in the network context, both locally and nationally. They visited these sites, documented the summer institute at both, and interviewed national leaders, site directors, and selected teacher-consultants. They observed these teacher-consultants in their classrooms. They also interviewed the teachers and the site directors in focus groups and asked the teacher-consultants to write narratives over time, documenting the progress of their students.

Findings About NWP

Much of Lieberman and Wood's work describes the practical workings of the two sites they investigated, the learning in the classrooms of those teacher-consultants on whom they focused, and the connection between the workings of the site and the teaching and learning approaches in the classroom. In the course of this work, however, Lieberman and Wood also identified important reasons why NWP has succeeded where other professional development efforts have not done as well. Reading these authors' conclusions, a rather dated but appropriate allusion comes to mind. The National Writing Project is the "Uncola" of staff development.

The following are beliefs that Lieberman and Wood found drive the work of the National Writing Project. More than just directing the work, however, according to Lieberman and Wood, together these practices establish the National Writing Project's uniqueness as a professional development network.

To NWP, each colleague is a potentially valuable contributor. A teacher invited to the summer institute, or for that matter attending any writing project function, is not considered a vessel into which the flavor-of-the-month teaching strategies need to be poured, rather these teachers actually participate. The authors quote one site director: "[In the summer institute] there is unconditional acceptance of who the [teachers] are, what they believe, and what they think."*

The authors say that this attitude "provides a powerful antidote to the isolation and silence all too typical of teachers' professional lives."

NWP honors teacher knowledge. NWP professional development, the authors state, "topples traditional hierarchies, which seat knowledge in the authority of recognized experts or accepted theory."

"We always start with what teachers know," says one site director. "The writing project is really an invitation for teachers to share what they know."

Of course, as Lieberman and Wood point out, if teachers are to share what they know "they must take seriously what others know, the assump-tion being that everyone has something both to teach and to learn."

NWP creates a public forum for teachers. Many professional development programs are built on the assumption that teachers will take back whatever strategies they have learned and put them to work behind the closed doors of their classrooms.

In contrast, NWP expects teachers to take center stage not only in the summer institute but beyond it. Lieberman and Wood report on the numerous ways that they witnessed teacher-consultants going public. Teacher-consultants make presentations for parents and at professional meetings, write articles for professional journals, hold conversations via electronic conferences, and contribute to local newsletters and newspapers.

NWP turns ownership of learning over to the learners. The National Writing Project may not be the only educational network that emphasizes that students should be responsible for their own learning, but it is certainly one of the few that follows this idea to a parallel conclusion: that teachers also are responsible for their own learning. This idea, say Lieberman and Wood, leads NWP teachers to see current notions of teacher accountability through a wider lens. "They are accountable, not in response to outside monitoring, but because they are continually assessing students' progress and gauging their progress accordingly."

NWP sees the importance of building community to nourish learning. Again in contrast to many other professional development programs, in NWP, one is not expected to go it alone. As one teacher-consultant put it, "When we have doubts, we know that we can turn to someone with the same set of values."

The NWP learning community provides a haven for constructive critique and helpful suggestions. This community, the authors say, is not about "`feel good' interactions but [is meant to] establish a vigorous intellectual context for learning."

NWP provides multiple entry points into learning community. Professional development as we experience it in 2002 is most often linked to teaching the "truth" that those hired to do the staff development are charged with conveying. Lieberman and Wood recognize that the National Writing Project is not like that. Indeed, the network promotes a kind of pluralism. "The NWP offers no great truth, but rather offers an opportunity for teachers to come together to name and investigate their own challenges and problems. NWP teachers tend to have little faith in ready-made solutions purported to work under any circumstances with any student."

NWP guides reflection on teaching through reflection on learning. The authors point out that much professional development is "based on the simplistic, linear conception that . . . teaching causes learning. Consequently, typical inservices frequently promote `best practices' ostensibly designed to promote learning for all students. NWP, on the other hand, begins with a focus on learning."

When NWP teachers alter their practice, say the authors, "it is not simply because they learned new ideas and strategies from one another, but because they have learned from their own experiences as learners."

NWP promotes shared leadership. In the National Writing Project, professional development does not mean merely learning a few more classroom strategies, but rather becoming more professional on all levels. Lieberman and Wood quote one teacher-consultant to reinforce this point:

I usually lead a group or two of teachers during the year. Last year, I had a teacher research group and the Focus on Standards group. The Focus on Standards group traveled a lot because we had to meet with teacher-consultants from other California Writing Project sites. I am also on the advisory committee... I also feel a need to be a voice for urban teachers. This is one of the reasons I am part of the leadership team. As we make plans, I think about what will be helpful to teachers in schools like mine and the schools my children attend.

NWP promotes an inquiry stance. It is very much a distortion of NWP's work to think of the network as merely a way for passing on replicable teaching strategies that have been successful. (That's what is probably most over- simplified in the thumbnail description of NWP's work offered in the first paragraph above.) A veteran teacher-consultant helped the researchers understand how the project moves teachers beyond merely sharing best practice. "[I] keep looking for answers when things aren't going in the right direction, to try to look at some evidence or data to try to figure it out. . . [asking myself] What else should I be doing here?"

That's the question that the National Writing Project wants teachers to ask.

NWP's Role in the Big Picture

The reader takes away from Inside the National Writing Project the understanding that, while sometimes the project's basic stance is reduced to a slogan—"teachers teaching teachers"—an appreciation of NWP's work can never be reduced to words that will fit on the front of a T-shirt. As Lieberman and Wood put it, "On the face of it, the NWP strategy appears to be directed toward changing teachers one at a time, a strategy that would have limited impact on the teaching of writing and on the profession as a whole. This characterization masks a far more complex strategy, involving strategies of change and professional development both for individuals and for communities within a network context."


Lieberman, A., and D. R. Wood. 2002. Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting Network Learning and Classroom Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

* All quotes from Lieberman and Wood have been taken from a pre-publication manuscript.

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