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Leadership and Activism

The National Writing Project is a revolution

Guest blogger Art Peterson contributes this #blog4nwp post to the Coöp.

Recently, Paul E. Peterson, writing on the Hoover Institution’s EdNext blog, referred collectively to the educational programs axed from the 2011 federal budget as “busy little nothings.” One of these “nothings”—along with such established and useful programs as Teach for America and Reading Is Fundamental—is the National Writing Project (NWP).

If it were 1978, one part of Peterson’s pejorative designation would indeed be on target. In those days the Writing Project was nothing if not “little.” That year thirty college writing teachers, determined to do something about the dismal state of writing education, sat around on folding chairs in a Kansas City, Missouri, hotel ballroom and searched for ways out of this prevailing condition. This was NWP’s first Annual Meeting.

At last year’s Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, 1,500 teacher-leaders representing more than 200 Writing Project sites were on hand. How did a handful of committed idealists spark a movement that now reaches 1.4 million U.S. students each year?

The answer is that the National Writing Project is not a program; it is a revolution.

In 1974 its founder, James Gray, a former high school teacher who supervised student teachers at the University of California, Berkeley, had an epiphany. In the process, he formulated some principles that turned the teaching of writing on its head. Here’s what he realized:

Experienced teachers know about stuff. Accomplished teachers do not need to be lectured at, as typically happened on staff development days, by experts who had not been near a classroom in decades. Instead, Gray reasoned, why not get the best of these teachers together over the summer to share what they know? If one teacher has found a way around the mental constipation of the five-paragraph essay and another has developed a way for kids to intelligently comment on each other’s writing let them share their knowledge and come out stronger teachers.

Teachers of writing need to write. Would we turn a science teacher loose in a lab if he or she had never fooled around with a bunsen burner? Yet each year thousands of teachers—even English teachers—were being released into K–12 classes having done no writing beyond cobbling together a few term papers, some vowing never again to subject themselves to this painful experience. These teachers were expected to assign and grade essays, marking up students’ papers with comments like “unclear,” when, in fact, they had little idea how to make them clear.

For many educators, the Writing Project changed all that. At the 200 institutes held every summer, teachers wrestle with writing the same way their students struggle with essays. By writing and commenting on each other’s writing, they come to understand―and even love―the process, an enthusiasm they take back to their classrooms.

The best teachers of teachers are other teachers. Gray knew that the summer institute participants were not going to, by themselves, reverse the bad habits common in writing instruction. So for the past 37 years, the graduates of these institutes have been recruited to work with teachers in local schools. That means there are now thousands of educators who understand that there are many ways for students to generate ideas before they write, that revision is crucial to all writing, and that writing is essential in all subjects if learners are to think logically and creatively.

All this and more for $26.5 million in annual federal funding, which is matched by state, local, and foundation funds.

The “more” tossed off in the previous sentences is important, because Peterson is right on another count: The Writing Project is “busy.” For its $26.5 million, in addition to the work described above, NWP has developed networks for ELL, urban, and rural teachers. It has fostered research groups investigating the most effective ways to teach writing and pulled together technology-oriented educators to share their skills and strategies. The organization’s website ( is loaded with thousands of articles by teachers for teachers.

The National Writing Project, whose successes have been documented in dozens of research studies, deserves to be fully funded so it can continue its busy, but no longer little, work.

The author, a retired teacher with 30 years of classroom experience, was a participant in the Bay Area Writing Project summer institute. He has worked for the past 17 years as a senior editor at NWP.


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2 thoughts on “The National Writing Project is a revolution

  1. Great piece, Art. You are a master story teller and you have captured NWP’s story so beautifully.

    Posted by Sharline Chiang | March 28, 2011, 2:07 pm


  1. Pingback: The #blog4nwp archive « Cooperative Catalyst - March 27, 2011

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