These are the words of Anne Whitney assessing the legacy of the National Writing Project in the USA in an article entitled, ‘Orientations for the Teaching of Writing: A Legacy of the National Writing Project. 2013’
NWP (US) has enjoyed both State and Federal funding since 1973. Teachers’ writing groups have existed in each State university. Teachers have gathered to exchange discoveries at national annual summer schools. Now that US funding is in question, reviewing the project’s achievements is a pressing concern.
In contrast, the younger NWP (UK), although guided by similar principles, has been, since 2012, a model of initial and continuing professional development which is owned and funded entirely by committed writing teacher-researchers. Of the 20+ writing groups, most are led by enthusiastic volunteers and practising teachers; relatively few are based in university departments. NWP (UK) residentials each October have become laboratories for the exploration of writing and teaching.
Both US and UK projects promote the educational benefits of pupils’ and teachers’ agency. This is even more important when education systems are centralised and outcome-driven. Accountability inevitably focuses on prescribed destinations – the ‘what’ and the 'how far' (a product and a standard). But the deeper and more individual ‘how’ (process) and ‘why’ (purpose) become obscured by this – as do the difficulties of negotiating and validating diverse learning journeys. Because NWP believes that there is educational value in enquiring into processes and meanings, it aims to strengthen the learning, rights, goods and well-being of ‘participants’ in the educational conversation.
Anne Whitney quotes Mary Ann Smith in describing the NWP model of CPD:
“This model (NWP), 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.” (Mary Ann Smith, 1996, p. 690).
James Gray, one of the founders of NWP (US) in 1974, is also quoted:
“By allowing excellent teachers the opportunity to demonstrate their best practices without restrictions, the project remains open to new ideas, approaches, and variations. … The writing project is not a writing curriculum or even a collection of best strategies; it is a structure that makes it possible for the exemplary teachers to share with other teachers ideas that work.” (Gray, 2000, pp. 83-84)
More recently, Cochran-Smith and Lytle have re-emphasized NWP inquiry “as a collective, and not simply an individual, stance” which is “a worldview, a critical habit of mind, a dynamic and fluid way of knowing and being in the world that carries across professional careers and educational settings” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009, p. 120).
Anne Whitney identifies 3 benefits of the legacy of NWP (US) to teachers and their pupils:
1. 'Teachers clarified or revised their sense of the purposes for writing, primarily as a tool for learning and for developing ideas … they were committed to and promoted the value of their students’ ideas … This also meant that while teachers valued both fluency and form, they sequenced fluency before form in their work with students.'
2. ‘Participants used writing processes as an organizing idea by which to scaffold students’ writing practices … they began teaching writing, not just assigning writing … teachers taught students a variety of ways to generate text and to self-manage their progress in producing a text, were intentional about modeling how to do things rather than simply describing the products they hoped would emerge.'
3. ‘Participants linked their teaching of writing to their own experience as writers. They then positioned themselves among students as a writer among writers, many times writing alongside the students.'
Anne includes the teachers’ own testimony:
“Sometimes you don’t understand what it is until you’re writing about it, and then the learning seems to make sense. And then you can express it in a way that is clear and concise after you’ve been muddled. Sort of like in the beginning of writing it’s muddled, and then it becomes clear.”
“Teaching … has to start with developing fluency. That starts with convincing kids, no matter what level of skill development they have, that they have something to say and that it’s important. So let’s talk about, and think about, and then write about what you have to say. And not tripping them up with, “it has to be in a particular form” and “it all has to be correct,” because I think that does nothing but shut down. It shuts down the thinking, and it also robs kids of the confidence they need to proceed.”
And what does she find are the benefits of NWP teachers writing alongside pupils?
“First, it provides empathy for student experience and firsthand knowledge of the challenges student writers might face when writing; second, it positions the teacher relative to students as a writer among writers.”
Further NWP (UK) testimony can be found here.
In 2019 NWP (UK) aims to publish further findings in an edition of NATE’s journal, English in Education dedicated entirely to the teaching of writing. In the meantime, the evidence becomes stronger in support of professional development driven by teachers : join a writing group and be part of it.
NWP outreach director