This is how Richard articulated the NWP vision in 1998:
“...we want to tell teachers they are a critical part of the larger educational intellectual community, and we want people to think of the National Writing Project as a group that is about the intellectual integrity of teachers."
NWP (UK) also wants teachers to reclaim their prime role in educational reform. But the project is distinctive in other ways too.
- NWP (UK) is owned by teachers and promotes teachers’ agency (it is not-for-profit and open to all teachers): it’s free.
- NWP (UK) collects evidence and disseminates findings through groups and regular publications: it works.
- NWP (UK) has launched and networked over 30 teachers' writing groups across the UK during the past 6 years.
The project does not underestimate the problematic nature of current English national assessment models of ‘good writing’. These tend to overshadow curriculum development and fresh thinking. NWP explores writing beyond simplistic notions of correctness and progress. We find writing to be a layered, contested, negotiated and culturally provisional endeavour. Our challenge is to understand more about writing’s shifting and complex processes, so that more teachers and learners benefit from a diet richer than mere test preparation.
So, what to do?
Of course, time is limited and compromises must be made, but teachers are finding practical ways of making writing a more inclusive and engaging enterprise. Though there appear to be ‘quick wins’ (and there are), these will not flourish unless the ground is prepared. This requires mutual respect, self-determination, and the cultivation of attention and practice.
First, teachers of writing benefit from a safe place in which they themselves can write and share – to learn about writing and the teaching of writing. What teachers internalise in trusted NWP groups, begins to influence how they make writing a more meaningful activity for all their pupils, rather than one driven only by external demands and conventions. Just as developing individual reading tastes strengthens teachers of reading, so teachers of writing are strengthened by finding their own writing voice in the company of others. One of the many affordances of writing, fully realised, is that it enables lives to be lived twice, explored more deeply. Writers come to understandings and affirmations through writing with others. This is beyond ‘pleasure’.
Secondly, NWP does not attempt to homogenise, scale or sell writing. It values the diversity of voices, not their replicability. It does not attempt to manage writing or make it easy to measure; it tries to grow writers and understand better those conditions that are conducive to their growth – both within schools and outside them. It moves beyond the ‘rules’ of writing set by others, to consider the ‘rights’ of writers themselves. In doing so, the project embraces those rich fields of chance, difficulty, uncertainty and mystery which inform and challenge all writers.
Thirdly, NWP situates teachers as creative collaborators and agents of reform. By writing, reading and talking together, teachers discover the many benefits of autonomous groups of writers. Groups are characterised by the discipline of attentive listening, of nurturing trust, of full reading, response and reflection. As with any cultural activity, what writing is and does, continually changes and evolves. Teachers, therefore, often find improvisation more useful than performance, they find acquainting themselves with processes and relationships, more valuable and durable than following methods, fixing structures, or pursuing outcomes. Teachers come to appreciate the value of speaking and hearing writing, as well as seeing it; they know that their pupils learn from what they do, as well as from what they say. Writing in a notebook alongside your class may be more motivating to your students than giving out instructions.
Above all, NWP foregrounds the group dynamic – the writing histories, conversations, observations, and experiments. And what starts with a group of teachers, spills out into their classrooms, as human agency. Of necessity, some of this is about compromise, but much is about liberating writing from those forces which would corral, define, colonise and circumscribe it - and giving it back to young writers.
I have been following the writing journeys of pupils with NWP teachers. One young writer, now at the end of year 10, speaks about the difference it makes to have a teacher who is prepared to write alongside her and to share her writing struggles. Hers is a personal, social and affective journey, not a purely cognitive one. She has learnt how imaginative writing can deepen her understanding of fictional characters, of the current human condition and, of course, of herself. She understands how important it is to have a trusted listener – in her case this is often her sister.
Explaining what happened when she wrote in response to a photograph of Brooklyn Bridge, she was able to speak eloquently about a process of resonance and transference:
P: What I wanted - kind of - was to show how small she is in - like - such a big world that she’s ... surrounded by all these big things, like the water, the bridge, the cars, and she’s just one little person watching all this . And I felt that that’s how I am right now - because we’ve got A levels and all this, and I feel like I’m just a little person out of a big group of 280 people - so I transferred that feeling into the character.
SW: In that way – the writing started to be a way of you thinking through yourself – very valuable for anyone in year 10. Would you be allowed that exploratory writing in other areas of the curriculum?
(Student interview transcript: 25.5.2016)
This is just one example of one student, in one school, using one of the many ‘affordances’ of writing to help her explore her circumstances and live her life more fully. However, the understandings she has are all the more durable and valuable for having been discovered rather than schooled. The teachers who have enabled her to do this are providing her with an education as a writer, as well as in writing. And this is an education that is open to us all when we explore a wide curriculum beyond the narrow channels of assessment.
Join an NWP group and help to create a better future for all our children.
NWP outreach director