Back to basics: Writing project as educational reform

Unquestionably, one of the best things I ever did for my students and for my professional career was participating in a National Writing Project summer workshop. The Delta Area Writing Project not only introduced me to effective writing strategies to use with my students, but also put me in touch with several strong networks of teachers, the combined effects of which have made a tremendous difference in the success of my work inside and outside of the classroom.

A recent EdWeek article highlights the NWP and its renewed focus on the importance of writing in developing the thinking skills of students in all subject areas. NWP is part of a grassroots movement among teachers of writing to revolutionize and standardize writing instruction, and to embed writing across the curriculum as an integral part of the education of every student.

Of course, NWP Workshops are not panacea for all that ails American education. A summer workshop can only introduce teachers to writing strategies and possibilities (the work of NWP continues through networking and follow-up long after the initial attendance).  Also, the quality of the NWP experience varies from one project site to another, although the leadership does try to exercise some control over the consistency.

The biggest problem facing the movement is teachers going back into schools/districts that discourage or actually block them from using these highly effective teaching and learning strategies with the students who would most benefit from them, especially high needs/high risk students. Developing thinking and writing skills takes time, and too often these important learning experiences are ordered aside in favor of faster, less effective teaching methods that allow for greater coverage of test material or faster computation of scores.

The EdWeek article also referenced the 2003 Report of the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, which states:

Writing, always time-consuming for student and teacher, is today hard-pressed in the American classroom. Of the three “Rs,” writing is clearly the most neglected. The nation’s leaders must place writing squarely in the center of the school agenda, and policymakers at the state and local levels must provide the resources required to improve writing.

President Bush has tried repeatedly to cut NWP’s federal support; fortunately, even members of his own party (like Mississippi’s Sen. Thad Cochran) recognize its value and continue to fight for it. Rather than attack it, the President and his education appointees would do well to study NWP as a model for what could be truly effective educational reform.