Dear Arne Duncan,
The rumor on the winds that whispers through the halls is that funding for the National Writing Project will soon be threatened. I understand that the Obama administration is moving to consolidate expenses by merging a number of programs into one fund. I realize that the intent is to create this bigger pool of money that can be used to pay for any number of programs, but the fact is that by bleeding programs together, you undermine the uniqueness of purpose and proven success that has become the National Writing Project. You are messing with what works, breaking what never needed to be fixed.
You talk about teacher quality, yet here we have a program that only accepts those teachers devoted to an ongoing improvement of their practice. You talk about teacher quality, yet here we have a program where the greatest educators and authors and presenters sit and share their craft with those teachers most willing to learn. In the same breath with which we talk about the need for greater quality of teachers, you and the Obama administration are looking to shirk spending what little funds it takes to run one of the most influential and inspiring programs out there.
I have to assume that you do not fully understand what the Writing Project is about, as many don’t who are not in education itself. So I’ll describe it using comparisons that will hopefully describe its influence and benefits.
Just imagine a film school that selected its participants from a large pool of directing students, but only those with the most exciting ideas and dedication to the craft, and allowed those students (say, 20 of them total) to spend a month of their summer in dialogue with the greatest directors of our time. During their summer, Spielberg would sit down for a day in their midst, bringing with him one of his greatest life and professional lessons to pass on for them to make their own. Scorsese would participate too, Spike Lee, and Spike Jonez. Can you just imagine the movies, the new cinematic treasures that would be born of such a summer?
Just imagine being a baseball player of promise given the opportunity to spend a month in the company of Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, and Yogi Berra. Can you imagine the brilliant plays and games of legend that would come out of such a season of learning?
So is it also true with the National Writing Project and its various branches all over the country. Every summer, in many cities in the United States, small cohorts of teachers, representing every grade level from Pre-K through college level, and any subject possible, gather together in excitement as members of the chosen few to have been selected to participate in a NWP Summer Institute.
But their excitement only lasts so long before the mental sweat begins. Their hands cramp daily, their brains ache with the challenges asked, as authors, professors, journalists, and educators come before them to pass on their knowledge. The goal? To create writers from these groups of diverse teachers, the theory being that if we can teach teachers more about the craft of writing, their knowledge will slowly ripple out into their own staffs, improving both the quality of the teachers around them and the level of student achievement for those lucky enough to be in their classes.
Writing is one of the only skills that is threaded within all subjects. For the ability to communicate knowledge is as important as one’s content knowledge. It is also one of the only skills that we teach in school that has a direct correlation to skills used later on in life. Just think to yourself of the times that your ability to write has proven to be of the utmost importance: to get into college, to apply for a job, to write an email, memo, or letter. Without writing, the scientist could not report their findings, the journalist could not report the truth of the world, and the statistician could not analyze their data.
You can tell a teacher is a product of the Writing Project from the quality of product his or her students produce. You can see it in the voice in the students’ writing, in their risk-taking, and most importantly, in their enjoyment of learning.
For one month each summer, in cities all over the United States, an honored few are privy to experience this amazing program, where they are granted the opportunity to work with a number of teachers, a mythical school staff of like-minded individuals, all on fire with their own learning and all looking towards the fall when then can spread that fire to their students. It is a unique staff, a faculty lounge of learning unlike any that they have worked with before.
Mr. Duncan, can you not see how valuable it is to allow teachers to experience what the ideal is like? Do you not see how, given the time, more and more teachers would crave, eventually demand, these standards from their own schools, if only given the change to live it and breath it for one chance in their life?
For that is the true missive of the Writing Project. It is not only to teach students, but also to influence teachers. And it all starts with one month in one summer each year in each city.
So I beg you, Mr. Duncan, do not allow the National Writing Project to sink slowly over the horizon, de-selected by some committee with less influence or an alternative agenda.
Ongoing learning cannot be considered a luxury if we are in the business of educating students. The ability to learn from the best should not be a gift, but a right that should be granted to as many teachers as we can afford. Because, frankly, to allow effective professional development to die out is ultimately what we really can’t afford to lose in education. Our education as teachers is instrumental in educating our students.
Please continue to support the National Writing Project.
Middle School Teacher
University of California, Irvine Writing Project Fellow ‘07
Teachers: Want to improve your practice? Want to influence the practice of others and improve the quality of every student in your room? Get thyself to your local Writing Project.
Look around you, the teachers you most admire, the teachers you learn from in a daily basis, are they prior members of a Writing Project, a Math Project, or a Reading Project? Anyone out there in my readership who has hailed from one of these amazing programs? Give it a shout out in your comment, and contact your Congressional Representative to help save the National Writing Project.