Why We Need the National Writing Project

In early March, Congress voted to slash funding for the National Writing Project (NWP). Those of us connected to NWP know that this was a terrible, misguided decision. Here’s my opinion—just one of many—why.

Writing is the reason I became a teacher. Or, more specifically, a writing teacher is the reason I became a teacher. He knew how to do what I wanted to do: help students see the power of writing for expression and solace.

In a way, writing is the reason I’m not still teaching, too. Like many young, passionate teachers, I quickly realized that a belief in the power of writing and a passion for teaching were not enough to sustain me through long days of (what seemed to me to be) resistant students, angry parents, and a system that seemed to care little about whether I made it or not. My idealistic, young self could not believe that my belief and passion for the written word weren’t enough. Didn’t they GET it? Didn’t anyone CARE? I left in disgust.

Fast forward eight (somewhat unsatisfying career) years or so, to 2006 and a new job working for the National Writing Project. I thought, “Well, if I’m not in the classroom, at least it might be satisfying to work with teachers.” A project built around connecting writing teachers sounded like a cool idea, and the people seemed nice enough, I thought.

I had no idea then that this “cool,” “nice” organization was actually a thriving network of committed, passionate teachers, fiercely dedicated to excellence.

In my first month at NWP, I attended a day of the Bay Area Writing Project’s (BAWP) Summer Institute—an opportunity made available to all NWP staff to help us learn about and experience the NWP model. I sat in a room with 15 teachers, and listened with fear in my heart as one of them demonstrated a lesson on writing Song of Myself poems—poems that celebrate the self that is capable, beautiful, strong.

During a ten minute writing period, a teacher at my table wrote two pages bursting with lyrical rhythm, generous with simile, staccato beating with life. Another wrote a love song to herself—her learning, her growth. I can still remember the lines I wrote—three measly sentences, eked out painfully, shared shyly.

That day I watched the new BAWP teacher consultants demonstrate pieces of the NWP model. They listened to each other. They wrote. They shared—without fear or in spite of it—what they wrote. They helped each other—and me—revise, to better say what they intended. And they asked each other: How can I use this with my students who are first graders, college students, middle schoolers? Why does this work matter, to us and to our students?

That early experience witnessing the NWP model has been repeated many times over my years at NWP. At the Professional Writing Retreat, which I again joined reluctantly, at first unable to write or share what I had written, and later taking strength from the feedback, support, and critically important questions I received from my fellow writers. At the Directors Retreat, where I spent three days listening with amazement and deep respect as pairs of site leaders from across the U.S. came together to ask themselves and each other how they could do more for teachers and students.

At every event, in countless meetings, and through daily communications that bounce back to the NWP office from our 200+ sites across the country, I am reminded of why this network has worked for so many teachers for so many years. NWP allows teachers to ask each other the questions that all committed teachers ask themselves every day—usually without finding answers. I mean both the little questions, like “Will this lesson work with my students?” or “How can I tailor it to their needs?” And the Big Questions, too, like “How can I be better?” or “How does my own professional growth/writing/thinking fit into my everyday teaching?”

I know that if I had been a part of the National Writing Project when I first started teaching, I would still be teaching today. I have heard this stated countless times from teachers across our network: “NWP is what keeps me going . . . keeps me learning . . . makes me a more effective teacher.”

Those questions I asked myself as a young teacher echo back to me daily at NWP. Doesn’t anyone GET it? I asked. NWP gets it: teachers need other committed, passionate colleagues with good ideas and thoughtful feedback, as well as a chance to work on their craft, if we want them to stay in the classroom AND be the best teachers they can be.

Furthermore, what other program reaches teachers in every state in the U.S.—not through newsletters or mailings—but through locally-based, personally-relevant programs that meet teachers where they are, to help them do more and be better? I can’t think of a single one.

I know that the NWP network can’t be eliminated simply by Congress’ decision to slash funding for this important organization. But the decision can severely impact NWP’s ability to continue reaching and impacting teachers—something we can’t afford. If you agree, you can learn more at NWP Works! about how you can help.

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