Thursday, March 17th, 2011
No, I probably filled the manilla envelope w/ two recommendations, a demo lesson, a letter of application, twisted the metal brackets shut and put a stamp on the whole thing. And stuck it in the mail. Never realising that I was opening a Way, as the Quakers say. A space where something totally unforeseen would grow. The way this winter’s lawn bloomed w/ daffodils I never planted.
The packet that I sent was my ticket to becoming a teacher. It was an application for the 1996 Oklahoma State University Writing Project. And how different everything has been since…
Despite the picture, a teacher is not made from books. I’m sure there are many people who know more than I do about writing. And certainly I have no monopoly on poetry ~ scholars abound who know more than I. But they’re not teachers.
No, a teacher has other, more important things to learn: how to communicate ‘book’ knowledge. How to captivate a fractious, bored class on the day before spring break and take them hiking through learning country. How to offer critique that never humiliates or hurts, but instead inspires the learner to do better next time. How to teach, in other words.
I didn’t learn that in college. Not in either of my BAs, not during my MA, not really in my Ph.D. I learned how to teach at Writing Project.
So what’s Writing Project, someone might ask? I’ll come back to that, honest. But right now? I want to tell you a story. The old-fashioned kind, remember? Where it all begins with ~ Once upon a time…
Once upon a time there was a writer. She was a decent writer — had a master’s in creative writing and African American studies, by default. Those two topics are what she did most of her work on, so that’s what the powers that be told her to tell folks she studied. Along with the literature of Vietnam, feminist theory and the 18th Century. Now honestly — how useful is any of that in an undergraduate classroom in writing??
So 15 years ago this month, feeling my lack of pedagogy, I caved to a colleague’s pressure (I use the word correctly) to go to Writing Project. Eileen had been pestering me for 2+ years to apply to WP. But my kids were young; the Summer Institute was in Stillwater, and all the attendant hassle of everyday life complicated five weeks commuting to Stillwater.
Just apply, she urged me. You can always decide later. So I applied.
In the month I received notification I’d been accepted to WP, I also received a fellowship to study at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Yep — that Oxford. So for a long time, I wasn’t sure if the OSUWP was as life-changing as I thought, or if it was Oxford. Somehow, what I experienced at OSU WP seemed so… useful. And we all know that useful things aren’t, well, transformative. But they are. And they were.
I returned to my class that September brimming with strategies and research and confidence. I completely rewrote my course packet — trying hard to do as WP had shown me: make my hours in class reflect what I value, what the class should focus on. But it was the confidence that has made the difference. A real teacher — a GREAT teacher — is confident that teaching is the most important thing s/he does.
W/out a doubt, college professors have the highest rate per capita of bad teachers. We get no pedagogy — only content area. And let me say again: it’s not content area knowledge that a great teacher makes. A great teacher is as interested in your movement towards life-long learning as in 2+2=4… And turning teachers into great teachers is what NWP does best.
It was a summer of writing, of course. It is the ‘Writing’ Project. I wrote. And wrote some more, and still more. Until, like Donald Graves said, I was in ‘a state of constant composition.’ Even working at a daily newspaper had been nothing like this.
I need to back up, and give this story some background. I grew up, as most of my readers know, overseas. In Việt Nam & Thailand. And because my childhood was in someone else’s country (I had to invent the word ‘impatriate’ to explain my love for what was never mine), and a war I did not fight in or create wiped out even the name of my childhood home, I could never write about those memories. It was as if I didn’t own them…
So despite my current confidence (remember OSUWP?), I was a faltering teacher and writer 15 years ago. I had always, as a journalist, told other stories. And that was what I taught: other people’s stories. But students need to know their own stories also are valuable. And how can we teach them this if we don’t believe it?
That summer I inhaled research — at the heart of Writing Project’s mission to help teachers teach each others. I read Hartwell on grammar (and used it in September w/ the provost at the university where I then taught); I read Emig on writing and cognition; I read Elbow and Bartholomae and Flower and Ede and Lunsford and everyone I could get my hands on. I learned BICS and CALP, and why my ESL students were so much easier to teach than my first-generation academics. I was in heaven.
And I made friends — friends still with me, still making me a better teacher. THAT is what National Writing Project does, in more than 200 sites around the country, each summer. In a classroom near you — every state has at least 1 NWP site — teachers from across your state will meet for weeks this summer to eat, sleep, dream and inhale writing. Research on writing, practice of writing, application of research and practice… They will write narratives and manifestos and research proposals and letters to editors and course justifications and work on advanced degree topics and share every bit of it with people whom they will never forget.
But here’s the catch: this takes money. We all say we want better teachers. But NWP makes better teachers — and has the research to prove it. NWP, through its local site partners, raises multiple dollars for every federal dollar allocated. It’s the best deal out there for reforming education in ways all of us can agree on.
This is all by way of saying what NWP has done for this one teacher. But you need to multiply my experience by the hundreds who attend a Writing ProjectSummer Institute each year, and the thousands touched annually by NWP-model professional development.
Remember the writer? She’s a teacher now, as well as a writer. In fact, sometimes she thinks she’s a better teacher than she is a writer (but no one gives awards much to teachers…). And it’s because of the National Writing Project.