Becoming an English teacher was never a difficult decision for me. I’ve always loved literature and I’ve had a notebook in my backpack for writing short stories since I was in eighth grade, so sharing my passion for English has always been something that I enjoy.
After completing my first year of teaching, I returned to graduate school thinking that I was somehow a veteran teacher. I certainly had the logistics of grade-keeping, and the ability to get in front of students every day without any problems. I could get their attention and make them work, so I figured that I was pretty much set for life. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have room to grow, because I knew that I still had plenty of organization skills to improve and I needed to work on constructing better tests, but all in all, I felt like I had a good grasp of what teaching was all about.
Then I took part in the 2010 Ozarks Writing Project Summer Institute, and had my brain rewired.
For the first time, I started questioning what constituted “authentic writing.” Before OWP, my students were used to free-writing on whatever topic I came up with for the day (usually topics that didn’t have very much to do with what we were studying, but every once in awhile I’d sneak something topical in). This is what I thought a writing classroom was. Free-writes to fill time. Oh, I lied to myself and thought, “I’m getting their brains all warmed up for writing!” but the authentic writing rarely came about after that.
Authentic writing is so much more than simply having students free-write about their favorite movies or who would win in a fight between a bear and a ninja . . . authentic writing is constructing meaningful and applicable writing tasks for the classroom. It’s about finding ways to connect real world writing to the classroom. It’s about using writing as a means of inquiry to get students thinking about a topic. Authentic writing isn’t writing simply for the sake of writing – it must have a purpose.
Melissa Troxell’s demo on our first day of the Summer Institute was incredibly powerful in getting me to think about the different uses for writing in the classroom other than to construct a desired response. We began by writing about someone in our life that we cared about. We wrote about why that person was important and some background of that person. Then, we listed off people that really knew that person. From our writing, we could then pick out a variety of different research topics that were related to our person.
I felt that this was such a powerful way to generate topics because it got students thinking about someone they care about and pulling a topic from their life. A constant mantra in my classes was, “Write about something you care about” and it was usually met with, “I don’t know what I care about.”
Melissa’s lesson didn’t try to force a connection – it provided opportunity for students to make a connection which is so much more powerful than simply telling students to connect to their writing and this is the very heart of authentic writing.
At this point, I find it exceptionally important to note who Melissa is. Is Melissa some researcher who travels across the country selling a book of her teaching philosophies? Is she someone that schools can pay a ridiculous amount of money to reshape their writing programs? No. She is a teacher at a local high school and you know what? That is exactly what makes her an expert.
One of the fundamental tenants of the National Writing Project’s philosophy is that teachers should teach teachers. It’s unnecessary to hire someone who has developed a pedagogy when teachers around the area can simply get together and discuss what works in their classrooms. And while Melissa is certainly an expert, she wanted to learn from others as well because everyone had a unique perspective to contribute to the group as a whole.
My educational psychology class has been discussing the limitations of certain studies and I believe this idea is applicable to pedagogy. When schools pay for pedagogy or for authors of “how to teach” books to come in and change a school’s mindset, they are paying for something that works within the context in which it was developed. So, if a pedagogy is successful in inner-city New York, then they believe it will work for rural Missouri. But the differences between inner-city New York and rural Missouri are vast and massive, so why would one assume that the pedagogy that works for one will work all across the United States? It’s this flawed logic that has caused schools to adopt ridiculous teaching methods designed by outside sources rather than looking inward to the teachers in their own classrooms.
It’s funny, but I view the National Writing Project as a sort of counter-culture organization designed to overthrow the corrupt, tyrannical, insane groups that control education with an iron fist. Visions of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles and the Matrix films dance in my heads as I think about individual cells of writing projects meeting in secret and with teachers challenging one another to think about teaching in a different way. I imagine hushed meetings of black trenchcoat wearing teachers as they whisper to the uninitiated, “Come with me if you want enlightenment.”
Is this a bit of an exaggeration? Yeah, of course, but not by much. No one in NWP dresses as cool as people in the Matrix, and we’re not so secretive, but there is definitely a tension (at least, to my mind) between the NWP and the way education is actually being done. Nationally, the emphasis is of course preparing for end of course exams which has a heavy emphasis on memorization and while writing can be used for memorization, it’s pretty clear that NWP wants original thought, not merely rote memorization.
Furthermore, NWP’s funding has been cut and while my heart is filled with hope that everything will turn out all right, the recent cut to NPR’s funding has left me more than a little worried. “Surely politicians aren’t stupid enough to cut funding to a group that helps teachers grow and become better,” I thought, but then I think, “If they’re willing to kill Car Talk with Click and Clack, then I’m not sure I trust any politician anymore.”
I know that a lot of my readers aren’t teachers, but I urge you to call your congressmen and tell them to support the National Writing Project because NWP makes a difference by challenging teachers.