Have you ever had a moment when you realized you weren’t good at something that you thought you were good at? I had my first such moment in 4th grade when I realized that even though I had won some medals in competitive gymnastics, I was never going to be an olympic gymnast (volleyball definitely suited by height better). I had another such wake up call moment this summer at the National Writing Project.
I had always thought that I was a good writer: I got As in English class, could throw together a coherent college essay in a few hours, and could tell the difference between there/their/they’re, all signs that I had pretty decent writing skills.
And then I was asked to actually write.
I wrote narratives, humorous anecdotes, stories with dialogue, and poetry. And they were horrible.
As a teacher, especially a non-English Language Arts teacher, when was the last time that you wrote a narrative? For me, if you don’t count the simple stories I make up for my novice Spanish students, it was way back in high school. Yet, I was teaching narrative writing as part of my Spanish Language Arts course. I was teaching students to be better writers but I hadn’t actually written in 15 years? Clearly this was a problem.
One of my biggest challenges going from being a World Language teacher to a Spanish Language Arts teacher has been teaching writing. As a World Language teacher I thought of writing as something that was used for learning the language, doing projects, or as an assessment. After all, my students came in already knowing how to read and write in English, all I had to do was transfer those skills into Spanish. This line of thought seemed to work fine when I taught in international schools where students were at or above grade level, but teaching heritage speakers has shown me how problematic it is. Some of my students are at or above grade level. More are below grade level in both English and Spanish. If they don’t have those strong writing skills in English they can’t just transfer to Spanish. I have to actually TEACH writing skills, not just differences between Spanish and English like spelling and accents.
Honestly, as I began to realize how big this responsibility was I was terrified. Nothing in my World Language teacher certification courses had prepared me for this. We had had a few professional development seminars with some good AVID strategies, but I had no idea how to teach writing and there was no Spanish Language Arts writing curriculum.
Seeing this big hole in my teaching skills, paired with the encouragement (ie. relentless hounding) of a colleague who had done the program, I let myself be reluctantly persuaded to join my local chapter of the National Writing Project for a summer institute. Normally I love professional development, but this was nearly a month long commitment of 8 hour days and this was my summer break! I imagined myself constantly looking at my watch and staring longingly out the window at summer passing me by.
The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. First, the institute was held at a botanical garden, so we were outside multiple times a day to take advantage of our beautiful surroundings. Second, we spent most of our time talking and doing, not listening to some expert at the front of the room.
This idea of not listening to an “expert” is vital to the philosophy of the National Writing Project. Founded by James Gray in 1974, the main idea of the National Writing Project (NWP) was that teachers-teaching-teachers is the best way to help teachers to improve their teaching of writing, and thus students to improve their own writing. Gray, like many of us, was disillusioned with the idea of an “expert”, who may not have been in the classroom for years, coming in to tell teachers what best practice was. Teachers, he thought, were already using best practices, they just needed to be connected to other teachers to share and grow. Essentially, teachers were the experts.
The National Writing Project has now expanded to all 50 states and a number of other countries around the world. Universities host the sites and provide a focus on the local community, including offering programs for K-12 students. Each local writing project is slightly different, but adheres to the NWP Core Principals.
For us in the Greater Madison Writing Project, this meant a daily schedule that looked something like this:
Write-In and write-out:
A ten-minute writing period to open or close the day that was based on a prompt that someone brought in. Questions, videos, pictures, quotes, and objects were all used and participants had the freedom to take their writing in whatever direction they chose.
Each participant had to give a 90 minute workshop on a topic of interest that they researched. I’ll be honest, this was stressful and a LOT of work (think grad-school level research), but I’m so glad I did it. My workshop turned into an amazing unit on bilingual writing that I then had all prepared for first quarter. And, even though our group had teachers from all different ages and subject levels, to my surprise I learned something from every single presentation, be it incorporating grammar, writing as therapy, or getting away from the 5-paragraph essay.
We had two different reading groups, one for a book about how to write and the other for a book on how to teach writing. For both groups we were given 4 or 5 options so we were able to find something relevant to us personally.
A big chunk of our time was spent doing what served each of us best. This could be doing the assigned reading for our reading group, working on our workshop, walking around the gardens, sitting by the lake and writing or continuing a conversation with a colleague.
We met in small groups to talk about the writing we were doing and get feedback on it. Peer editing so often is just filling out a sheet and not giving actual relevant feedback, so this was a chance to see how peer feedback could be done in a way that was useful and constructive.
To end the day anyone who wanted to was invited to share their writing. I had never done this with my class, so it was a great experience for me to see how nerve-wracking but rewarding it is to share something you’ve written with others. It was a good reminder for me about the importance of being vulnerable.
Scattered throughout we had a good number of pot-lucks, walk and talks, t-shirt designing, games and other things that made the institute fun and gave us a chance to connect with each other. It was a really wonderful atmosphere of caring professionals.
While my time with the Writing Project didn’t give me a set curriculum of how to teach writing, it gave me things that may be more valuable. It made me realize the writing experience that I was lacking. It let me see what it was like to be a writer, something that I had never had. It made me realize the therapeutic value of writing, and that writing can be enjoyable, not just a task to be completed for a grade. And finally, it showed me that even though I have a long way to go in my work teaching heritage speakers, in a way, I am an expert and I have valuable things to share. Since then I’ve given presentations on bilingual writing and started this blog, a place to share with and learn from others. We are all experts.