TEACHERS, no less than their students, have generally looked upon instruction in writing as an exercise in frustration rather than as a form of learning. They spend long evenings marking "awk," "ww," and "sp," on leaden papers, knowing that except for the few "natural writers" in the class, the kids will take one discouraged look at the red-pencil corrections, and toss their compositions away.
"Five years ago I was ready to quit teaching," says Orlean Anderson, an 11th-grade English teacher at Lake Braddock High School in Burke, Va. "It was so deadly boring. I would tell the kids what to say in their papers, how to organize their thoughts, and how many paragraphs to write. It wasn't their paper, or their ideas. I decided something had to change." Today Anderson, along with thousands of other teachers who have participated in the National Writing Project and similar teacher training programs around the country, doesn't talk much about the frustrations of her profession.
An inspired teacher can transform the learning experience. That is the homely principle underlying the NWP, which is the outgrowth of a program started in Berkeley in the mid '70s, when an alarming number of freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley needed remedial writing instruction. In 1973, 46 percent of Berkeley's incoming freshmen (who represented the top 12 percent of their high school graduating classes) were required to take remedial writing. The following year, James Gray, supervisor of teacher education at the university, instituted a 5-week experimental summer program he called the Bay Area Writing Project.
"We put a premium on outstanding teachers, and we believe that the best teachers of teachers are teachers," Gray said several weeks ago in a talk at Catholic University. "They have more credibility than 'take the money and run' consultants or administrators or university authority figures." After all, says Gray, teachers have learned how to teach writing effectively "by trial and error in the island of the classroom."
In the Bay Area writing workshop, teachers from all disciplines and grade levels discussed successful teaching strategies, read current studies in rhetoric and composition, and polished their own writing. The concept quickly grew from a California phenomenon into a national movement. In 1977, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bay Area Writing Project became the National Writing Project. By 1982, 41,000 teachers from the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, and the Far East had been trained as "teacher consultants" who systematically work with other teachers to help them improve their teaching of writing. Today there are 103 National Writing Project sites at university campuses in 43 of the 50 states.
The first site in the Washington area was the Northern Virginia Writing Project, founded at George Mason University in 1978. The Virginia Writing Project now has seven branches, which have trained 545 teachers, who in turn have given workshops for 7,000 teachers in Virginia schools. And last month James Gray came to Washington to help launch the National Capital Area Writing Project at Catholic University, which will host its first summer institute in June, drawing 20 teachers from universities, colleges, and public and private schools in D.C. and Maryland.
On a more modest scale, a similar effort to encourage teachers to adopt rigorous and imaginative approaches to the teaching of writing is taking place at Georgetown University. "The realization behind all these programs is that teachers haven't had a chance to talk to each other. . . . We provide them with the occasion to discuss their work with each other as professionals," says James Slevin, a professor of English and the founder of the Georgetown University- D.C. Schools Articulation Program.
Like Gray, Slevin believes in an "educational community," in which universities, as well as teachers and administrators in the secondary schools, seek ways of addressing the literacy crisis. And he, too, is convinced that the best way to improve the schools is by building upon teachers' experience, not by relentessly pointing out their failures. In 1977, when average SAT verbal scores for District students had dipped into the low 300s, Slevin began visiting the high schools and talking with the teachers. He found that they, like their students, shied away from writing assignments because they lacked confidence and training. The following year Slevin organized a graduate seminar at Georgetown at which teachers from the District public schools discussed ways to improve their teaching of literature and composition.
In 1981, with a grant from NEH and the District of Columbia Community Humanities Council, the program expanded to include a series of seminars, open to teachers of all disciplines in D.C.'s private and public secondary schools. This year 30 teachers from six public and two private schools in D.C. (Eastern, Spingarn, and Coolidge high schools; Elliot, Rabaut, and Roper junior highs; St. Alban's and Immaculate Conception) are participating in four workshops, which meet twice monthly from September through May.
In addition to attending the Georgetown seminars, participants hold informal writing conferences in their own schools, which are open to administrators, teachers and students. Like the National Writing Project, the Articulation Program is designed to get entire school administrations, and eventually an entire school district, actively committed to improving student writing skills.
Both of these programs stress the practical application of theory in the classroom. Teachers come away not with indecipherable dittos of teacher "aids," but with detailed new lesson plans and teaching methods that have been influenced both by studies on the writing process and by successful classroom experience.
But just as important is the renewed determination that teachers who have participated in programs like the NWP seem to bring to their work. "The Writing Project changes you as a teacher," says Orlean Anderson, who was a fellow in the Northern Virginia Writing Project last summer. "If you believe writing is a process, and that all students can write, you adopt new methods in the classroom. That changes your relationship with your students. You become partners--writing and reading partners."
Nancy Cooksy, a biology teacher at Eastern High School in D.C. who is taking the Georgetown seminar on "Teaching Values in the Classroom," periodically sets aside two or three days a week for in-class writing assignments. Her 10th-graders are just completing a unit on infectious and parasitic diseases. In addition to their regular textbook assignments and lab work in culturing micro-organisms, they have been reading articles from newspapers, excerpts from Barry Commoner's Science and Survival, and a poem by the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, "Refugee Mother and Child." In paragraphs, brief essays, and dialogues, they write about styles and standards of living in developing nations and how they differ from their own.
Patricia O'Connor's 11th-graders at Mackin Catholic High School read the journal entries of William Bradford and Ben Franklin, listen to speeches from the colonial and revolutionary periods, and compose fictional journals and letters in which they choose a role (as a ship's captain, lawyer, accused witch) and a colony and write about their daily lives.
"I want students of American history and literature to become writers about the colonial period by delving into that era and pretending their livelihood depends on the day-to-day effects of British and colonial rule," O'Connor explains in the assignment sequence she developed last year in her seminar at Georgetown. She gives the students extra points for authentic details, and subtracts points for anachronisms, such as the scene in which a student, to the amusement of his peers, had a colonial pirate open a can of tuna fish for a meal at sea.
Such nontraditional approaches seem to be paying dividends. Clearly, these students are writing more, and writing better, than their friends whose teachers tackle writing the "old-fashioned" way. And, called upon to develop their own ideas in various voices and styles, they no longer turn reflexively to the encyclopedia.
By the end of the third quarter this year, Orlean Anderson's 11th-graders at Lake Braddock had made 80 or 90 entries in their journals, and followed 15 papers (including first-person narratives, discursive essays, literary analyses, short stories, and poems) through several drafts. "Critics of the Writing Project say it is a way not to teach grammar and grade papers." Anderson says. "But if you succeed in getting kids to see themselves as writers, it means constant work for the teacher, because the kids always have something they want to show you."
James Gray and James Slevin are the first to admit that it may be some time before students nationwide begin to show marked improvements in analytical thinking and expository writing. Nor are the teachers, for all their born-again fervor about their vocation, overly sanguine about their students' day to day progress. Even the best-trained teacher may find it difficult to convince 11th-graders that reading and writing about The Crucible can be just as socially instructive as watching Hill Street Blues.
There is no doubt, however, that the National Writing Project and the Georgetown University-D.C. Schools Articulation Program are making an indelible mark on the schools they touch. A recent study of the Chicago Area Writing Project showed that the writing of students taught by the project's alumni developed at twice the rate of those outside the program. There are numerous statistics on the NWP's successes over the last decade, but it is the testimony of teachers and students which shows most compellingly that kids not only can be taught to become better writers, they can be taught to enjoy writing, and even come back for more.
Last spring National Writing Project enthusiasts Bernadette Glaze and Orlean Anderson organized a writing conference at Lake Braddock High School in which professionals came to talk about their work and to discuss the students' papers with them. The students asked that the conference be repeated this year, but were told the funds ($500) were unavailable. Eleventh-grader Erica Sarens voiced strong objections in the school paper. She recalls, "Word had spread. The students were really enthusiastic. We went to learn, not just to miss class. It was upsetting that the county had denied us the mini- grant."
As a result of the students' protest, the school paper put up half the money; the PTA put up the other half. By popular demand, the second annual Lake Braddock Writing Conference will take place next month.