Symbiosis

The writing project changed my life! How familiar that sounds and how true. The writing project seems to affect each of us in powerful ways. But is it not also true that each of us has made our mark on the writing project? I am reminded of that daily as I peruse the blogs and makes and website contributions of writing project teachers everywhere. My story, along with the stories of every other NWP teacher consultant, is part of the fabric of the NWP. And, like many others, my story begins with experience in the summer institute and quickly expands to others in the NWP community. The year was 1985—at the first NWP summer institute in Mississippi, Mississippi State University.

My director, Sandra Price, had spent some time in Berkeley with Jim Gray and Mary Ann Smith, and she had a long list. We did it all —in the first year of our project! Monthly continuity meetings, a school year graduate course in teacher research in which a number of us tested out our new-found expertise with quasi-experimental studies (mine was on vocabulary development for first graders). But most amazing, we served 10 schools with year-long professional development. We got permission to leave our classes and travel the state spreading the word—writing matters. Even better, I was having a blast with my first graders, writing, learning to read from their own writing, sharing our writing in circles and with parents.

Just a couple of years later, 1987, Sandra signed a contract with our state department of education to develop curriculum and professional development for a Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) statewide initiative. We would serve the teachers of 1,600 at-risk youth, ages 16 – 21, across the state in an 8-week summer program. By that time, Sandra had orchestrated the growth of our state network to include several other universities. Teachers and directors came together from all these new sites. Johnnie Gibson, Sandra Thompson, Gerry Sultan, Dan McQuagge, and Pat Melton from Delta State; Florence Box, Pat Mitchell, Dolyene Davis, Sandra and me from MSU; Ben and Susan McClelland from Ole Miss. We left our classrooms for several weeks to write lesson plans for 8 weeks of reading, writing, and math. We chose curriculum materials and activities especially for the kids we knew so well. We focused on what was important to them: grandparents, sports, work, music; you get the picture. And students wrote beyond the texts we provided; they wrote to understand and discover their own lives, dreams, hopes.

Teachers from Alcorn State University, the University of South Mississippi, and Mississippi Valley State University joined as we planned together and conducted professional development for the JTPA teachers, a week prior to the 8-week session and several afternoons at each location throughout the summer. First of all, we asked the teachers to picture one of their students, to write about their hopes and dreams for that one student. Then we asked them to write about the kind of classroom in which that student would thrive. With this invitation, the JTPA teachers took hold of the curriculum, and made it better, made it theirs. Our days were long and nights short during those months of planning and putting the program into place. We were exhausted and exhilarated.

Sandra enlisted the help of a well-known educational researcher, Dr. Herb Handley, to design a study focused on the big question: Will this curriculum and these writing project teaching strategies make a difference in the academic achievement of these students?

At that time, a lot of educational research on student achievement was based on grade equivalency. Our 1600 students at multiple locations across the state took a pre-test in reading and math and at the end of the program, a post test. Writing assessment was not a high priority at that time, but every lesson in every subject included writing. When we visited classrooms that summer, the high school students proudly pointed out their poems, drawings, and memoirs that teachers had posted in hallways and classrooms.

How did it work out? Nicely! The state department of education expected to see an average gain in grade equivalency of 4 months in reading and 4 months in math across the 1600 students in 8 weeks. That’s NOT what they saw. The reading gains averaged 1 year and 7 months! The math gains averaged 1 year and 9 months!

But the story doesn’t end there. I shared our results (read 3-inch-thick research report) with my dad who was an agricultural economist and constantly involved in research at the state and federal levels. Dad was more than excited. He had always said, “I just don’t know how you educators get any research done? You can research corn; it doesn’t go anywhere. You can do or not do anything to it and measure the results. But people go all over the place; you can’t control them. How can you know you have made a difference?” When he read our study, he beamed and said, “You know, this shows that you made a difference. I could take this study to the state legislature and probably get state funding for the writing project.” Well, he did and we got that funding.

Then the day came when Dad said, “You know, if Senator Thad Cochran saw that study, you could probably get federal funding for the National Writing Project.” The thought scared me. I told Sandra what Dad had said, “What do I tell him?” I asked. Sandra laughed out loud and said, “Well, DON’T TELL HIM NO!” Sandra called Jim Gray. Conversations were held. Then the word came, “Go for it.” Dad met with Senator Cochran and presented him with our research report.

There is more, of course, other members of congress joined forces. Jim and Mary Ann worked out the details in Berkeley and testified before congressional committees. This small local seed grew into the beginning of NWP’s federal funding that lasted from 1990 until 2008. What’s important about this story is that it demonstrates the power of good work coupled with evidence of that good work. Our funding looks different now, but we are, all of us still doing good work and still sharing the evidence of that good work. This story belongs to all of us.


SwainSherry Swain is a Senior Research Associate at the National Writing Project. She is a former Director at the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute and former teacher in the Starkville Public School system.

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The Next (New Forty) Generation

I’ve told few until now, but I’m actually a Trekkie.

Tonya Perry Trekkie
I’ve enjoyed most of the generations of Star Trek. I admit, though, I can’t always keep up, so I’m absolutely terrible at the trivia, but what I have always admired, despite my lapses in consistent viewing, is how each generation evolves with its own new set of people who are able to meet the demands of the times and remain malleable yet committed to the principles set by the directive. I’m constantly amazed by the innovative strategies and inventions that evolve with each new generation in the adaptation process.

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