It’s the WRITING, Stupid.
When Bill Clinton ran for office, his advisors hammered home the importance of staying on point. For the campaign workers, for the brilliant candidate who could get tangled in the nuances of complex ideas, for the voters at that time in the nation’s life, there was one point, and one point only: It’s the economy, stupid.
Here we are, many years later. Now it is really the economy. But what’s stupid is that, while everything may be on the budgetary chopping block of the federal government, everything that’s on the chopping block is not of equal value.
Today, for me, one thing matters. It’s the writing, stupid. The National Writing Project, to be exact.
For more than three decades, this project has changed the way teachers and students write, the way teachers teach writing, and the way teachers learn and grow professionally. Now it’s about to be hacked out of the federal budget as though it’s some random, luxurious appendage.
The National Writing Project is neither random nor luxurious. It is certainly not an appendage. Here’s why I say this with such certainty.
I taught 12th grade for almost a dozen years, in a unique program for kids who wanted a different learning experience than they could find in their high school. They wanted school to mean something. They wanted to learn stuff that mattered, and they wanted to do it with teachers and classmates who respected them.
Every year brought a different group, but every year, the same thing happened. The first time I said, “OK, grab a pen or a pencil, we’re going to do some writing,” they groaned. Which was great, because then we got to talk about why they groaned, and I got to prove that I would listen. Then the real writing could begin.
The process was simple. I’d tell them to get a pen or a pencil, a notebook or some paper they liked. Then I’d ask them to put their evil, critical editor on the ceiling. What editor, they’d say. “You know,” I’d reply, “the voice in your head that says you’re stupid and wrong?” I’d pause. “That voice that’s saying, ‘What voice?'” They’d laugh. After they finished discussing my damaged mental state, and after they’d quit complaining, the room would quiet and they would write. In time, when I asked them to stop, they’d groan.
Here’s the point: I didn’t learn this all by myself. I had a writing professor who disbanded class after the first day and worked with us 1:1 each week. I wrote, rewrote, published, with my professor coaching, cheering, sometimes pushing me to see a new idea or approach.
It would be years before I learned that he was a site director for the National Writing Project.
In the meantime, my work with him became a touchstone in my teaching. For example, I discovered that my students had little experience with working hard. In fact, they would have been happy if I’d written them off with some lousy grades. But I refused to deal in that currency. We wouldn’t need grades, just writing, workshopping, some coaching about the choices to make or strategies to use in the different pieces they wrote. I had learned this from my own experience, but I had faith in what I knew because of the way my professor worked with me.
I think this must be the way of the Writing Project. Teachers become writers, together, building community as they write, then they make the same thing happen in their own classrooms. It’s no coincidence that, in every Writing Project teacher’s classroom, the writing improves.
So, what’s the most important thing? It’s the writing, and the National Writing Project. And it’s not stupid.
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