Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Teachers Must Write to Become Great Teachers of Writing

November 04, 2014

When asked about her experience in one the of National Writing Project’s intensive summer institutes, Pittsburgh kindergarten teacher and Project fellow Melissa Burns does not mince words: She calls it “the only professional development I’ve had that has had a profound impact on my teaching.”

More than 70,000 teachers have participated in the NWP since it was founded in Berkeley, California, 40 years ago, and those teachers have led professional development experiences that have reached an additional 100,000. The training turns on its head many of the conventions of traditional professional development. Instead of relying on outside experts to offer up prescriptions about the “right way” to teach writing, the NWP believes that “teachers are the best teachers of teachers,” says Tanya Baker, NWP’s director of national programs.

Participants provide each other with practices and structures to help professional writing teachers learn and grow. All the protocols Burns uses in class—approaches like descriptive review, and loop writing—come from her work with other NWP teachers.

The NWP is built on the idea that one learns to write, and to teach writing, by writing. So teachers in the summer institutes must produce writing that is critiqued by their peers. Also at the summer institute, teachers study research into the teaching of writing and present effective practices from their own classrooms.

Before participating in the NWP, Burns considered herself a pretty good teacher of writing, though not a writer. “But through the summer institute,” she says, “I named myself as a writer.” She went on to get a master’s in creative writing and then a book published.

Burns describes the daily experience at the summer institute: “You’re developing yourself as a writer alongside picking a research question in the field that you present to the teachers.” Teachers might for instance, explore the best ways to set up peer editing, or discuss what kind of prompts are most effective in catalyzing student writing. “It’s a lovely balance of research, work, and presentation that develops you both as a writer and a leader back at your school.”

With 200 sites in all fifty states and a reach of 1.4 million students annually, the NWP has long been one of the nation’s largest professional development initiatives. Baker says it is poised for continued growth now that the emphasis on writing in the classroom is growing, due in part to the Common Core.

“And with the digital age,” she says, “there is enormous interest in what it means to be teachers in a world where kids can write for huge audiences with fantasy fiction and blogs.”

What does she think the digital age means for writing teachers?

“It means we find ourselves in another exciting moment in the growth of our profession when teachers have enormous capacity to create new knowledge through the careful study of their practice.

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