I am stunned and dismayed by all the political attacks against teachers and education programs this spring, instigated by those who say out one side of their mouths education is important and needs more funding, and then out the other side of their mouths defund what they say should be improved. Huh? Am I living in the Brave New World? 1984, with all this Doublespeak?
March 2, President Obama signed a bill to keep the government running, a bill which cuts $4 billion in spending from the FY 2011 budget. This in effect eliminates the National Writing Project among other education programs. Out of all the instructional courses I pursued in my 33-year career as a high school language arts instructor, none was so beneficial as my month-long Writing Project workshop.
Up until that time, I hadn’t known how to teach writing with any degree of proficiency, because truly, I had never been taught the process. In high school, we students learned no process. We were assigned to read the models of the various types of essays and then were assigned to write one of our own, with very little instruction about how to go about that. The models were boring, the subject matter nothing that would interest a high-school aged reader or writer. Sometimes the texts suggested topics and those were even more deadly to the young, creative mind. When the papers came back from the instructor, there was one humongous grade slapped on the top. The errors in punctuation, grammar, spelling, and usage were marked, but usually nothing that detailed structure, transitional elements, voice, exploration of topic or any of the other skills a writer usues to engage a reader’s senses.
In college, this pattern continued, and still we didn’t know why we received the grade plopped on the top of the paper. (Neither did the teachers, most of the time, as we discovered if we asked them why that particular grade was given.) What grade would be there was a veritable crapshoot. Even if we were allowed to edit and return the paper, we weren’t taught how to improve the paper, how to revise.
The first part of my career I taught the way that had been modeled to me. I didn’t like it, frustrated because I didn’t know how to improve my instruction. I glommed on to whatever I could find out there in that lessonplan-osphere.
That changed the summer of 1986 when I took the Writing Project Workshop at University of Oregon under the tutelage of Nat Teich. We had instruction every morning, and sharing every afternoon. All 25 of us had brought a lesson plan that we knew worked and we shared that with the other 24 students. I came away from that workshop knowing how to teach writing with the added bonus of 24 possible lesson plans. If I couldn’t use one, I shared it with a colleague who could. I shared the instructional material with the colleagues who wanted to learn. I informed my school district about the Writing Project. Other colleagues went to the Writing Project summers and some to smaller week-long seminars. The teaching of writing improved in our district, as I’m sure it improved in other districts across the state.
I’m saddened to learn that something that works may be no more, that teachers searching for methods of improvement will have to keep looking, that students won’t have the educational foundation they need to pass the state benchmarks for writing, that they won’t find the joy of using language to create a better world.
What remarkable lack of forethought by our government, the one that’s supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people.