Or, How I would fix education if I had any power
I spent Saturday celebrating the very essence of the National Writing Project at the Morehead Writing Project’s 2012 Writing Eastern Kentucky Conference. The NWP mission is to foster the teaching of writing and central to that mission is the belief that teachers who write are better writing teachers. Our annual conference revels in both ideas: Teacher as Writer and Teacher as Reflective Practitioner. Also, in true NWP fashion, we bring together educators from K-16 in a variety of content areas and roles. We cross boundaries and make connections in ways that celebrate and facilitate learning – our own learning as well as for our students. Words cannot express how proud I am of the teachers I work with from the Peer Writers who run our Writing Studio to the 2012 Summer Institute Fellows to the Morehead State University faculty who led sessions and participated in every sense of the word. It was an amazing day filled with wonderful words and people.
But now that my feet have recovered (mostly) from running up and down three flights of stairs many times every hour and my Saturday buzz has faded, I have to wonder. Why don’t more educators get involved in the writing project? Why don’t more educators attend writing project events? Why don’t educators want to be better teachers of writers?
Don’t give me the “too busy” excuse. We are all busy. Every one of the educators at our conference on Saturday is too busy. We make time for the things that matter. I suppose that makes the real question – why doesn’t the teaching of writing matter? We all know it does. We know that writing (and the interconnected ideas of reading and thinking) is the most important subject we teach. Without writing (and reading and thinking) our students will not be able to demonstrate what they have learned (filling in bubbles does not demonstrate learning) or effectively communicate in school, on the job, or in the world. Writing can and does change the world every day and if we do not adequately prepare our students to be effective writers then we have damaged, if not destroyed, not only their future but our own.
Sure our leaders pay lip service to the idea that writing is important. Surveys of government, corporate, and education leadership always give writing top billing and yet… One of my colleagues recently pointed out a fact that I had heard before but hadn’t really understood. If you want to know what is important just follow the money. In K-12 we see the emphasis given to on-demand writing (short essays). Our writing project site receives a continual stream of requests for quick fix professional development sessions on this topic. We never receive requests for help transforming their students into writers. K-12 teachers with writing project training often find it an uphill battle to implement writing workshop and assign writing that does not have a direct correlation to test preparation even though research shows that the students of writing project participants show more writing gains.
And do not even get me started regarding the financial support for my beloved National Writing Project. For 20 years we were a national program with bipartisan support but that all changed in 2011 when we lost our direct federal funding. Here in Kentucky we are fortunate because we continue to receive support from the Kentucky Department of Education but in recent years even that funding has shrunk by 1/3.
In higher education, there is lip service again to the importance of writing. Most campuses require some introductory writing classes and many also emphasize writing across the curriculum or writing-intensive classes as well. Yet, the actual administrative support for the teaching of writing is minimal. The majority of introductory writing classes, or first-year writing, are taught by ill-paid adjunct faculty and graduate students with no job security and often no benefits. Similarly, these programs and their support systems, such as writing centers, are often administered by faculty living on the edge (in terms of respect, remuneration, recognition, tenure, etc.).
In the end, despite the wonderful afterglow of our amazing conference, I continue to despair regarding the future of education and especially the teaching of writing – in Eastern Kentucky and in the United States. We need to put our money and our time on the line if we really want to make our students and teachers into writers.
Wonder what our conference looked like? Check out the 2012 Writing Eastern Kentucky Conference on Storify. Wonder what topics we covered? Check out our conference schedule. Not only did our sessions cover a wide variety of topics specifically designed to support the teaching of writing, but we also featured sessions to help writers and brought in four guest writers to further promote writing including R.D. Hall, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Annie Jones, and George Eklund.