Program helps students see writing as a process
San Francisco Bay Area, Calif. — STEPHANIE's chair scrapes back as she stands to read her essay about how she felt when her friend Albie refused to take her to a dance. It's the second draft for this DeAnza High School 11th-grader. When she finishes, teacher Susan Reed asks the class, ``What did you want to see more of?'' The answers explode like popcorn. ``She should have established the relationship between her and Albie better.''
``I was confused. She says she didn't expect favors from Albie, but then she says he owed her one.''
What's going on here is a quiet change in the teaching of writing. If writing is the clearest indicator of a student's intelligence or mastery of a subject, these students are on their way. They know how to choose topics that matter to them, to draw connections between literature and their own lives, to refine an idea through successive drafts, and to point out the fuzzy spots in classmates' work. In fact, this group is getting so good that other teachers are requesting their services as editors for their classes.
This change is loosely called ``process writing.'' It's a concept teachers on both coasts have been experimenting with, with some variations, for more than 15 years. The West Coast version started in the early 1970s, when the University of California, Berkeley, which draws its students from top-level applicants, found that more than 41 percent of incoming freshmen needed to take remedial English. James Gray, who was then teaching English at the UC Berkeley School of Education, was able to spark university interest in providing funding for the Bay Area Writing Project, a writing institute to help teachers.
``Teachers were not trained to teach writing,'' Mr. Gray says. ``There was a growing body of knowledge about writing and the teaching of writing from research and from writers, but there was no way to reach teachers to inform them.''
Nor was there any way for top-quality teachers to share their techniques with others. So the Bay Area Writing Project set up a summer institute that invited university and school teachers - from all levels and every discipline - to share their knowledge, and strengthen their own writing skills. Then the institute trained a core of master classroom teachers to conduct workshops for teachers in their own communities.
As other universities heard about it, the Bay Area Writing Project became the model for the National Writing Project, a network of autonomous sites, helped by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Today there are 171 sites in 46 states and six countries, and 87,000 to 90,000 teachers are trained every year, Gray says.
``The Writing Project is the largest-scale effort of its kind,'' says John Hale, a former program officer with the Humanities Endowment, who is writing a book on the project. ``We funded many programs; none have been as effective or as cost-effective as this one.''
From the beginning, Gray says, the idea was to have superior teachers teach teachers. The Bay Area Writing Project was planned to address what he saw as primary obstacles to better teaching: top-down planning, lack of higher responsibility and respect given to teachers, and a gulf between the university and schoolteachers. At Writing Project sites, these two groups of teachers work together as colleagues to determine policy, and a leading local teacher is appointed director.
Funding is also collaborative and is shared by universities and schools, as well as state governments, and private sponsors, including Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Exxon Foundation, and the Atlantic Richfield Foundation.
But Mrs. Reed knows it has made a difference in how she teaches. ``It's changed my life,'' she says, looking out at the long tables of students working side by side on an assignment. ``My role has shifted much more to that of a coach. I used to stand at the front and ask all the questions, pass out the topics. I used to only know if they could answer my questions. Now I know they can ask their own and answer them, too.''
If this project empowers students, it empowers teachers as well. ``I'm more confident of my own writing, too,'' she says. Reed is writing fiction and articles on techniques used in the classroom.
As the students finish their assignment, Reed asks what each is working on. The range is wide: personal essays, poems, interior monologues, opinion essays, and short stories.
The writing process approach often ties in core literature with students' personal experience. In Reed's class, they keep a dialectical journal called ``reading log,'' in which they ask questions, make connections with other reading, notice patterns, and note reactions. Then they refine one piece of their log and expand it into ``wow log.''
In previous classes, says a student, Eric, ``we would read a book straight through to the end and then were expected to write an essay. But by then you'd forget the beginning. With the `wow log,' you remember the building-block process.''
Eric became interested in how the two lead characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's ``The Great Gatsby'' treated their daughter. That impelled him to write about his parents' divorce.
The bell rings, notebooks slam shut, and students stream out the door. ``Once they trust in themselves and trust each others' response, they realize they have within them the power to know their response helps. It builds their confidence. And as writers they can trust in themselves to know what's good writing. How can you improve writing until they know what's already strong?''
``Mostly adults are amazed at what kids can say to each other about writing,'' she says. ``I've found students good at providing responses designed to elicit more and better writing. ''