Andrea Zellner

Stumbling Towards Proficiency

When I first heard of the National Writing Project, I was applying to the Red Cedar Writing Project Summer Invitational Institute. At the time, I was in my third-year as a certified English and Biology teacher, coming late to the field after spending a few years in and around education. What I had learned since joining the ranks of public educator was not that we valued the individual needs of the children in our classes, but rather that obedience and standardization was valued above all.

I am naturally a rule follower, but I am not obedient. I tend to evaluate each policy, rule, and law for its purpose and function and decide to cooperate from there. I tend to closely adhere to posted speed limits. I will return to a store to give back the extra change they’ve given me. But I do this out of a sense of ethical responsibility, not out of obedience. That being said, I was not exactly flourishing in the rigid standardization of my teaching assignment. I was criticized for not having students in rows when I didn’t even have enough desks. During a passionate group performance of a scene from Romeo and Juliet during an evaluation, I was told that the kids were too loud: despite the fact that years later they still remember nuances of the play. My school’s test scores were too low, we weren’t making AYP, and we were going to drill those kids in rows until the test scores came up. I was not so good at that.

Instead, I learned to keep my head down and do what I knew to be best for the students in my classes. It never occurred to me to admit to it. When I applied to RCWP, I offered as evidence that I “knew” how to teach writing the graphic organizer I had developed in response to pressures in my department to have students write a five-paragraph essay. I did not know to mention that we were also examining propaganda and advertising techniques and comparing Iraqi war coverage with the double-speak in the novel Animal Farm. I did not know to expound on my class’ inquiry around propaganda and journalistic bias. I did not know to do advocate for myself in this way because my teaching community valued a blind adherence to formulaic writing.

Because of Red Cedar Writing Project, I found my voice. I found my voice and discovered that the teaching community to which I belonged was actually in conversation about these issues, that I had misunderstood the voices in power to be the voice of consensus. And so we started talking. And I started valuing inquiry and free-thinking over standardization and obedience, in both myself and my classroom. I was no longer afraid to advocate for that. That transformation occurred because of what I learned in those four weeks of my Summer Institute.

I learned about the power of teachers sharing their practice. I learned that I could impact literacy and student writing by writing myself. I learned how to constructively interrogate my own practice. The brave and intelligent men and women who constantly questioned and tested their own pedagogy modeled for me how to become a teacher and a writer.

The support that the National Writing Project provides to communities of teachers is invaluable. This simple model changed me as a teacher and improved my students’ writing. I am not convinced that changing the funding model, as is proposed by President Obama and Secretary Duncan, will improve on the current model. Competitive funding, we know, moves money, resources, and power disproportionately into communities that already have access to money, resources, and power. It saddens me that Education Reform as proposed by Secretary Duncan is so couched in principals of business. Our children are not products. In order to equitably continue this transformational work with teachers and students, NWP needs to continue to be funded appropriately. Period. Anything less would be a monumental mistake.





2 Comments to “On becoming a teacher: the power of NWP”

  1.   Paul Oh | February 19th, 2010 at 12:48 am     Reply

    A powerfully written piece. And an amazing window into your own experiences, Andrea. If I were Arne Duncan and I read your post, I would realize in no uncertain terms that the right thing to do for teachers and children would be to reverse my decision.

    Your words deserve as wide a circulation as possible.

  2.   Michelle Ohanian | February 21st, 2010 at 3:05 pm     Reply

    Thankfully the summer institute has changed thousands of teachers across the country at local writing projects. However, I find that I have to defend my teaching practices with test scores. Even with data to support the effectiveness of NWP, my local district and the state keep taking funds away.I hope more TCs are contacting their representatives about funding changes.

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