The National Writing Project: It's About the Intellectual Integrity of Teachers: An Interview with Richard Sterling.
An Interview with Richard Sterling Richard Sterling, now in his fourth year as executive director of the largest inservice training project in the U.S., tells Mr. Goldberg about his plans to enlarge the scope of the National Writing Project and place it at the center of school reform. When Richard Sterling and I sat down in the library of the Lotus Club in New York to do this interview, he hesitated for a moment and then said in his British-accented English, “Early this morning I went for a walk to the first place I went to when I arrived here on a boat in 1963 – a funny little hotel on East 53rd Street. How astonishing it's been. When I arrived here I had no idea I would end up in education. It continues to shock me.” Sterling is now in his fourth year as executive director of the National Writing Project (NWP), the largest inservice training project in the U.S. and arguably the most successful. He replaced the founding director, James Gray, in June of 1994. I had lunch in California last year with Gray and Sterling. Gray, who remains as chairman of the board of the NWP, and Sterling could not be more different, at least in outward demeanor. Gray still has the informality of the American Midwest and a long career at Berkeley: slightly rumpled clothes, very informal speech, a folksy yet highly intelligent way of pulling you into a conversation. Sterling dresses in conservative business clothes, is crisply articulate though very friendly, and is keenly attentive, making you feel that you are extremely important to him. Gray started this extraordinary enterprise in 1973, and his work put it on the map. Sterling, in a burst of energy and enthusiasm and with Gray's blessing and counsel, has set out both to enlarge the scope of the NWP and to make some significant changes. “I want to put the National Writing Project within the reach of every teacher. I also want to diversify the funding to a balance between federal and private, to create a task force that will provide real help to individual sites all over the nation, and to place the NWP at the center of school reform.” Now approaching its 25th anniversary, the National Writing Project has 160 sites in 45 states and Puerto Rico. It has served nearly two million teachers, has 13,651 active teacher leaders, and serves at least 130,000 teachers each year. The deepest beliefs of the NWP are that writing in school is crucial and that expert teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. There is a basic model for the NWP – and, though sites have occasionally veered away from it, they inevitably return to it. “The model is extremely sound. You bring expert teachers together for extended summer training, and you have them demonstrate effective practice, discuss the research, and talk about why they do what they do as well as prepare to teach their colleagues back in the schools,” Sterling declares. The course instructors, often a college professor and a teacher, “model a kind of behavior that includes careful listening, reflecting back to teachers what they say, and mediating a democratic, non-hierarchical community.” Both the teachers and the instructors bring in theoretical and research materials. The texts that are used include “important works in the field that have moved the instructors and works the teachers have read that have influenced and moved them.” Teachers read and write for several weeks. They discuss material by such important figures as James Moffett and Donald Graves. They meet in large and small groups to discuss their own writing, to analyze good pedagogy, and to ponder ways of strengthening their classroom practice and bringing everything back to colleagues in inservice settings. The summer institute is the heart of the NWP, the setting that “allows teachers to shape their ideas and think through the puzzles in their own practice” with help from other expert teachers. The best of these people become the trainers of other teachers, and “it is the linking back to the schools that has spread the NWP so widely.
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