Saturday, March 26, 2011

NWP: Time of Transition

 As the hour-long conference call among local-site leaders of the National Writing Project drew to its conclusion, that sense of transition, of ending and possible beginning, resonated further out and into the surrounding chamber in which Congress and the White House have been ending this era of federal funding for special projects.  This closing door suffused my being sufficiently that I felt a tremor coming from the passionate conviction and the enormous commitment built up over so many years and now pressed into this shared moment in time.  So the pulse I felt wasn’t limited to the twenty or so of us participating in that particular telephone call, but it encompassed the other one hundred eighty site leaders and the uncountable, almost-invisible staffers who provide service at NWP functions, always with smiles and open hearts, mirrors of the organization’s essence.  Although the echo was at some remove, when listening deeply we also perceive the reach of NWP into almost every classroom in our nation, at least those that evidence the trust and respect for teachers teaching teachers. 

But mostly, in that Friday afternoon, I felt the warm gratitude, just as it rises again now from my chest toward my eyes, for Elyse, Joye, Mike, and Judy who in leading this call, like others at the center of the organization, were giving themselves again to a great work, and especially because they were at the core of the surge of disappointment in the loss of funding and the layoff of NWP staff.  Their integrity, another hallmark of NWP, required that they speak the hard truth, as best they knew it, of the shift from external federal support to local initiative.  The promise, WE WILL PERSIST, anchors our place, but . . .  Although my mind attempts to argue for opportunity in this political complex, my heart cries at the betrayal and failure.  The totality of my being, tempered in over forty years of professional educational research, teaching, and service, knows with full confidence that the National Writing Project is true.  True to the vision of public education: freedom and equality for all.  Truer than any other professional organization that I’ve known.

NWP affirms the respect and trust that, more than anything else, empowers the classroom teacher to trust and respect his and her children.  It’s about as simple as that; and, as deep simplicity goes, it’s diamond rare.  Standing against most educational policy at all levels, NWP believes that the teacher does not have to be micro-managed, fed robotic-curricula, or watched like a hawk watches for prey.  NWP believes in knowledge that grows organically in and by the specific community of learners.  The organization acts with the most passionate conviction I’ve found in any professional community in order to establish and nurture the complex infrastructure to support this essence.  The support includes caring for each site and investing in the frontier of technology so that attention can be found at the moment of readiness and need.

I want to believe that truth wins, and I do; but it’s not on my timetable or in my immediate eyesight.  I accept that passion encompasses suffering as well as joy.  I believe good people find a way, with the old notion of when a door closes another opens, although sometimes it’s rather difficult to find.  Mostly, right now, I just want to express gratitude for all the heart, soul, and mind that good people have dedicated to the National Writing Project.  Thank you.

Friday, March 25, 2011

In Opposition to Test-Destruction of Public Schooling

  1.  1.  Many voices worth hearing (e.g., Diane Ravitch, Darling-Hammond) have been shouting that this testing/assessment/standards/etc thing is not in the interest of education. 

    2.     Politicians on all sides are not listening.  Instead, they blame and bully education in order to distract the public from the economic problems, poverty, war, etc.

    3.     High stakes assessment is too expensive to do well. 

    4.     Teacher judgment is the only viable guide to status and development of learning.  Authentic indicators like portfolio are the only ones worth doing.

    5.     Informing and shaping teacher judgment happens best through professional development along the lines of National Writing Project practices and depends on the kind of infrastructure that NWP has in place.

    6.     The role of technology is increasingly vital in Professional Development work and in student learning.

    7.     Digital media is also the means to influence political action and that returns to the first and second points.  To change policy we may need to produce digital media that can reach public opinion and then influence politicians.

I think even China knows more than to look "up" to current US policy on education.  They know from experience that reliance on high-stakes testing is a flop.  So they look to other countries like Finland who trust teachers rather than treat them like robots who have to be directed by computer results and programs.

Continued investment in more and “better” testing is a waste of time.  It’s destructive and produces cynicism.  We know better.  I’m not interested in spending my time there.  I do realize that most policy makers don’t agree with me and that changing their minds might be a worthwhile project for persons who want to try.  I'm working at step 5, 6, and maybe 7.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Redemption of Rhetoric

Kenneth Burke, “the foremost rhetorician of the 20th century” (according to the textbook I then used in teaching Foundations of Rhetoric), wrote of Hitler’s rise to power and said that Hitler’s terrible lie mobilized Nazis not because rhetoric favors evil but because the forces of good were failing to match his discourse.  The way I understand it: good is stronger than evil; but evil empowered with rhetoric prevails when good presumes not to need rhetoric.  We have to align good and rhetoric; long ago, rhetoric was defined as “the good (hu)man speaking well.”

Today education is under attack.  Diane Ravitch speaks for me when she tells of the betrayal of public education by those we voted to represent and defend us.  NCLB lies about its intention and action: it leaves most children behind and even threatens to destroy public education altogether.  ( )

NWP (National Writing Project) is simply the best program I’ve experienced in 40+ years as a professional educator, and it’s now getting cut in federal funding while the perpetrators of the economic crisis continue to amass unconscionable wealth and power.  That’s not right. 

Because of the NWP, I no longer rely on the same print-based textbook of the last century.  Today’s generation, our world’s most valuable resource, lives in an age of digital media and an age of great challenge.  We’re witnessing almost unbelievable political change, and we see how reliant these reforms are on this new rhetoric fused with digital media.  As always, the chances for good rise up when they are joined by the most powerful symbolic system yet known. 

NWP taught me to care for digital media with an even bigger passion than I already had for print-based literacy education.  With its highly developed infrastructure and with amazing professionals who truly walk the talk, NWP provides support 24/7.  Keeping afloat in a Web X.0 World isn’t possible without this infrastructure.

Now is the time for us to power-up.  Good aligned with rhetorical power still prevails.  Good people who walk the talk with the resources of digital media and Web2.0 are remaking the world.  Educators who care for all children in our public education system can successfully defend the best of our promises and our inheritance.  The dream of this nation once depended on a commitment to make public education a reality for all and for this education to lead the way into freedom, justice, and equality.

The scope of this dream has always been daunting, and still it has summoned many of the best of a pioneering people; but we have not reached far enough into the vision.  I’ve spend a long career in this quest and have often been discouraged almost to the point of quitting, of losing faith, of giving up.  In my career, only one program sustains hope: the National Writing Project.  Perhaps there are others that do it for some folks, but it’s NWP for me.  In brief, it’s because most of all NWP honors the teacher and affirms the knowledge located within the moment where learners are empowered to own it, to make it, and to discern truth from lies.

(For elaboration on this essential feature of situated knowledge, see an earlier blog: )