Teachable Moments, Think Tanks, and the National Writing Project nwp.org by Mary Buckelew
Inspired by the most recent National Writing Project (2018) conference in St. Louis, I was reminded of a story that illustrates just one of the many reasons the National Writing Project and its 200 sites continues to thrive and provide the best professional development opportunities for teachers across the nation and internationally. First, NWP is not a program to be bought – it is not a one size fits all curriculum. It is a philosophy of teaching writing and learning that is thoughtfully shared in Writing Institutes across the country. Teachers immerse themselves in writing, thinking, reading and talking about writing and learning so that they can better work with the students in their local cultures and contexts to teach writing. Just as important, the philosophy allows teachers to effectively work with and tailor programs and curriculums that their districts may purchase to seemingly meet the needs of their students.
Mrs. A.’s Story
While leading her students in an interactive read aloud about the U.S. baseball hero Lou Gehrig, Mrs. A.’s student, Javier, asked a question about the disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) which ended Gehrig’s life. Javier wondered about the disease and its relationship to mitochondria, which he had just studied in science. Although not part of the scripted reading program, Mrs. A. took a moment to ponder the question with Javier and suggested some topics that he might want to research. Javier’s question and Mrs. A.’s answers were not in the script. Mrs. A. and her students were being observed that day by an administrator for Mrs. A.’s Danielson SLO/PD plan.
After the lesson, the administrator asked Mrs. A. why she had departed from the textbook script, and she explained that Javier’s question had been a “teachable moment” in which her student was making important cross curricular connections. The administrator replied, “There will be no teachable moments when I return, just the textbook, and its questions and answers. This reading and writing series has proven successful according to the research and ‘trainers.’ Everyone needs to be on board. We must have fidelity to the script.”
I find it disconcerting that many people are making a lot of money from these scripted programs while robbing our children of teachable moments and time for authentic thinking, reading, and writing. Unfortunately, children who most need experiential and authentic learning experiences are usually the ones whose classroom experiences are reduced to lifeless scripts.
Fortunately, Mrs. A. is a member of her local National Writing Project (NWP) site and sought solace and support regarding her encounter with scripted curriculum and her administrator. Mrs. A’s local Writing Project site supports her belief in teachable moments, tailoring the script to focus on students, student inquiry, and the power of discussion — versus basic, low level comprehension scripts, which currently proliferate in many districts with challenging socio-economics.
Educational Communities such as the 40 year old National Writing Project and its 200 local sites do not proffer formulaic programs. What they do offer is a digitally and face-to-face connected nation-wide community comprised of educators who are lifelong learners, who consistently strive to reach and teach their students in myriad environments, and who share their ideas with each other. NWP’s philosophy believes all children can learn — that the best teachers of teachers are other teachers, and that to teach any subject area well — one must be an active practitioner in his or her content area.
What does being an active practitioner mean? It means to teach writing or any subject, one must actively engage with his or her content area and the literacy aspects of the content area. An active practitioner, reflects on his or her practice whether in writing or mathematics. A teacher who actively practices in his or her content area will engage students in authentic work, will TEACH not just assign (projects, lab reports, and research assignments), and will inspire life-long learning and literacy.
Schools who see these big bucks one size fits all programs and textbooks as the panacea for the achievement gap/s would do better to contact their local National Writing Project site to avail themselves of the cadre of NWP teachers who can — at the very least — assist teachers in tailoring “the programs” to their student populations through their workshops and courses so that all teachers can reach and teach everyone.
Mrs. A. continues to pause for the teachable moment, to inspire students, to promote questioning and critical thinking with the support of a local and a national community of writers and thinkers.
How do you create spaces for critical thinkers to blossom? How do you effectively work with programs so that student learning is at the center?
Join a “Think Tank” near you: Find your local Writing Project site at www.nwp.org and pursue your inquiry questions within a welcoming, thoughtful and lively community of writers and thinkers.
Dr. Mary Bellucci Buckelew is the Director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project and Professor of English at West Chester University. She is co-author of Reaching and Teaching Diverse Populations: Strategies for Moving Beyond Stereotypes. When she’s not facilitating workshops, leadership gatherings, and institute meetings; visiting youth sites for Young Readers & Writers; or teaching undergraduate and graduate courses – you may find Mary composing a poem about life in New Mexico, taking long walks with her husband Paul, visiting with family and friends, or reading a good book!