Some of you may know that we have a new senator in these parts — Republican Scott Brown to replace Democrat Ted Kennedy — and this is the first time I am going to be contacting his office (Sen. John Kerry is next). This comes as the National Writing Project is concerned about the reorganization of funding for educational programs. NWP receives substantial funds from the federal government for its work with teachers across the country. There’s a worry that the reorganization may cripple the NWP.
So, I composed this letter to my new senator:
Dear Senator Scott Brown,
First of all, congratulations on your election. I hope you get settled soon and act in the interests of all your constituents in our state in your work as our United States Senator.
I am writing to you today as a sixth grade teacher and as a constituent with three young boys in the public school system. I am writing to you also as someone who cares deeply about the children who come to my classroom every day. I am a member of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, which is based at the University of Massachusetts and a site of the National Writing Project network. The National Writing Project is an organization that I have been part of ever since I began teaching seven years ago and it has changed the way I approach my students as learners in countless, positive ways. The Writing Project has become a second home to me as I continue to develop my skills as a teacher of writing and literacy, and of technology, and its support of my endeavors have been invaluable over the years.
In case you are not familiar with it, the National Writing is an organization with teachers at the center of its work and it empowers us teachers to share our best practices with other educators, to network with each other, to learn from each other, and to make share classroom research around what works best to teach students in all the content areas. We strongly believe that writing is a crucial way that students learn, whether it is in the Language Arts, the math or the science classroom.
Here in the Pioneer Valley, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project provides professional development for schools by tapping into the expertise of teachers themselves. Our writing project hosts a four-week Summer Institute where teachers conduct research, examine the teaching of writing and become writers themselves. We host numerous conferences for teachers and we have established ourselves as a leader in emerging technology in the Pioneer Valley.
I am writing to you because of proposed changes in the federal educational budget that could negatively impact this work. As you may know, President Obama and his administration are proposing a revamping of the educational funding system. The National Writing Project has been consolidated in the administration’s budget proposal with five other education-related projects as part of a proposed competitive funding stream directed toward State Education Authorities. Money would flow from the states to organizations that the state’s deem worthy.
My concern is that support for the National Writing Project could be in danger under this umbrella plan for block grants. While our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has worked hard to forge connections and partnerships (and run joint programs) with our Massachusetts Department of Education, not all states and not all writing projects have the same bonds. I worry about the competitive nature of the block grant concept and question whether the approach is the right one for educational organizations that work directly with teachers.
If funding dries up for National Writing Project sites, then proven initiatives that improve instruction and put effective tools of literacy learning into the hands of students might be in jeopardy. The mission statement of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project centers on access and diversity issues for all students and teachers. We work hard to reach those classrooms in urban and rural areas, places where resources are already limited. The strength of an organization like the National Writing Project is that we, the teachers, and our students are tied together with a desire to use literacy for authentic learning.
Let me give you an example of a project that the National Writing Project funded here in Western Massachusetts.
A few years ago, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project launched an initiative known as Making Connections. The goal of our venture was to use technology (weblogs and podcasting) to create an online writing space for middle school students in urban (Holyoke, Chicopee) and rural (Athol) and we had about 20 teachers in a half dozen school districts involved over the three years that we were funded by the National Writing Project. More than 200 students wrote about, and learned about, what it means to live in a rural community or an urban community. Some classes did shared science experiments and collaborated on scientific abstracts. Other students wrote poems and stories. High School students in Chicopee were mentor writers with elementary students in South Hadley. The NWP grant also funded a free summer writing camp for students in Holyoke and Athol. These were opportunities that many of these students would never had had without the vital support of the National Writing Project, and that support began with funding from the United States government.
Here is another example. In the past year, I have helped launch an online social networking site for teachers in writing projects in the New England and New York area. Our aim is to find ways for teachers to connect through tools that break down the geographic barriers. We now have almost 200 members on our site and teachers are using this technology to share lesson plans, to ask questions about classroom activities, to share their own writing and to connect with other teachers. This project is funded directly from the National Writing Project. Without that support, our site might never have gotten off the ground.
The National Writing Project provides numerous other opportunities for teachers right here in our state to to conduct research on the best methods for teaching writing, to write for professional publications, to interact with experts in the field as well as expert teachers from all 50 states. This active network of teachers allows us to share and learn innovative and improved ways of teaching, and I fear that the loss of funding under President Obama’s plan will, at the least, make those opportunities for connections much less likely.
Senator, I am asking for your support in efforts to continue direct appropriations for the National Writing Project and to support the work of teachers in classrooms across the state. By supporting the National Writing Project, you are showing support for teachers and for children. Even teachers who are not part of the National Writing Project benefit, through exposure to best practices at conferences and through discussions with colleagues. If improving schools is a goal, then the National Writing Project deserves your support. Please urge your colleagues in Congress to support the National Writing Project.