In 1974 The University of California Berkeley established a program for teachers called the Bay Area Writing Project. In just two years it expanded to 14 sites in six states. That was the beginning of the National Writing Project. Now the University of West Florida has become one of the Project’s newest sites.
"We were awarded a 'dot on the map' for the National Writing Project in October when we had our site visit from the national office" said Dr. Susan James, Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Educational Leadership at UWF. She has been the driving force behind the National Writing Project coming to the university. "[There are] close to 190 universities around the United States [participating in the project]. We've even gone overseas to Malta, that's our latest site. So there are a lot of site around the United States but there are only four in the state of Florida, and we are the first in the panhandle."
In fact, before UWF signed on, the closest site to Pensacola had been in Tampa. Susan James says getting universities involved in the project is the key to its success.
"The Writing Project is a national project that uses universities as an anchor. What it does is provide professional development for teachers and allows teachers to learn the pedagogy behind teaching writing and get that expertise under their belts and then it allows them to become leaders in their community to teach other teachers what they've learned."
Dr. James has some experience with the project. She was a National Writing Project fellow in 1992 in Broward County and has been through the training.
"I went into the schools and I realized that I was not prepared to teach writing. I was working with a very diverse group of students, students who were coming from other countries, and because of that diversity and because of the low socio-economic status of that area, I knew I needed more tools to be able to give them what they needed. So when I attended the National Writing Project, and went to the summer institute, what I gained from that professional development was, quite honestly, the most impressive professional development I ever received. And, because I moved around the country teaching, this was the one professional development that I had that I felt worked at every grade level at every school I came in contact with."
For a university to become a site for the project, they must first show a need for the training in the community.
"We, here in Pensacola, definitely have a strong need for that. We've seen, you know, at the district level writing scores are not where we want them to be. So partnering with Escambia County we wrote a proposal to become part of the National Writing Project.
Once a university becomes a National Writing Project site, teachers from the area are recruited for the training program.
"Basically, that involves putting on a three-week seminar, during the summer for the teachers. That's called an institute, that's 70 hours worth of instruction for the teachers. The teachers are becoming very comfortable with writing themselves and then they are learning how to facilitate that for their students."
So far Escambia County is the only local district participating in the project. Superintendent Malcom Thomas is pleased with the results.
"It's about that professional development. It's about taking good teachers and trying to hone their craft so they can become much more effective. We know that writing is one of those fundamental skills that is going to carry you far in life, so you can't get too good at that. So to create this lab situation, where we provide professional development for teachers that are ultimately going to go back and instruct and impact our students and their ability to communicate in writing is very positive. And the fact that the university would be our partner in it, that was just like icing on the top. It has been a great partnership, we are very pleased with the results to this point and look for that to last for many years to come."
There have been talks with Santa Rosa County about joining the project in the future. There is no cost to the district or the teachers who participate in the project. Susan James says funding will always be an issue.
"I was very fortunate this past year, we had donors in the community that provided funding in order to purchase books and purchase the supplies. The community really rallied around this. We had businesses that rallied to provide lunch for the teachers or provide supplies for the teachers. This year I have been awarded a Florida fellows grant through sponsored research, here on campus, and through that they are providing some funding for these types of supplies. So this next summer will be covered but it will be a constant chasing after that funding to keep this going."
The next training session for the National Writing Project will be this summer and will expand to include teachers in grades K through 12.