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Introduction to Fall 2013 Site Report to the NWP

CA San Jose Area Writing Project 2013 (Fall) NWP Site Report

Author of this report: Jonathan Lovell, Director (Context and ISI 2013)

I. The Current Context of Your Site

When I was just starting my career in English Education, I used to commute between New Haven, where my then wife was an Assistant Professor of Art History at Yale University, and my work in New York City, where I was an Assistant Professor of English and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Contrary to what one might suppose, the neighborhoods where I felt most vulnerable were those adjacent to my downtown New Haven home.

Even though I rolled through upper Harlem, on my quads, en route from my train stop on 125th Street to my Teachers College destination at Broadway and 120th Street, I never felt nearly as vulnerable in these supposedly more “dangerous” neighborhoods. I did not understand, at the time, what caused the difference in palpable tension one would feel in one “town” versus the other.

I do now, since the entire country is now a “blown up” version of what New Haven was in the late 70’s (see here )–a country where the divide between “haves” and “have nots” is omnipresent, chilling, and utterly and completely immoral. According to the most recent IRS report, income inequality in the nation has now reached levels exceeding the worst excesses (see here)  of America’s “Gilded Age” from the 1880’s to the 1920’s.

We pay a price for tolerating these levels of inequality, for failing to raise our united voices against the conscious public policies that not only create these inequalities, but serve as “automatic triggers” to perpetuate them (see Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age).

That price can be seen most clearly in our public schools. Increasing numbers of students come to class angry, out of sorts, ill-prepared for the work they are expected to do, especially when the standards they are expected to reach are unrealistic ones. Increasing numbers of students are undernourished and under-loved, especially in that crucial period from ages 1-3 when their brains are developing the capacity to enable them to become capable and engaged learners. Depleted funding for education at the state level—another consequence of state tax policies that hugely favor the already wealthy—means that more students are crammed into classrooms intended for much smaller numbers, in buildings that are often in their 20th or 30th year of deferred maintenance.

I visited Newark Memorial HS in Newark CA just last week, where the purported topic was the upcoming Back to School night, and how beginning teachers might handle themselves on this important occasion. The entire meeting was taken up with an extremely sobering account of the school’s unbelievably antiquated air conditioning system, and the heroic efforts the assistant principal was going through in order to “band-aid” the system as well as he could.

And so it goes.

What does this have to do with the “introduction” of our site to the NWP network?

Just this. The distance between “haves” and “have nots” is nowhere as apparent as it is in California’s own “Silicon Valley.” The new Apple headquarters presently being built in Cupertino are deliberately meant to resemble a spaceship (see here). Quite appropriate, since Apple employees might as well be on a spaceship, so little do their new headquarters reflect the fact that they are living cheek by jowl to some of the poorest children in the state—located a mere ten miles to the east in the Alum Rock Elementary School District.

The San Jose Area Writing Project’s response to this deplorable economic and social environment is three-fold:

1) We offer a wide range of university-based summer and school year programs for those teachers eager to improve their classroom practices in the teaching of writing, no matter the level of functionality or dysfunctionality of their schools and districts. This might be called the Candide “cultivate your own garden” approach to the deplorable conditions so many of our teachers face in their schools and districts.

2) We actively pursue both short term and long range partnerships with local schools and districts, primarily using the “classic” WP model of after-school workshops offered by TCs, but also branching out into after school programs in which our TCs teach “below basic” children, and cooperative relationships with larger school districts like the East Side Union High School District in which the district provides a measure of support for district teachers to attend our school year and summer programs.

3) We foster a strong and robust partnership between our English Education Program at San Jose State and our Writing Project TCs and programs. Credential candidates benefit from several workshop demonstrations in their English Methods course and final semester seminar, candidates are given a reduced cost option for attending our Saturday Seminars, and our TCs are routinely used as resident or mentor teachers for our “Phase I” and “Phase II” student teachers.

Our programs and project are assisted by the strong relationship we have with the English Department at San Jose State. We are provided by the department with a small but well equipped “writing project room” right across from the English Department’s main office, and we are able to use a modified version of the department’s franking privileges to send snail mail information about our programs to the 1600 or so teachers on our main mailing list.

Perhaps most importantly, the department has been willing to allow a “buy out” of a .2 teaching assignment per semester for the Director of the San Jose Area Writing Project, at the university’s present “vacant rate.” This amount represents a third year lecturer’s salary, about one-half a tenured faculty member’s salary for this percentage of teaching time.

And our overall financial health? It’s not good, quite frankly. Our only true income-producing programs are our one-week summer Young Writers’ Academy, held at a local elementary school, and our one-week Young Authors’ Institute, held right here at San Jose State. The 15K to 20K in profits that these two programs generate help to support our two Administrative Assistants for the Project, a spring visit by a Young Adult Author (see here  for last spring’s author, Alan Sitomer), all expenses for any conferences or state-wide meetings we attend for the California Writing Project, and our two school-based ISI Co-Directors.

Our state funding has been slowly whittled away over the years and is presently at just over 61K. This amount pays for my release time, as well as the salaries for our seven associate directors at $2250 each, our new Program Manager, and our Student Administrative Assistants.

Our Saturday Seminars, Summer Open Programs, and School Year Inservices generally pay for themselves, but do not generate new income. But it has grown increasingly improbable that our site will be able to generate the 30-35K per summer needed to run our Invitational Summer Institute–at least at a level we believe to be professionally responsible.

We have therefore made the reluctant decision, after 25 summers, to cancel our 2014 Invitational Summer Institute. We’ll make lemonade out of lemons by offering a two week Advanced Institute this summer for K-6 TCs, designed to start us in the direction of producing a companion volume to our Pearson publication Teaching Writing 7-12 in an Era of Assessment: Passion and Practice. But anyone who thinks this gain will compensate for the loss of our beloved ISI, at least for this coming summer, simply does not know the San Jose Area Writing Project.

And those “stakeholders”? As Richard Todd and Tracy Kidder write in their new book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (Random House, 2013), this is just one of those words they will not allow to grace their pages.

II. The Work of the Writing Project: ISI 2013

Students are remarkably savvy when it comes to detecting inauthentic teaching. They pick up a teacher’s bluff in a nanosecond, often delighting their peers with the re-enacting of such “non teaching moments.”

That’s probably why most K-12 English Language Arts teachers agonize so over their writing curriculum. “How do I get my students to write anything at all?” they say. Or more poignantly, “Why do I feel so burdened when I have to plow through a stack of my students’ papers. They’re all essentially the same! What am I doing wrong?”

We’ve spent 25 years at the San Jose Area Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute “writing and revising” our program so that as many Fellows as possible emerge with greater confidence in themselves as writers as well as teachers of writing. We’ve not got it quite right yet, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Here’s what we can say for sure:

helping teachers see themselves as writers takes awhile; 4 ½ weeks is a minimum

teachers need encouraging models of real writers as work; Bird by Bird and Good Prose were exceptionally helpful in this regard this past summer

afternoon writing groups work better if they heterogeneous, mixing elementary, secondary, and college level participants

it is extremely helpful to use the penultimate day of the program as a portfolio day, making sure all participants know what a portfolio is, what writing “artifacts” they should place in it, and that they are provided with examples of what they might write for their “introductory one pager”

the final day of the writing project should be used for every participant to read a selection of his or her choice from the ISI Anthology; it is very helpful to organize this reading in terms of afternoon writing groups, so that group members can both hear and “feel” the contributions they made to one another’s writing.

And here’s what we discovered this summer:

there is an intimate and “exploitable” connection between the writing that participants do in the morning sessions, when they respond to one another’s workshop demonstrations, and the writing they do together in their afternoon sessions; this connection is greatly strengthened by having participants write their post-workshop responses on two-ply carbonless paper, giving their yellow copy to the presenter and keeping the original to read to their writing group at the beginning of their afternoon session

afternoon writing group facilitators can assist in exploiting this connection by helping the group see where they agree and disagree in their responses; they can do so from an “objective” standpoint, since are not generally present for the morning demonstration workshop sessions

it is exceptionally helpful to have each of afternoon writing group design a large visual symbol poster at the end of the second week, in which they decide on a name for themselves, a central visual metaphor to represent the group as a whole, and visual representations for each participant’s individual writing goals; it is useful to conduct a gallery walk for the presentation of these posters, and to end by placing these posters on the wall as a visual reminder for the remaining 2 ½ weeks of the program

it sure does help when one’s summer program starts with a great group of writers (see attached ISI 13 Anthology), so that all the co-directors have to do is figure out ways to “bring them out” so that they and others in the program can recognize them for the skilled and confident writers that they are right on the cusp of becoming.

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2 replies

  1. This is the opening I wrote to our most recent “Site Report,” submitted online to the National Writing Project’s website. This is a requirement for all sites that want to be eligible to compete for the federal SEED #1 funding that the NWP is now providing for support of invitational summer institutes. The good news is that these funds were granted by the Dept of Ed to the NWP. The bad news is that they can only be awarded to a given site every other year. Hence the somewhat poignant end to the “The Current Context of [our] Site.”

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