Saturday, March 19, 2011

Social Justice and the National Writing Project

When I decided to become a teacher back in 1991, there was a figure from Puerto Rican education I was so inspired by, I must have read his biography about ten times before I got my teaching credential. When I think of him, I visualize the famous painting that shows Maestro Rafael Cordero teaching at his school. He started the island’s first public school in 1810, for Black children who had not been admitted to the city’s schools because of their race. He also took on many students who could not afford to pay for their education.

Over the years, I have often wondered why Rafael Cordero devoted his life to those children, when he could have made a living doing something else. He was an educated man. Perhaps he knew neither the private nor the religious institutions of the time could be expected to produce the leaders his island needed. Maestro Cordero must have seen literacy as the key to liberation, or he would have taught a profitable trade instead of reading and writing. He must have felt instruction should be delivered through a public system, or he would have tried to convince private and parochial schools to take in those they had rejected.

What would he have thought of the dismantling of our public school system?  I wonder if someone could have convinced him of the effectiveness of the business model for schools, or of the need to remove the bargaining power of teachers to save money. After all, he was no stranger to economic crises; his school remained open and even thrived during the period of great turmoil that was the middle of the 19th century.

He was a teacher. Had he been around today, the maestro would have advocated for the students that 21st century private and charter schools won’t accept. Students who have fallen behind or who are learning English and score too low. Students with behavioral issues. Students that cost too much money to teach because they have special needs. I imagine him helping other teachers figure out how to address those needs, and advocating for the right of all students to get a quality education.

Would he have sat around to watch the de-funding of organizations that support teachers?  No way. Not only would he have been heartbroken at the number of literacy organizations that are being hit, he would have exposed the fallacy of dismantling decades of taxpayer-funded work in the name of fiscal responsibility. Which is why I write today, channeling Maestro Cordero.

Our legislature has taken the National Writing Project’s federal funding. If it is not restored, thousands of teachers per year will miss a chance to learn how to teach writing well from other teachers. Let me explain how my involvement with a local writing project changed my professional life.

Before I joined the Bay Area Writing Project in 1994, I thought professional development was a binder that a school district consultant gave you after a long period of boredom. Little did I know how much that vision would evolve through my lively discussions with the colleagues I would meet, and how that same community would encourage me to stay in teaching during the dot com revolution of the mid-nineties. I knew I could always count on the support of my writing project colleagues on issues of equity and social justice. And I knew they would help me figure out how to teach my English learners to write well. Because of my writing project, I had a place to go to when I needed help, and I had a place where I could share what I had learned. Over the years, I began noticing the number of outstanding colleagues who had been influenced by the writing project model and realized that there was much power in Jim Gray’s idea, “teachers teaching teachers.”

The removal of federal funding will not take away the notion that teachers have something to add to the great national dialogue in education.  Those of us who have been part of the 206 writing project communities across the country will not forget what we have learned. But the countless new teachers who join the profession each day are at increased risk of leaving the profession. Teaching can be lonely, exhausting, and difficult work, and writing projects in every state have provided the nurturing environment where this particular teaching expertise can be cultivated.  There may be other organizations providing support, but none of them is such a large teacher network focused on literacy, and in particular, writing.

In this age where writing is the ultimate gatekeeper, to defund such a well-established and effective network constitutes a tragedy for all teachers, their students, and their parents. It is because of this that I am certain Maestro Cordero would have blogged today.