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Virginia Journal of Education

Owning the Profession Through the National (and Virginia) Writing Project

Don’t let the “writing” part throw you.

By Mary Tedrow

Here’s a dirty little secret. 

Very few of the professional development hours provided by my various districts have had any effect on my teaching practice. But I have changed my practice dramatically over the years. 

All of the most meaningful changes have come from one source: other teachers. These conversations, for the most part, have taken place outside of the regular workday, sometimes in online forums, sometimes in reading the work of other practicing teachers, sometimes in face-to-face conversations.

And I’ve sought out these invigorating conversations after experiencing the sheer joy of learning with colleagues through the National Writing Project Summer Institute. 

Educators continually point to this highly effective network as a model for professional learning that genuinely helps teachers improve student achievement. In study after study, the teachers of the National Writing Project outperform their peers in teaching writing and understanding to their students. Researchers have begun looking into how the NWP model might be replicated in other arenas.

That being said, there is one thing wrong with the National Writing Project, and its seven affiliates which comprise the Virginia Writing Project: its name. 

 It has “writing” in it. When teachers see writing they think: English Language Arts—not for me

Not just about writing
In fact, the National Writing Project ( is a 40-year-old professional development network—the longest continuing professional development program in existence—which enhances the teaching capacity of all teachers, in any discipline, kindergarten through university. 

Yes, NWP’s mission does include improving writing skills, but it definitely doesn’t stop there. NWP also develops a cadre of teacher leaders, emphasizes using writing as a tool to deepen learning in any curriculum, offers customized professional development where teachers teach each other, publicly presents instruction through shared demonstration lessons or professional articles and books, provides workshops for children and adults, and can go in any other project direction the teacher-led network determines as a need.

In short, NWP can work for every teacher who wishes to behave as a professional in the field—meaning any teacher who is apprenticed to a body of knowledge, contributes to that body of knowledge through published papers and best practices, and maintains the ethics of teaching.

While engaging learning communities are often not embedded in teacher work environments, they entirely comprise the work done through NWP. Building vibrant learning communities has been the goal ever since the first group of teachers came together in Berkeley in 1973, forming the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP).
Now housed on over 200 university campuses around the nation, with seven in Virginia, NWP has gathered committed teachers for Summer Institutes to discuss practice, share lessons, and problem-solve, always with the work of students in front of them, coupled with trusted theoretical models. 

Virginia has been a part of this movement almost as long as the original BAWP, beginning in 1977 when Don Gallehr, an English professor at George Mason University, discovered NWP’s teacher-centered professional development. Now the state has seven sites, the newest formed in 2014, the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project. At least project one site is now within easy access of every teacher in the state, an NWP goal.

How it works
NWP’s success is based on a simple, yet dynamic model. 

At Summer Institute, the expectation is that each fellow brings valuable expertise from his or her work in the classroom. Teachers share that expertise by demonstrating a successful practice. Teachers then give and receive feedback. In addition, the fellows share writing in groups, where they also give and receive feedback. Discussions and shared readings permeate the Institute as teachers make observations and refine their thinking around practice. 

This process helps the fellows build a vibrant community of fully-engaged learners, able to reflect on their own teaching as they reflect on the joys and struggles of being a learner in this community. After immersion in this climate, teachers are better able to shift some of its features into their classrooms, like building on student knowledge and expertise, creating a community of learners, and leading students in self and peer evaluation.

Teachers who participate in Summer Institute often describe their learning as transformational.  It’s designed to be deep and personal, since each teacher is continually refining his or her position toward teaching and learning based on the intensive Institute experience and their knowledge of the classroom. These teachers have engaged in deep discussion around their profession—the practice of teaching—something that is rarely an outcome of glossy, packaged professional development kits. 

Once teachers complete the Summer Institute they become Teacher Consultants (TCs) with the National Writing Project and can continue work within the network, even taking leadership positions and helping shape the work of the project site. 

This can take many forms, since all TCs are treated as colleagues contributing to the work of the project. The central focus of the network is teachers sharing what they know. Some sites include writing workshops for young writers and/or adults; others lead book study groups, maintain writing groups, develop courses or in-service programs to address a local need, and so on. The work of the network is kept loose and flexible, focused on community need.

Re-centering Reform
At the end of a decade of reform, our National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores show little improvement has been made in student achievement. In fact, the closing of the achievement gap has slowed over the decade of high-stakes testing around standards. For over 30 years, education researchers have known that building the capacity of teachers as continual learners of their craft has had the greatest gains in student achievement.

Far more than a one-and-done course or program, NWP has been a template for building a network of effective teachers and a stronger profession, in which teachers both own and contribute to the understanding of teaching in practice. 

Tedrow, M.Ed, NBCT, is the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School and the Director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA. Mary blogs at


NWP and You
Interested in experiencing the original professional learning community and becoming a Teacher Consultant with the National Writing Project? There’s a site near you—check one of these out:

Appalachian Writing Project
University of Virginia’s College at Wise
Wise, Virginia

Blue Ridge Writing Project
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia

Central Virginia Writing Project
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia

Eastern Virginia Writing Project
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia

Northern Virginia Writing Project
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia

Shenandoah Valley Writing Project
Shenandoah University
Winchester, Virginia

Tidewater Writing Project
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Virginia


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