National Writing Project: Promoting Scholarship In The Digital Age
Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Executive Director of the National Writing Project (NWP), sat down with Rod Berger to discuss the importance of writing skills for our schools and learning centers. Eidman-Aadahl shares a detailed explanation of the National Writing Project while intelligently exploring the future of writing in our increasingly saturated internet world.
Rod Berger: I’m looking forward to this conversation and learning more about the National Writing Project. It’s come up in so many different discussions around education about the ways in which we’re helping to support teachers and students through projects that are inclusive of writing. Are we looking at areas to improve the quality of writing while continuing growth for students?
Well, Elyse, I want people to know about the National Writing Project. Give us the elevator pitch, if you don’t mind, and then we can learn a little bit more about current things that are happening.
Elyse Eidman-Aadahl: Absolutely, and thank you for having me. Well, the National Writing Project is a fairly senior organization. We’ve been around since 1974. But it is, in some ways, a very modern organization. It’s a networked organization. We have roughly 185 local writing project sites. Each one of them is homed at a university across the 50 states. Each one practices a model of teacher-to-teacher driven learning.
A peer learning model where we try to surface strong exemplars of exceptional teaching across a variety of areas. We then use their example to help scholars and teachers. We interrogate them, learn from them, and spread the kind of powerful practices we see in their examples of learning. We do research together and then make ourselves available to schools and districts for a professional learning context. It’s happening across the country at local writing project sites, as well as, increasingly in open online and connected learning opportunities on the Web.
RB: You’ve got my head spinning in lots of different ways. As a parent and someone involved in education, I love the network component. You’re talking about 185 sites, each tied to a university and then providing local support. It’s fantastic.
Let’s go from the bottom-up. Let’s talk about K-12 and the type of support that they are looking for with regards to these local writing sites. What are you seeing? What are they asking? Has feedback changed the way in which you look at disseminating the learning?
EE: I think one of the first things that many districts, schools, and educators are asking for is a vehicle to help educators develop their capacity as local leaders and as people who can assist in peer-to-peer learning. Finding a way to facilitate professional learning in schools and districts. We’re used to saying that our biggest brain trust and our highest capacity brain trust are the employees that we already have.
We talk a lot about teacher leadership and what an incredible role that is enabled. But actually, we don’t necessarily have a lot of things in place for teachers to develop their skills or their capacities in adult learning and peer-to-peer learning. We need to analyze their practice and make it public in ways that produce learning for themselves and others. One of the most important things I think we do, and districts are increasingly asking for is facilitating ways that our colleagues and we together can become our best agents of productive change.
Once that happens, how do we network those people? It’s bigger than just the school, the department or even the districts. Ideas generated in one place that can be moved in powerful ways to different contexts and different locations to become an engine of improvement in some new environment. Learning from practice and learning how to learn from practice are at the center of writing projects requests from schools.
If You Are Someone Who Would Rather Listen…click play. Otherwise, enjoy the rest of the interview below!
RB: What is the state of writing as a skill set in education from your perspective? I think the layperson says it’s probably eroding to some degree because of technology. Shorthand has become even shorter than shorthand, and it’s impacting the way in which we interface with information, literacy, and digital literacy as well. Where are we with regards to writing as a skill set in this country?
EE: Well, you bring up two important threads to keep in mind. One is writing itself, and how it’s changing as the demands of writing are changing. And then the other is skill set? What’s the nature of it, especially in K-12 education? Let me start with that first because we have been able to watch the state of writing in school, from our vantage point around the country for many decades. I would say that, in general, people are probably not aware that today there’s a deep need to rebuild attention to writing itself.
For many years in many K-12 schools, there’s been an effort to move toward certain reading and math skills that are testable. To move minutes in the curriculum, toward things that might be connected to particular standards and accountability packages. A lot of movement in education was purchased at the cost of minutes devoted to things like writing, the skills and tasks that demand thoughtful and engaged attention from young people over time.
We’ve been in this mode in American schools for long enough that we now can see a whole generation of teachers who may themselves not have experienced a school that had the thoughtful and engaged attention to writing that was routine in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
So, right now with standards and attention to writing changing, growing and developing, we have a situation where many schools cannot see how to create the time; space and instructional emphasis that will help young people become strong writers.
But writing could be more complex, available and important than ever before because of our digital age. One side of the digital revolution that people should remember is that although we worry about 140-character thoughts and text speak affecting writing skills; we’ve never had a richer ecological context for young people, and all people to be producers of content.
We have the opportunity to add our thoughts, edit and make more profound Wikipedia pages, for example. That kind of work is available right now to almost anybody on the Web, given the preparation and support to do it well. These types of mass writing opportunities were simply unavailable to earlier generations. It’s a great moment to be a writer and a producer of writing. The tools are fabulous, and we can go further with our ambitions in writing than ever before. What we need is an instructional context that honors the fact that everybody can be a deep producer of content today. It wasn’t true a couple of decades ago.
RB: There’s an ecological context that you mention and the opening of an entire window of opportunity for young people to produce content and share their voice. And so, with that said, I would love to get your perspective on gender. You might say, “Well, what do you mean gender?” I’ve had conversations recently with authors who mention that we haven’t done a good job of recognizing the ways in which boys and girls engage in writing, and literacy. How do we help shape their confidence to explore areas of interest better on a variety of levels? How can we do a better job in valuing contributions from students of all backgrounds that supports more writing of content?
EE: It’s an interesting and important problem of creating learning environments that have equity at the core. Conditions of learning that can advance all young people. It’s deeply true of literacy. There are ways that literacy has been, gender-inflected, race-inflected or class-inflected. We can often see pockets of resistance, to certain kinds of products, certain types of demands or tasks from different kinds of young people, a sense of, “that’s not what we do, or that is what we do.”
Part of what’s interesting now is that some of those inflected-literacy tools, like a literary essay on the one hand versus a type of poetry, on another hand, versus a kind of classic, information article that you might publish on a website about, engine repair or something like that. I was just looking at something like that on the Web the other day.
All of these products demand a kind of social literacy engagement from the writer. They’re all very different, and we can develop tremendous skills across all of those different products without having to say that every young person in the world needs to learn one of those at a particular time in his or her life.
The issue is curricular as much as anything else. How can we create a context where a lot of different young people have a way of understanding themselves as responsible producers and creators? Given that little shift in mindset, what can we unleash for them to go through skill development?
We see it all the time with young people who may look like they are not achieving well in school. That same young person placed in another context; an after school setting, a place that’s driven by their interest, a club that they’re in, they look like a different person. They’re engaged through their interests and their capacities. And that’s the kid we have to unleash in every setting that we can.
RB: I agree with you. How are we doing with regards to technology? Have we done a good job of integrating solutions that can help writing literacy efforts? Whether the establishment likes it or not, young people use technology 24/7, and that’s how they engage in their world.
I’m always curious as to how we are interfacing technology with writing efforts. Are you assuming that we’re doing a good job in this area?
EE: We are trying to figure it out. We’re working hard to figure it out with educators around the country. We’re looking at local infrastructure, devices, bandwidth, and setting. A lot of people are working hard to figure it out.
I think we’re finally moving beyond the limiting myths we might have had about technology. I think one limiting myth was that young people, for example, use tech all the time; so they can figure it out on their own. But what we’re truly seeing is that young people use technology in certain ways. They figure out the devices. They often understand and move quickly between and among social media. But there are some very significant technology-related skills, information-related skills, and composing-related skills that they’re not developing very well.
When they shift their context and their interests to what they want to use technology for, there’s a real learning curve that they need to go through to be smart, capable and reliable users of technology for their life goals.
So, I think we’ve moved beyond the one limiting myth of, “they’ll figure it out because they’re a digital-native generation,” toward an awareness that there needs to be a learning context, a set of tasks and opportunities to develop high-end skills with digital composing.
I don’t necessarily mean the use of high-end tools or media creation, even though; some young people will pursue that. I mean the things that all thinkers, writers, and citizens would be able to understand in a context of massively flawed information environments encountered on the web. There are confusing, puzzling and dramatically negative settings of online discourse and participation. How do we manage collaboration in those sorts of settings? How do we navigate misleading and incomplete information? How do we tell marketing from scholarship, plus a whole range of things that are not directly related to devices? Mainly, how to navigate in the environment that Internet technology has made available to us.
RB: We need to be an informed consumer of the information that is presented to us on a daily basis.
RB: Elyse, I’m interested in how your background as a former high school English and journalism teacher affects you today. What is it like for you when you close it down at night and think about your role as executive director of the National Writing Project? Do you think about your meaning as a leader of a significant organization with the depth of 185 sites and its implications throughout the country? Did you ever envision this for yourself and what is it like to think about the impact that you can have individually and collectively as an organization?
EE: Yes (laugh) I think most people don’t envision early in their life where they’re going to get to down the road. I certainly didn’t. I joined my local writing project as a high school teacher and experienced it for all the same reasons that motivate and entice 3,000 teachers a year.
I was there to be with my colleagues. I was there to learn. I wanted to improve my practice. It was in many ways life-changing because it was such a rare opportunity for teachers to be in a place that focused so deeply on practice. So deeply on learning from each other and developing skills. And an unleashing of questions about yourself as an educator that you would pursue your whole life.
It very much dramatizes to educators that you can chart a course as a leader, thinker, and intellectual of your practice. That’s what happened to me.
It unleashed a pathway that included all kinds of things; working in professional development, pursuing graduate education, doing research, leading a local writing project and now where I am at the National Writing Project.
I’m one of dozens and dozens, or hundreds of stories that emerge from early writing projects. People move into administration. People develop non-profit, they create curriculum packages, and they engage in research. There’s something about educators that bring eclectic talents and a deep commitment to their learning. Often, it’s what drove them to education. The message is, “you should unleash your learning for the public good on behalf of young people”, all kinds of amazing things happen.
It’s a privilege. I’m sitting right now for example at a retreat center where a huge number of teachers and colleagues in science and technology are working up resources and curriculum from several years of project work trying to understand the intersection of literacy, writing, and deep learning in science. They feel they have a responsibility to share their knowledge with their colleagues. It’s happening somewhere else around technology in the writing project. And there’s engaging in early literacy somewhere else.
Wherever people find the passion for the thing that they want to work on as a leader, we can facilitate that. They can do amazing things.
I’ve had an incredible journey. But it’s also wonderful to see the journeys of so many educators making a difference on the ground every day for the kids and colleagues to whom they work. It’s a privilege.
RB: You are a fantastic ambassador for the National Writing Project and education in general, and I sincerely mean that. All the folks I talk with say you have a real way of understanding complexities and communicating in a very, very efficient manner. We want to wish you continued success, Elyse.
Once again, we want to thank our sponsors of the interview today with Elyse and encourage learning more about the National Writing Project through all the links below our interview. We want to thank our sponsor Scribeasy.
Elyse Eidman-Aadahl is Executive Director of the National Writing Project (NWP), a network of nearly 200 literacy-focused professional development and research communities located at universities across all 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Based at the University of California-Berkeley, the NWP leads nationally-networked learning and research initiatives for educators working in K-12, university, and out-of-school settings.
A recipient of the Hollis Caswell Award for Curriculum Studies, Eidman-Aadahl holds a Ph.D. in curriculum theory from the University of Maryland College Park. Her scholarship includes studies of literacy and learning in the context of our new digital, networked ecology as well as research into how educators of diverse backgrounds research and reason together about this social transformation, literacy, equity, and agency for themselves and their youth. She is a broadly published author and presenter, well-known for co-authoring Because Digital Writing Matters (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and Writing for a Change: Boosting Literacy and Learning through Social Action (Jossey-Bass, 2008).
Prior to becoming Executive Director, Eidman-Aadahl directed National Programs and Site Development for the NWP where she developed many of NWP’s signature national programs and partnerships. Her recent work involves educators in schools, libraries, and museums as they rethink their teaching and learning environments with a view toward digital composition and production, connected learning, equity, and civic engagement. In that regard, Elyse is the founder of NWP’s Digital Is project and community, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative (DML), and is a member of the DML’s Youth and Participatory Politics research network. She is a founding member of the Connected Learning Alliance and helped establish the YOUmedia Learning Labs network, the Make to Learn Initiative, and Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age.
Formerly a high school English and journalism teacher, university professor, and evaluation consultant, Eidman-Aadahl has conducted action research and evaluation programs for organizations as diverse as the YWCA, the Mongolian Open Society Institute, National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, NIOST, Understanding Science, and numerous organizations focused on youth development and civic learning as they work to create and assess powerful learning contexts for young people and the adults who work with them. Current partnerships include leading projects that engage partners in science and maker/tinkering communities to theorize the relationship of literacy to efforts in STEM/STEAM education.
This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit