Northern Virginia Writing Project: Then, Now, Tomorrow

by Leslie Goetsch

Northern Virginia Writing Project: Then, Now, Tomorrow

When I became Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project two years ago, Don Gallehr, the original director of NVWP, told me how it all began. In 1977, Don, a young professor in the Mason English Department, was approached by his department chair and asked, “What would you do with a half million dollars?” As it turned out, he wasn’t offering Don a raise, but an opportunity: to establish and direct one of the first satellite sites of what was then the Bay Area Writing Project.

Don was familiar with the organization and its original mission: to pursue collaboration between Bay Area high school teachers and UC Berkley professors to improve student writing. Don had previously taught a course with a similar goal in mind, working from the premise that teachers had to experience being a writer in order for them to be effective teachers of writing. Dismayed by the teachers’ reversion back to old practices within two years following the course, he welcomed the chair’s offer and immediately sent off for the site proposal guidelines, discovering upon studying them, that he “knew the Project would solve the problem my ‘teaching of writing’ students encountered when they returned to their schools.”

The Bay Area Writing Project, officially founded in 1974, soon became The National Writing Project. By 1977, NWP began to establish sites across the country, each with a commitment to the Writing Project’s central three tenets:

  • Effective teachers make the best teachers of other teachers.
  • To be effective teachers of writing, teachers must be writers themselves.
  • Teachers can and should lead from the classroom.

Each of the sites offered a summer program, the Teacher Institute, a five-week course in which teachers wrote and talked about their writing in writing groups that met frequently, read and discussed research on the teaching of writing, and prepared a professional development lesson that focused on a particular element of teaching writing. The sites offered these lessons to schools for their teachers’ professional development in the teaching of writing.

As the number of sites grew, the programming expanded to include popular student and family writers’ workshops, writing retreats for teachers, and collaborations with other organizations whose purpose was to improve student writing. By the 2000s, there were 175 sites around the country, each partnering with a university to serve thousands of teachers and students.

As one of the first sites established, and under Don’s leadership, the Northern Virginia Writing Project quickly became a nexus for teachers and school administrators determined to find better ways to teach and use writing as a learning tool. By 2009, over 800,000 teachers around the region had completed a Summer Institute, earning the title of Teacher Consultant and sharing what they learned about teaching writing with their colleagues. Thousands of students, from grade 2-12, participated in creative writing workshops and summer writing camps. NVWP held an annual spring conference, with panels and professional development sessions, all focused on continuing the conversation about effective ways to teach writing skills and use writing to learn. The partnership between NVWP and Mason brought in Teacher Consultants to teach College Composition as adjuncts, and professors taught NVWP-originated courses in the English MA program.

Even after the government defunded the National Writing Project in 2011, NVWP has continued to serve as a vital, active force in writing instruction, even during the restrictions COVID created in the last year. Taking into account the need for online instruction and current teachers’ needs, I re-designed the Summer Institute as a hybrid, online noncredit class, keeping all the elements that make the institute so significant for so many: the writing group experience, the development of a professional development lesson, and time for teachers to read and talk about teaching writing. The online nature of the program allowed state-wide promotion of the course, and in the spring of 2021, three cohorts, from Prince William County, Hanover County, and Skyline High School, added 25 new Teacher Leaders (formerly Teacher Consultants) to the NVWP community. Also, in the past year, The Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, through which MFA students are given support and the opportunity to teach creative writing in area schools, joined forces with NVWP. The energy behind and interest in WITS has generated many inquiries and we are poised to offer this programming to schools next fall.

Don isn’t alone when he says that “my work with the National Writing Project has had the biggest impact on my teaching and my life.” Many teachers attest to the personal and professional value of taking part in the writing groups; often the groups continue to meet long after the Summer Institute experience and sometimes what happens in the writing groups leads to publication of a teacher’s work. As a result of seeing their teachers as writers, students come to see writing as much more than ticking off the entries on a rubric. Like their teachers, they come to understand that writing well gives them a voice, the ability to think critically, and the means to share their thinking. Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Executive Director of the National Writing Project, explains that:

“Assessment data are valuable indicators that help us improve our practices, but for young people, the real measure is whether their writing—their voice—can have real impact in the world. When they see it does, then they have a reason to do the hard work of improving their writing.”

I had just finished my second year of teaching English when I had the chance to participate in a Summer Institute with the Maryland Writing Project. I could never have imagined what a powerful force my continued work with the National Writing Project would have on my teaching, my writing, and my life. Certainly some of the greatest impact comes through the people I have met and worked with in NWP projects. I am grateful to have the chance to read and hear about Don’s leadership and to see his genuine belief in the NWP theory and practices reflected in such a large community of excellent teachers. I look forward to continued development of NVWP programs and expansion of our Teacher Leader community.