National Writing Project

James Gray, Education Reformer

By: NWP Staff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 1
Date: 2006

Summary: In 1974, Jim Gray organized the first summer institute, based on the notions that successful classroom teachers are the best teachers of other teachers and that teachers of writing should write.


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NWP founder Jim Gray, who died in November 2005, is pictured here in 1994 accepting an award at the Bay Area Writing Project's 20th anniversary.

In this issue, we pay tribute to James Gray, founder of the National Writing Project network, who died on November 1, 2005 at age 78.

In 1974, after spending years as a high school teacher and an educator of teachers, Jim Gray acted on a notion he had long pondered: successful classroom teachers, he believed, are the best teachers of other teachers. During that summer, when the national media were spotlighting the perceived failure of American students to write well, Jim brought together, at the University of California, Berkeley, 25 of the most talented Bay Area teachers he knew and charged them with sharing with each other their knowledge about the teaching of writing.

Jim coupled this respect for teacher knowledge with another common-sensical notion: teachers of writing should write. So the teachers who gathered at Berkeley that summer spent a good part of each day practicing the craft they were responsible for imparting to their students. Jim put these ideas together to found the Bay Area Writing Project, the first link in a professional development model for teachers that has now, as the National Writing Project, taken root at 195 university-based locations in fifty states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Jim's belief in teachers and their knowledge, commitment, and creativity never wavered.

Jim next conceived the idea of organizing teachers into teams who would take what they knew into the schools. This departure was a struggle at first, because schools were in the habit of drawing for their professional development upon lecturers from universities and textbook companies trying to sell programs. But rather than lecture their fellow teachers, writing project teachers put their colleagues to work trying out the concepts they were advocating, taking what they had learned back to the classroom for trial, and then reporting on what worked and what didn't work. Teachers, Jim believed, were the best researchers of their own work.

Born and raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jim attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the late 1940s where, graduating with a liberal arts master's degree, he survived for a while on a series of menial jobs. "I didn't qualify for anything," he wrote in his autobiographical work Teachers at the Center, "though all the personnel directors said I was overqualified." Returning to the university he earned a teaching credential and embarked on a career that led, in the 1950s, to a position teaching English at San Leandro High School in California.

At San Leandro, Jim approached teaching with the passion characteristic of his approach to life. From apple cases, he built six-foot-high bookshelves along all the walls of his classroom, then filled them with books he had found scouring Berkeley used-book stores. "I expected students in all my literature classes to plunge into this library. I believed that the best thing I could do for high school students was cultivate their love of books."

In 1961, Jim became a member of the University of California faculty, working as a supervisor of students preparing to teach English, a position that allowed him to develop his faith in the talent of others—which was a major source of his leadership.

Laura Stokes, who was to become a leader in the writing project network, recounted her first meeting with Jim 25 years ago when he asked her to direct a writing project site: "I'd been teaching writing for only four years, yet he was utterly accepting. I felt like a pipsqueak, but that is not how he regarded me. He told me I would be great."

"Jim's belief in teachers and their knowledge, commitment, and creativity never wavered," said National Writing Project executive director Richard Sterling.

Now, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Writing Project has worked with more than a million teachers across the country and has become an increasingly visible advocate for the importance of teaching writing. With Jim's teachers-teaching-teachers model at its heart, the project remains vital for teachers today by continuing to address current challenges in education—among them developing programs for new teachers and bringing technology to the writing classroom.

Jim served as executive director of the writing project until his retirement in 1994 and had remained on the organization's Board of Directors.

He is survived by Stephanie, his wife of 48 years, of Danville, California, and his daughter, Laura Zagaroli of Dallas, Texas.

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