The First BAWP Summer Institute
Summary: In this excerpt from his memoir Teachers at the Center, writing project founder Jim Gray recounts the triumphs and missteps of the first summer institute, where he and the participants began to bring together the key elements of the writing project model.
There we were—twenty-nine of us, counting the co-directors and myself—on a Monday morning in the summer of 1974, the first day of the first invitational institute of the Bay Area Writing Project.
Present in the room were Miles Myers, the Oakland high school teacher who would one day become executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, and Mary Ann Smith, the young woman who twenty-five years later would serve as co-director of the National Writing Project, as well as her team-teaching colleague, Jo Fyfe, a future associate director of the project.
From left to right, Janice Davis, Sandy Seale, and Jo Fyfe were among the first participants in the Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute in 1974. Here the group enjoys a light moment.
There also were Bill Brandt of the UC Berkeley rhetoric department, who believed the key to strong writing was a carefully crafted topic sentence, and Sandy Seale, who was teaching her inner-city students to "code switch" long before the term was coined. Also present were future BAWP co-director Mary K. Healy, then a middle school teacher and Ph.D. candidate, who had studied in England with the great literacy theoretician and researcher James Britton, and Cap Lavin, the legendary University of San Francisco basketball great who was in the process of also becoming a legendary teacher of English.
Walking into the room, one teacher, Joan Christopher, could not believe her eyes. "I really didn't think anyone would be there," she told me later. "I was thinking maybe I was the only teacher in the world who cared about teaching writing."
This was an exciting but very bumpy time as we began to bring together the key elements of the writing project model. Even though the teacher demonstration was soon to become a staple of the summer institute, during that first year, we were reluctant to ask everyone to give a demonstration. But the teachers who did show us their successful classroom practices confirmed our belief that the summer institute would cross-pollinate the successful teaching of writing as perhaps no other structure could.
High school teacher Barney Tanner gave a presentation on coherence. It was the kind of smart, ordered, and useful presentation one might have expected from a man dedicated to prodding his students toward successful academic writing.
But the presentation by Mary Ann Smith and Jo Fyfe, who were team teaching at Loma Vista Intermediate Junior High School, must have given Barney something to think about. In their classroom, they had been using the James Moffett Interaction series, which drew on booklets and activity cards, readings and prompts, and which introduced students to many forms of creative and real-world writing: letter writing, autobiographical writing, playwriting, and limericks, for instance. Mary Ann and Jo were committed to James Moffett's key pedagogical idea: students need to experiment with genres, finding topics that interest them and working at their own pace. They explained Moffett's ideas and showed us examples of student work and a video of their own classroom in action. This concept was far ahead of the thinking of many of the high school and college teachers present at the institute. They, like almost all teachers at the time, had for the most part operated behind closed doors. We had brought together the most talented teachers we could find, yet as I was to understand over time, even teachers of this caliber have a lot to learn from one another.
We understood that teachers are naturally curious about the learning in other classrooms and at other grade levels, and yet they seldom have the chance to find out what's really going on in any classroom other than their own.
One demonstration in particular opened our eyes. Kate Blickhahn, a teacher at Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County, who would become principal of a neighboring school, demonstrated the concept of holistic scoring. This process allowed student writing to be assessed and ranked according to an agreed-upon rubric and in comparison to other students. It had been used at College Board readings for some time. However, it was a concept foreign to most classroom teachers. Not everyone present that day felt comfortable with the idea that a piece of student writing could be assessed without marking it up. But Kate explained that the purpose of holistic scoring at the school level was not to comment on an individual student's mastery of subject-verb agreement, but to give teachers, departments, and schools information that they could use to strengthen their writing programs. Everyone present that day took away from Kate's demonstration something they had not thought of before.
Though the key elements of the summer institute were in place from the beginning, we made some major mistakes. For instance, during the first year of the summer institute, we failed to include elementary teachers. We were so focused on the secondary-only National Defense Education Act (NDEA) model and on our goal to establish a project that would improve the writing levels of high school graduates that we didn't even consider the idea of a kindergarten through university mix. We should have known better. The need to attend to writing crosses all grade levels. Therefore, the work of all writing teachers on the kindergarten through university continuum is equally important to all other writing teachers. By the second institute, we had corrected our error and included teachers at all grade levels. We understood that teachers are naturally curious about the learning in other classrooms and at other grade levels, and yet they seldom have the chance to find out what's really going on in any classroom other than their own.
I remember one twelfth grade teacher who introduced his demonstration by stating that it probably wouldn't be of any interest or use to anyone but the other senior high school or college teachers, a remark he came to regret. "Don't tell me what won't work in my classes!" the elementary teachers told him in so many words. After another demonstration, a teacher responded with what she thought was a pointed criticism: "I could do that with my fourth-graders!" But most present understood that yes, she could, but eleventh-graders would come at the same learning from different intellectual places and different levels of experience. This is one reason eleventh grade teachers and fourth grade teachers are able to share ideas.
The Bay Area Writing Project model created an environment where both academics and classroom teachers could appreciate each other. Professors of English and of English education worked as partners and colleagues of classroom teachers. For teachers, BAWP was a university-based program that recognized—even celebrated—teacher expertise. For academics and teachers alike, the Bay Area Writing Project model managed to reverse the top-down, voice-from-Olympus model of so many past university efforts at school reform.