National Writing Project

An Interview with Richard Sterling: The NWP—It's About the Intellectual Integrity of Teachers

By: Mark Goldberg
Publication: Phi Delta Kappan
Date: January 1998

Summary: Richard Sterling, director of the National Writing Project, discusses his plans to expand the project and place it at the center of school reform.


Reprinted by permission of Phi Delta Kappan. Copyright Phi Delta Kappa Jan 1998. All rights reserved.

When Richard Sterling and I sat down in the library of the Lotus Club in New York to do this interview, he hesitated for a moment and then said in his British-accented English, "Early this morning I went for a walk to the first place I went to when I arrived here on a boat in 1963 - a funny little hotel on East 53rd Street. How astonishing it's been. When I arrived here I had no idea I would end up in education. It continues to shock me." Sterling is now in his fourth year as executive director of the National Writing Project (NWP), the largest inservice training project in the U.S. and arguably the most successful. He replaced the founding director, James Gray, in June of 1994.

I had lunch in California last year with Gray and Sterling. Gray, who remains as chairman of the board of the NWP, and Sterling could not be more different, at least in outward demeanor. Gray still has the informality of the American Midwest and a long career at Berkeley: slightly rumpled clothes, very informal speech, a folksy yet highly intelligent way of pulling you into a conversation. Sterling dresses in conservative business clothes, is crisply articulate though very friendly, and is keenly attentive, making you feel that you are extremely important to him.

Gray started this extraordinary enterprise in 1973, and his work put it on the map. Sterling, in a burst of energy and enthusiasm and with Gray's blessing and counsel, has set out both to enlarge the scope of the NWP and to make some significant changes. "I want to put the National Writing Project within the reach of every teacher. I also want to diversify the funding to a balance between federal and private, to create a task force that will provide real help to individual sites all over the nation, and to place the NWP at the center of school reform."

Now approaching its 25th anniversary, the National Writing Project has 160 sites in 45 states and Puerto Rico. It has served nearly two million teachers, has 13,651 active teacher leaders, and serves at least 130,000 teachers each year. The deepest beliefs of the NWP are that writing in school is crucial and that expert teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. There is a basic model for the NWPand, though sites have occasionally veered away from it, they inevitably return to it. "The model is extremely sound. You bring expert teachers together for extended summer training, and you have them demonstrate effective practice, discuss the research, and talk about why they do what they do as well as prepare to teach their colleagues back in the schools," Sterling declares. The course instructors, often a college professor and a teacher, "model a kind of behavior that includes careful listening, reflecting back to teachers what they say, and mediating a democratic, nonhierarchical community."

Both the teachers and the instructors bring in theoretical and research materials. The texts that are used include "important works in the field that have moved the instructors and works the teachers have read that have influenced and moved them." Teachers read and write for several weeks. They discuss material by such important figures as James Moffett and Donald Graves. They meet in large and small groups to discuss their own writing, to analyze good pedagogy, and to ponder ways of strengthening their classroom practice and bringing everything back to colleagues in inservice settings. The summer institute is the heart of the NWP, the setting that "allows teachers to shape their ideas and think through the puzzles in their own practice" with help from other expert teachers.

The best of these people become the trainers of other teachers, and "it is the linking back to the schools that has spread the NWP so widely. These teachers have tremendous credibility. They come from the same classrooms, they can demonstrate that what they do actually works and there is an enormous multiplier effect through inservice training." The inservice work takes place during the school year. Frequently, a teacher leader organizes the course around several teacher experts who have completed the summer training, have taught successfully in inservice programs, and can now present such special areas as writing across the curriculum or journal writing. Over the years, many of these teachers have become genuine experts on the writing process, on pedagogy, and on teacher training. Many of them have made presentations at national conferences.

Entering the national conversation on school reform - now second nature for Sterling, who meets regularly with teachers and politicians, administrators and foundation executives, college professors and directors of other educational projects was far from young Richard's mind 35 years ago. "Having trouble with authority" led him to drop out of high school. At age 22, this new immigrant from a working-class London family still did not have a high school diploma and thought his life's work would be in engineering, a field in which he had a noncollege certificate and had served an apprenticeship in England. Through a compatriot, he discovered City College of New York, took some courses as a nonmatriculating student, and was finally allowed to enroll, though he never did earn a high school diploma.

Sterling worked full time for the Burroughs Corporation as a field engineer to support himself while he attended college, but he quickly assured me, "It was not hard. I was so energized and exhilarated by City College in the Sixties. I was just flying." He was meeting people from all over the world, reading and studying in an organized way for the first time, enjoying the powerful intellectual life on campus, and watching the world change as "people demonstrated against the system in a way that was interesting. They wanted black and Latino people to go to the university, which was mostly white. I recognized that the young people the university was excluding were very much like I had been in England, so I joined their struggle."

After the battle for open admissions had been won, Sterling met Professor Mina Shaughnessy (author of Errors and Expectations), who hired him to work with the new open admissions students. He received a bachelor's degree in 1971, which meant he no longer had to be haunted by a stage direction in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger that kept popping into his head: "Lenny wears the sad expression of a self-educated man." Sterling soon discovered that he loved this work of figuring out what you had to do to help someone with an inadequate educational background learn to read and write well, and he continues to thank the late Mina Shaughnessy, "my first and great inspiration for this work. It's that simple." This was the beginning of his continuing career in education.

By 1977 Sterling was a junior faculty member at Lehman College of the City University of New York, having done graduate work in literature, writing, and literacy at the University of California, Berkeley, and at New York University. He and colleagues Sondra Per and John Brereton met James Gray at a writing conference in San Francisco, where they discussed the new and burgeoning National Writing Project. Gray offered to help them establish a site at Lehman College, telling the three: "It's easy. All you've got to do is find `strong-open' people; `strong-closed' are no good; `weak-open' are no good; `weak-closed' are no good." That advice is still in the manual. It's the strong-open teachers who become the teachers of other teachers.

Beginning in 1978, Sterling, Perl, and such colleagues as Carla Asher, Elaine Avidon, Ed Osterman, and Marcie Wolf developed the New York City Writing Project into the largest in the nation. From 1984 to 1994, Sterling served as director of the project and as director of the Institute for Literacy Studies, which coordinated all of Lehman College's literacy efforts. In addition, in 1988 the restless Sterling and other large-city writing project directors, such as Joe Check from Boston and Judy Buchanan from Philadelphia, started the Urban Sites Network within the NWP, with major funding from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. Thus Sterling got his initial experience of national leadership and exposure. "For the first time I was flying around the country to see sites. I loved the feel of it and the work, loved trying to figure out the culture in the local areas."

As a result of his work directing the Urban Sites Network, several things struck Sterling at once. First, while the NWP had to stick to its original model and principles, well-tested by time and different locations, "local nuance was extremely important." Second, the leadership in the urban sites was not diverse enough, so with encouragement particularly from Lisa Delpit of Georgia State University, Sterling simply mandated that "half of every team consist of people of color or that every team at least reflect the percentage of such people in the local teaching force." The Urban Sites Network thrived, Jim Gray began to include Sterling in issues related to the national project, and Sterling found himself thinking increasingly about national problems and issues, greater responsibilities for the NWP sites, and increased funding for work on all forms of literacy - child to adult.

When Gray announced his retirement, Sterling thought fleetingly about applying, procrastinated, and then decided against it. He knew he would be a long shot on two grounds: he had never been in the truly inner circle of the National Writing Project, and the two candidates he knew would surely try for the job were people he deeply respected and felt were most capable. With quite considerable and persistent encouragement from friends and colleagues, Sterling changed his mind at the last minute - and then determined to do everything he could to impress the selection committee. His work in literacy was well known, but when I asked Sterling what got him the job he replied instantly: "The interview. I flew out two days early, so I wouldn't be jet-lagged, and I rehearsed. I had discovered I really, really wanted this job. I talked to the committee about school reform going right back to the 19th century and what I believed caused major turns in American education and all the things that really made a difference to me personally. The interview went on for six hours."

At that interview, Sterling talked the committee through goal after goal, from placing the NWP within the reach of every teacher in the nation, to setting up electronic communication with sites, to increasing inquiry and research as part of each local project. In conversation, Sterling projects assurance, as he must have in that interview, but he quickly and easily gives credit to mentors, such as Shaughnessy, Perl, Gray, and Ira Bloom, formerly a dean at Lehman College. He repeatedly remarks that a local project affiliate succeeded because "the teachers were wonderful"; that the Urban Sites Network took off because his colleagues were "so insightful, knowledgeable, and helpful"; that his experience at Berkeley has been wonderful because "Gray, who continues as a mentor, is an extraordinary human being and professional"; and that Sara Freedman has been "enormously helpful in introducing me to the Berkeley faculty and helping me to think about the place of research in writing project teachers' lives."

Sterling's blend of crisp, accurate British English; his air of confidence mixed with humility and gratitude; his firm grasp of the world of literacy; his easy way of summarizing major issues in that world; his impulse to make the mission of the NWP bigger and more far-reaching; and a voice and manner that communicate genuine sincerity make him irresistible. During our interview, I would have offered him a job on the spot, had I had one to offer.

Very quickly after taking over as executive director in June of 1994, Sterling changed the advisory board to a task force, expanded it from 15 to 25 members, and made it "more representative of America - Latinos, African Americans, whites, Asians, men and women, and rural, urban, and suburban." Members of the task force are the people Sterling calls on most often to help sites that are having difficulty. They are site directors or teacher leaders who have had success and can help other sites figure out anything from fund raising to improving their inservice training program. In addition, Sterling asked each member of the task force to take on some national project, such as integrating the arts into the NWP or thinking through the NWP's response to the call for standards or considering its stand on assessment.

The board of directors of the NWP has also undergone considerable change, now counting among its members "people not directly connected to the NWP." Gray serves as chairman of a board that includes such new members as Daniel Boggan, Jr., chief operating officer of the National Collegiate Athletic Association; Ricardo Fernandez, president of Lehman College; Augusta Souza Kappner, president of the Bank Street College of Education; and Donald McQuade, professor of English at Berkeley. With board encouragement, Sterling is moving "to make the NWP more visible around such national issues as assessment, teacher portfolios, teacher preparation, and standards."

Recognizing that "all education is local," the project sites are encouraged and helped to become part of the "school reform effort in the communities in which they're working." With 160 sites and funding at either the national or local level from the federal and state governments, universities and school districts, as well as such private sources as the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the Annenberg Rural Challenge, the Carnegie Corporation, Bell Atlantic, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, it is natural for the NWP to be an important voice in the national debate over education reform.

Richard Sterling is a man of impressive energy. He teaches in the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley, something he requested from the start as a way of staying in touch both with the faculty at his host university and with young people interested in literacy. He travels the country to attend meetings on school reform, to visit project sites, and to raise funds - the latter particularly in Washington, D.C., where he is trying to interest the U.S. Department of Education in giving the NWP a formal role in the department's new initiatives.

He is never satisfied that enough research has been done to demonstrate the efficacy of the NWP model. From Michael Scriven's early work in the late 1970s, to the Research for Action group in Philadelphia, to more recent independent work by Inverness Research Associates in California, the evidence is compelling. In March 1997 Mark St. John of Inverness said, "Our evaluation has shown that the NWP model, implemented faithfully, produces a professional development system that meets the important criteria for any investment in education reform: it serves a large quantity of teachers; it produces quality events; it operates on a very cost-effective basis; its activities are available to all teachers and students; and most importantly, its work has educational significance for teachers and students across the country."

There is much work to be done. Each time I raised the issue of the future, Sterling was able to identify half a dozen important tasks that needed both time and effort. But he is crystal clear on the overarching goals of his work in the next several years. "We stick to our basic principles and model because if we step away from them, we'll fail. But we use our model to bring together the other pieces of the community that are responsible for education. We want to become more visible, we want to tell teachers they are a critical part of the larger educational intellectual community, and we want people to think of the National Writing Project as a group that is about the intellectual integrity of teachers." 

An interview with Richard Sterling: The national writing project--it's about the intellectual integrity of teachers
Phi Delta Kappan; Bloomington; Jan 1998; Mark F Goldberg; Volume: 79 Issue: 5;  Start Page: 394-396.

MARK F GOLDBERG retired in 1994 as a public school administrator and is now an education writer and consultant who lives in East Setauket, N. Y.


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