By Don Rothman, Founder of the CCWP in 1977
I must invoke different creation myths to tell you about the origins of the Central California Writing Project. I imagine that all teachers carry dreams of integrating intense personal and professional growth, and the CCWP comes closest to that union for me. One story starts in 1974 with the birth of the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP) in Berkeley and its unwavering commitment to respectful professional development for teachers. Another starts with civil rights leadership development organizations such as the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee, and another with progressive experiments in higher education like Oakes College at UC Santa Cruz. At the heart of these efforts is a sense of optimism that, working together, people can transform oppression and inequality and avoid the humiliation of silence in the face of cruelty and injustice. The Central California Writing Project has placed literacy education in dialogue with democracy, not as an abstract philosophical possibility but as a practice. The CCWP has sought to be a think tank for social change using the teaching of writing as a point of leverage. This hasn’t always been easy, and the tensions we’ve experienced and even nurtured reveal a great deal. I’d like to use these tensions to illuminate one version of CCWP history.
To satisfy your curiosity, however, you may want to know that in 1976, a year before UCSC Extension staff and I began the CCWP, I gave a talk at the University of the Pacific. As it turned out, BAWP’s leadership staff was there. Founding BAWP director Jim Gray asked me to join him for lunch after I’d described my experiments teaching underrepresented minority students to see their writing not as an institutional intrusion but as a tool for social change. He asked if I’d join the BAWP team in Berkeley. While I was flattered and tempted, I’d only recently decided to stay at UCSC and wasn’t prepared to move back to Berkeley where I’d done my graduate work on revenge tragedy. In a rare moment of inspiration, I asked him to fund a Writing Project site in Santa Cruz, to which he agreed immediately.
That’s one way to describe the birth of the CCWP. My talk. A free lunch. A casual counterproposal that coincided with Carnegie Foundation and Title IV-C funding to replicate BAWP’s success at seven California sites, and institutional support from UCSC.
In 1977 the dean of UCSC Extension, Karl Tjerandsen, enthusiastically endorsed a Writing Project that would honor the long history of literacy education projects committed to promoting social change. We weren’t going to tell teachers how to teach writing so much as provide a space for sustained, difficult, and courageous dialogue about how the teaching of writing can enhance democracy. I dove into shaping the CCWP with the same enthusiasm that drew me to Oakes College four years earlier. I believed that writing could deepen our humanity, help us to remedy injustice, and enhance students’ success in higher education. While I knew almost nothing about how writing was taught in k-12 schools, I figured we’d all learn together if writing and dialogue shaped our efforts. I knew that something much greater than error-free prose was at stake, and I hoped that the CCWP would help teachers explore writing as a rich opportunity for transformation at many levels. At around this time, blinded no doubt by my obsession, I was sure Bob Marley was singing “Let’s get together and read and write.”
The BAWP model from which we worked was straight-forward and is now familiar to Writing Project teachers across the country: k-college teachers would share their best classroom practices and analyze and generate educational theory; we would write and share our writing; and we would explore how to effect positive institutional change. Over the twenty-seven years of my CCWP directorship, the tensions that surrounded our enactment of these basic principles constitute a revealing history.
Sharing best practices and analyzing and generating theory.
At its worst, sharing best practices descends into show and tell, that deadly recounting of how one teacher performed miracles that transformed non-writers into avid scribblers. Our summer institutes invite teachers to share their best practices, but it wasn’t until we embraced an inquiry presentation model that we avoided the limitations of show and tell. Of course, our discussions after such presentations saved us from tedium. We learned to extract from even the most formulaic performance issues that required our attention. In fact, the hour designated as discussion time after the morning presentation was often the most stimulating part of the institute for me, since we rolled up our sleeves and asked the hardest questions we could ask about the issues embedded in the presentation. Teachers reported that turning presentations into profound discussions was one of the most useful skills they acquired in the institute. Many pledged to organize at their school intellectually rich discussions modeled on this alchemy. We were all learning that professional development could be useful and intellectually stimulating, despite the seduction of teacher-proof modules readily available at schools and county offices.
We learned to ask questions such as: “How would you present what you do in class to a beginning teacher? What theory of writing instruction is inconsistent with your practice? What would happen if everyone in your school or district taught writing as you do? What would you like the other teachers and administrators in your district to understand about your teaching? What would it take to transform your school into a writing environment? ”
Once we developed an inquiry model for the presentations, where teachers pose a question that emerges from their own teaching and that will engage colleagues in serious professional dialogue, presentations more fully realized their potential to improve teaching. We no longer endured show and tell presentations. Instead, we struggled with questions whose revision and refinement often marked our collective success. The inquiry presentations demanded a different kind of patience from us, and they deepened our capacity to think together and to respond imaginatively to our diverse teaching realities. The inquiry presentations evolved as an adaptation of the model and honored the strengths of the analytical dialogue that characterized the CCWP from the start.
Writing and sharing our writing:
This was a source of useful disagreement over the years. Some of us believed, often as an expression of faith, that institute time needed to be reserved for writing and for responding to others’ writing. Others believed that people needed to write at home, to develop a writing habit unencumbered by the institute schedule. They pointed to the teachers asleep or in animated conversation on the Oakes College lawn as evidence that institute writing time was being wasted.
Since I have always seen choice as central to writing, I wasn’t too bothered by people failing to use institute time to write, so long as they brought writing to response groups and made a serious effort to draw upon their experience as writers in shaping their pedagogy. It seems to me that writing requires various expressions of resistance to authority, and we were more likely to confront the issue of resistance in education if we experienced and analyzed it within the institute itself. “Everything in this institute is grist for the pedagogical mill,” I often repeated, “especially your own relationship to writing.”
To be honest, I occasionally noticed a drama of mutual pretence in our institutes, in which some small number of people who had no real intention of diving into writing pretended that their lives had been changed by their institute writing experience. I’ve come to see this as theater, and it doesn’t upset me. In fact, I have come to hope that creating a new narrative for oneself will may provoke real change. It is still not altogether clear to me just how and when a teacher’s writing influences her teaching of writing, and if I were participating in institutes and workshops now, I’d be sure to raise the question.Bringing about institutional change:
For many years, one of our interview questions for admission into the invitational institution addressed teachers’capacity to contribute to institutional change. It created panic in half the applicants, since they either had no interest in changing more than their own classroom or they’d abandoned all hope of changing policy. In every institute there were some political activists who aspired to be agents for change and who explored how writing could animate such change. Predictably, many teachers distrusted that political impulse and sought refuge in the prevalent model of writing as primarily a tool for personal growth. I knew that we were achieving something valuable when we made this a (heated) subject for the group.
The CCWP regularly provided a forum for discussion of this important tension. We repeatedly faced questions about the implicit and explicit political issues embedded in teaching writing, including the role of dialect, usage, and grammar conventions in shaping dynamics of power and authority. More than the solutions we achieved, this space for sustained and focused dialogue marks CCWP’s contribution to education.
If I try to step back from 27 years of CCWP work to say something true and, at least potentially, useful, it is this: There is a beauty created by teachers tuning their ears to each other’s voices, to each other’s writing. When our curiosity and respect for each other are awakened, we derive courage to ask harder questions, to share uncertain thoughts that promise to yield meaning, and to renew our pledge to serve humanity by educating young people. The CCWP has kept alive the hope that writing makes nonviolent persuasion possible, and that humankind’s survival may depend on our success.
The 27 years during which I directed the CCWP provided a blend of intellectual and social meaning for which I am enormously grateful. Friendships built around a common hunger to learn and to express our learning instill both vision and hope. The CCWP, at its best, is a laboratory for democracy, as every writing class should be.