In 2002, when the Connecticut Writing Project-Fairfield (CWP) joined NWP’s Project Outreach, the site faced a challenge. The Project Outreach goals of enhancing equity, increasing diversity, and expanding access within the Connecticut site’s service area needed some aggressive attention.
“Our site serves some of the most affluent suburban towns,” said Site Director Faye Gage, “but CWP is also charged with working with school districts in some of the nation’s poorest cities.”
According to Gage, the perception in the urban districts was that CWP served primarily the needs of suburban teachers and their students.
What could CWP do to change this “suburban image?”
One obvious answer presented itself: Bring more urban teachers into the summer institute. To make this happen, site leaders recognized, they would need to make it clear to these teachers that the summer institute was absolutely relevant to what students and teachers in urban districts needed.
Change the Readings
The place to begin was to develop a summer institute reading list that addressed the challenges that urban teachers face in their schools. Gage and her colleagues put front and center works that signaled openness to discussions about race, culture, and language.
For example, Lisa Delpit’s The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children was chosen to open up talk about cultural sensitivity to minority students; the language of power and ways to convince students to learn it; the need to hear the voices of teachers of color; and concerns about teaching process writing to minority students.
June Jordan’s Nobody Mean More to Me Than You: And the Future Life of Willie Jordan was chosen to open up questions about “Black English” and how language defines a person and his or her culture and identity.
The team expected that Arthur Palacas’s Liberating American Ebonics from Euro-English would be useful in opening up thinking about teaching grammar.
But how would urban teachers, who thus far had been uninvolved in CWP, learn about the new direction of the summer institute as represented by these reading selections?
“As it turns out, we had already had a number of teachers from urban settings go through the summer institute,” said Gage. “But we had never focused on urban issues in these sessions. When we told them about the new direction, they did much of our recruiting for us. When we interviewed urban candidates we also stressed the new direction of the institute.”
These efforts worked. Before 2002, the summer institute had never brought in more than 20 percent urban teachers. With this new thrust, 50 percent of the participants were urban teachers, a percentage that has been maintained or exceeded ever since.
Readings Provide a Jump Start
One advantage of the retooled reading list was that it provided the institute with a common vocabulary for examining issues of language, power, culture, and equity. These issues, because they resonate so deeply with urban teachers, became part of the fabric of the institute, informing the demonstrations, the writing groups, and the discussions.
Now the demonstrations focused on such issues as providing relevant reading material for African American boys; valuing code switching in urban schools; the implications of Ebonics for teaching grammar; the use of “urban” music to motivate and inspire writing; and ways to motivate African American and Hispanic students to learn the “language of power.”
The readings and demonstrations in turn led teachers to work through difficult issues they had not previously discussed publicly.
“The institute’s facilitators made an effort to push participants into more thoughtful, honest, and even controversial debates,” said Gage. “They took up questions such as ‘When a teacher insists on standard English, does it deprive a student of his or her cultural identity?’ Many of these teachers openly discussed issues of race and class in a mixed-group setting.”
One African American teacher, for instance, was able to come out and criticize white teachers who did not demand that the minority students conform to the language and behaviors of the white majority.
But there was more than talk. Behaviors also changed. “One teacher from a large high school with fewer than fifty white students was blown away by the information about Ebonics as a language rather than a corruption of English,” said Gage. “She embraced the idea of code switching and planned to use it to coax her less-than-successful students to see the value in both Black and ‘edited’ Standard English.”
Change at the Site
Over the past six years, the goals of Connecticut Writing Project-Fairfield have meshed comfortably with the goals of the Project Outreach Network. The site has seen the connection between relevance, such as the readings, and access to the writing project site. According to Gage the message for teachers of urban students has been “Your students and their needs are important to this organization. We need you at the writing project table to represent the voices of your students.”
The Connecticut Writing Project-Fairfield continues its work to increase access, relevance, and diversity for their site. This year they have hosted two symposia for teacher-consultants focused on gender, class, and race, with the second one aimed at the achievement gap in high schools. Originally supported and inspired through the Project Outreach Initiative, these continuity programs continue the discussions started by the readings in the summer institute.