Smile Politely

Teachers teaching teachers

It’s Thursday morning, late June, the basement of the UIUC Undergraduate Library.  Rachel Moyer (left), an English teacher from Urbana High School, asks the 25 kindergarten through university educators sitting in front of her, “How can student writing for social action become problematic, particularly when we’re bombarded with stories that perpetuate the teacher-as-hero trope?”  In her two-hour-long demonstration, she engages the group in designing instruction that empowers students with civic knowledge.

Her demonstration, which is part of her work with the University of Illinois Writing Project (UIWP), was partly inspired by a critique offered by one of her tenth-grade students as she led a discussion on race: “Oh, you think this is going to be like some Freedom Writers shit, huh.”  Conscious of the privileges associated with her young, white, college-educated identity, Rachel was not afraid to take on the student’s astute observation and continues to think seriously about the ways that power, privilege, and difference work in classrooms and communities.

But Rachel’s demonstration isn’t just for her development, although going through the process of organizing her thoughts and presenting them to her peers will certainly help her do just that. This presentation will also help the other local teachers in the room understand the concepts that she works with in her classroom, perhaps without going through some of the growing pains that she did. 

In short, Rachel is a teacher who is teaching other teachers how to teach.

The problem is that a bill signed by President Obama on March 2, 2011 eliminated the direct federal funding for the University of Illinois Writing Project (UIWP) Summer Institute, where participants from all grade levels and disciplines, like Rachel, craft such critical and practical demonstrations. In signing this piece of legislation, the president made a choice that has directly impacted the residents of our community. It also affected us.  As a former middle-school teacher/graduate scholar at UIUC and an English teacher at Urbana High School (as well as participants in the UIWP), we know that when educators are left with fewer opportunities to improve, the work we do in our classrooms, well, stagnates. Isolated teachers blame students for not learning.  Students watch the clock and wait for a reprieve.

We know that this kind of stagnation can and does happen with or without the UIWP.  The UIWP can’t fix these issues by itself, but it can serve as a model for the sort of professional development that effectively empowers teachers and promotes learning, just as it has for the past 27 years.


By defunding the UIWP (which has already seen its funding drop from $47,000 to $30,000) the federal government is taking a valuable tool away from local educators. Next year, the UIWP won’t receive any federal support. With this in mind, it’s clear to us that the UIWP needs and deserves local advocacy.

A matter of scope

The UIWP differs from many traditional professional development, skill-training workshops where outside experts come in for a short period of time to train teachers on administrator-chosen topics that emphasize individual activity, passivity, and immediate results.

We  value the NWP’s teachers-teaching-teachers model, which helps us resist what we see as the growing deprofessionalization of our practice. Given that the current political climate fuels a distrust of teachers and standardization of curricular and instructional practices, it’s important that the UIWP fosters teachers’ professional agency.  At the UIWP Summer Institute, we are expected and trusted to draw from our expertise and passions to grow our understandings of how student learning and writing develop.   

By the end of this summer, the UIWP Summer Institute will have served 60 teachers from local schools who themselves have worked with almost 10,000 students since the UIWP began in 2008.  Thirteen of those teachers have taken the opportunity to serve as site leaders, coordinating the Summer Institute itself, summer writing camps for elementary and secondary students, and on-going professional development including an upcoming fall conference open to all area teachers.

Because the work of the teachers at the UIWP Summer Institute reaches so many local students, advocating for its continued funding can and should fall under the purview of our entire community.  We know that the teachers that the UIWP serves are the most responsible for such work, but we also need the support of our local allies.  What is comes to is this: we need $35,000 to run next year’s Summer Institute.

As it stands, the UIWP has brought together local educators from Thomas Paine, King, Carrie Busey, Barkstall, Urbana Middle School, Urbana High School, Bottenfield, Robeson, Stratton, Booker T. Washington, Edison, Central, Centennial, Heritage Hills, Mahoment-Seymour Junior High, Monticello High School, PBL Junior High School, PBL High School, Phoenix Academy (Decatur), Unity Junior High, Fisher High School, Yorkville, University Primary, University Laboratory High School, and UIUC.  In our experiences, the diversity of this network is unique, and learning from colleagues with such varied expertise enhances our own practice. 

You can help

In order to salvage UIWP, we see at least two options:

  • Help us advocate federally: you can call or write letters to our senators and representatives, requesting support for the reauthorization of the NWP as a program within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). 
  • Help us fund-raise locally.  

To the latter point, we have some plans currently underway, including a revenue-generating fall conference for local teachers, but in order for this to be effective, we need your ideas. Community input is key to our mission.

Seriously. Please email us ( and with your suggestions. We all have a stake in the success of our local children, and we’d so appreciate any support you could lend us.

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Since its development in 1974, the NWP has received much attention for its professional development networks that are embedded in partnerships between local schools and universities. Multiple studies confirm the ways that the NWP changes teacher practice, builds a network of teacher leaders, and ultimately, improves student performance.  A key feature of all 200 sites is the 20-day Summer Institute in which teachers are treated as “agents of reform” and empowered to use their expertise to lead one another in considerations of theory and practice related to writing instruction.  Anne Whitney, Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State, found that many teachers who participated in a Summer Institute described their experiences as “transformative,” both personally and professionally.

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Ellen Dahlke teaches English at Urbana High School and serves as the co-chair of the Social Justice Committee there. She has never been part of a travelling Traditional Irish Dance Troupe and no video evidence exists to prove otherwise.

Becca Woodard grew up near Danville’s much loved Little Nugget. She is also a former New York City public middle school teacher and current PhD student in Language & Literacy Studies/Writing Studies at the University of Illinois.

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