Cassidy: Digital literacy mortally wounded in budget battle
Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News on March 27, 2011.
By Mike Cassidy
If you’re one of the thousands of teachers who’ve found inspiration in the National Writing Project, think of the end of its federal funding as a bit of foreshadowing.
This sort of pulling the fiscal rug out from under a valuable program (to use a cliché) is likely to happen with depressing frequency as the endless budget battle in Washington rages on. (Yes, “endless” is hyperbole.)
Foreshadowing, cliché, hyperbole. If you’re among those who’ve found inspiration in the National Writing Project, then surely you’ve talked about writing devices when you gather for the Berkeley-based program’s intense summer sessions on college campuses nationwide. And increasingly you’ve talked about the
No doubt you’ve brought those lessons back to other teachers, who in turn have used them to mold their students not only into writers, but into writers ready for the digital age. Think of it as viral professional development, which is the beauty of the program, which pays to run 200 local project sites in all 50 states. The local sites host the summer programs where teachers share best practices and work on their own writing. The project also arranges workshops throughout the year, launches intensive writing programs in local schools and supports youth writing programs, among other initiatives, that reach 130,000 teachers and more than a million of their students each year.
Now the dramatic tension: The writing project, which started on the UC Berkeley campus 37 years ago, is staring death in the face. When Congress passed a resolution early this month to keep the government running, something had to give. Literally — and in this case literarily. Among the nearly $4 billion in cuts in the March 2 resolution was $25.6 million for the writing project, money that the national organization uses to attract an equal amount of matching money from states, universities, local school districts and nonprofits.
“It’s really rather devastating to us,” Sharon Washington, the writing project’s executive director, says of the loss of federal funds. “To me, it seems shortsighted to take those cuts out of education.”
Of course it’s shortsighted. Shortsighted is what we do now that politicians are obsessed with figuring out a way to pass a budget while showing voters back home that they’re doing something, anything, logical or not, to reduce the ballooning deficit.
The writing project was sentenced to death because it is an earmark, a phrase associated with pork projects and bridges to nowhere that benefit small constituencies. But it turns out all earmarks are not created equal. (Or equally, if you prefer.) The term actually refers to spending that Congress grants directly to an organization without a bidding or a competitive application process.
I can’t say that $25.6 million is the right number for the writing project. No question we eventually are going to have to tame the deficit and that will mean cutting spending and raising taxes. The problem is cutting without thinking.
How many times have you heard a politician say children are our future? How much talk have you heard about the need to develop our children’s 21st-century skills? And how often have you heard President Barack Obama talk about “winning the future?”
The writing project is on board, focusing in recent years on digital literacy — the idea that as writing tools evolve and the expectations of how we communicate change, students need to be armed with the writing skills that employers will demand. It’s a mindset that should resonate especially in Silicon Valley.
“It’s really about using digital tools, like word processing programs; people using their smartphones; common white spaces, like Google Docs,” Washington says. “Writing is still about thinking and composing. It’s also looking at how can we integrate and include things like pictures and sound and weave it all together into what people are calling digital storytelling.”
Besides teaching teachers ways to teach, the writing project gives them the time and space to really think about writing, to learn new ways to get young writers jazzed. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in schools with overcrowded classes, limited class time, an obsession with test scores and other distractions.
“For a lot of us, it reinvigorated our love of writing,” says Chong Vue, a language arts teacher, who, inspired by the writing project, started a writers group for students at Quimby Oak Middle School in San Jose. “I just learned so many amazing things that I wouldn’t have been able to learn on my own in 10 years.”
Ultimately those amazing things make their way to the small hands of students, who spend a shrinking amount of time on writing during school hours. Jonathan Lovell, an English professor and director of the writing program site at San Jose State, shared with me a letter from a middle-school student who attended one of the Saturday young writer sessions in San Jose.
“I learned many things that will help me now and later on in life such as: researching as much as possible; imagining being the character; not ‘hitting the reader over the head’ to create curiosity; but most importantly putting your heart into the story,” wrote the student, who for privacy reasons was identified as Diana G.
Writing project leaders aren’t sure how they’ll keep all the learning going without federal money. They have funding through September. Washington says they are looking to private donors and are encouraging Congress to at least set aside a pool of money for which the project could compete. “It’s the biggest challenge I’ve had in my professional career,” Washington says.
We’ll have to wait to see how it all plays out. Think of it as a cliffhanger.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.