California English Journal
I met Jim 35 years ago when I interviewed for a spot in the UC Berkeley credential program. About two minutes after we said hello, Jim announced that I would be a great teacher. Years later when he interviewed teachers for the Bay Area Writing Project, I’d see the same enthusiasm—Jim throwing open the door for another teacher, and another, and another.
“Great” was a word that rolled off Jim’s tongue when he talked about the people he most revered: teachers. He believed great teachers were a national resource, although untapped and unacknowledged. In the early years of the writing project, he asked teachers how many times they had been invited to share or demonstrate what they did and what they knew. The answer, Jim writes in his memoir, Teachers at the Center, was consistently “none and none.” “I do not know how that situation had come about,” he continues. “We floated on rafts of textbooks, and we should not have had to.”
Jim’s gift to us is the National Writing Project, where teachers have learned from each other for the past 32 years. How did one man turn his respect for teachers into a program that used their knowledge and talents to improve classrooms across the country? What gave him the inspiration and the single-mindedness?
Learning About Teaching the Hard Way
Jim grew up an only child in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. In his junior year, inspired by his English teacher, Miss Popham, he decided to become a teacher. Two years later he entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he thrived as a student, majoring in comparative literature. After getting his master’s degree and attending the teaching program at Wisconsin State, Jim started his career. It was a shaky start. In his own words,
Attending His First Asilomar Conference
Jim left Wisconsin after one semester and moved to California, where he began teaching at San Leandro High School. The year was 1953. Jim was about to run smack into an annual event that would plant the seeds for the writing project. His close friend, Leo Ruth, explains:
Coming of Age in His Own Classroom
At San Leandro, Jim approached teaching with the passion characteristic of his approach to life. No task was too big. From apple cases, he built six-foot-high bookshelves along all the walls of his classroom, then filled them with books he had found scouring Berkeley used book stores. “I expected students in all my literature classes to plunge into this library. I believed that the best thing I could do for high school students was cultivate their love of books.”
One of my favorite memories of Jim’s teaching occurred years later when I enrolled in his advanced composition class in summer school. Berkeley was uncharacteristically hot that summer of 1970; the anti-war protests were in full swing; and the campus was swarming with dogs. Jim worked in shirt sleeves and he was absolutely focused. Only occasionally would he lose his concentration and shout, “Get that damn dog out of here.” The rest of the time, he talked us through each piece he wanted us to write, gave us models, and always gave us subjects for our practice writing. To my horror, Jim sometimes used himself as the subject. “Describe me,” he would demand, and then he would pace up and down in front of the room. Jim was a big guy with big ears and big feet. We were to write with the specificity he expected and then read out loud what we had written. It was a very delicate situation. Yet somehow all of us in the class realized our experience was unique in another way. We were being taught to write, rather than simply receiving assignments. And we were writing every day with immediate response from a master teacher and from our classmates.
After experiencing Jim’s composition class, I enrolled in his once-a-week methodology class. If he paced up and down in the advanced writing class, he never moved an inch in methodology. He sat behind a gray table in Tolman hall, smoking cigarette after cigarette, pouring out everything he knew. It was vintage Jim, the expansive man who himself could never get enough of a good thing—whether it was good food, great music, art, or literature. That’s how he treated his students—as if we deserved the best, the most, the truest. So he gave us everything he knew in incredible detail—the art of teaching, from setting up a classroom library to conducting classroom research.
Working with Teachers
Jim had come to UC Berkeley in 1961 as an English supervisor, a position that allowed him to cultivate his faith in the talent of teachers. “Year after year,” Jim explained, “I had gifted young teachers who, I always thought, could have chosen any career, but chose teaching because teaching is what they had always wanted to do.” Many of these teachers—and their master teachers—later joined the first Bay Area Writing Project summer institute.
Jim’s years of visiting classrooms made a huge impression on him. He could remember great moments he observed and recount them almost minute by minute. He could also give a fledgling teacher a near heart attack. I was so proud when Jim visited Loma Vista Intermediate my first year of teaching. I waited for his compliment after my students left. He smiled deceptively and then said, “This room is a pigsty.” That was Jim too—sniffing out any sign of self-congratulation.
Conducting the First Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute
In 1974 Jim acted on the notion he had long pondered: successful classroom teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. During that summer, when the national media was spotlighting the perceived failure of American students to write well, Jim brought together 25 Bay Area teachers he knew and charged them with sharing their knowledge about the teaching of writing. Besides teaching and learning about the most recent theories in the field of composition, the teachers who gathered at UC Berkeley that summer also spent a good part of each day practicing the craft they taught: writing.
I would describe the first summer institute as one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences of my life. My colleague Jo Fyfe and I spent hours working on our teaching demonstration—showing how we used the ideas in James Moffett’s Interaction with a mob of eighth-graders. We wrung our hands over every word we wrote and later read to others in the institute. We piled up pounds of handouts—most of them immediately applicable to our teaching—and in the process, gave up on the idea of a good night’s sleep. At no other time had we been so proud to be teachers nor so intellectually immersed in our profession.
Creating a Professional Community
Jim never dreamed that a single institute would launch a network. He never dreamed the project would one day be a national model, its funding provided initially by the National Endowment for the Humanities and, beginning in the early 90s, by the U.S. Department of Education. He never dreamed that once released from the isolation of their classrooms, teachers would choose to continue their support of each other throughout their careers.
“ When I think of Jim,” writes Mark St. John, “I think of the incredible community he created, and the thousands of souls that community has nourished. I have personally known few others who have done as much for the world.” Mark and his colleagues at Inverness Research Associates have spent years evaluating the California and National Writing Projects. The National Writing Project community he describes has homes in 189 universities in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Celebrating a Legacy
Jim would be the last person to pat himself on the back. As Sheridan Blau writes,
Throughout his life, Jim considered himself a teacher. He always remained in some sense my teacher. He taught me how to be a director and when I actually became one, he dropped by my office every morning and asked me, “How are you going to screw up the Bay Area Writing Project today?” This was Jim’s curmudgeonly warning not to veer off the road he had so carefully and painstakingly paved.
Indeed, it is this road, this movement, this extraordinary project that is Jim’s legacy. It has been called a national treasure. It has been called the nation’s premier professional development program. It has been honored from day one for its teachers-teaching-teachers model. We have the writing project today because of Jim Gray, a high school teacher who revered teachers and who believed passionately that K–12 teachers deserved the same opportunities as professors to be continuing scholars, published writers, and leaders in the field. “That’s such an obvious idea,” he told everyone. It may have been obvious, but it was also—and continues to be—revolutionary.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
All of us for whom the writing project has been the center of our professional lives had to realize that Jim was not going to live forever, and that eventually we were going to have to lose him. And now it is we who feel lost, bereft, without our most reliable guide and professional compass. But, of course, he has not abandoned us or left us without his guidance. He has bequeathed to us a rich legacy of wisdom, his example of many years as our leader and mentor, the model and principles that shape our professional work, and his loving admonition to us, as Mary Ann Smith and Carol Tateishi sometimes remind us, not to “screw it up.”
Jim would have been at once embarrassed, amused, and thrilled to hear or read how he is being eulogized in public forums across the country and in these pages of California English and elsewhere. He knew he had achieved a kind of greatness for what he accomplished in founding and nurturing to maturity the Bay Area Writing Project and the California and National Writing Projects and he was justly and beamingly proud of what he had accomplished or rather what we accomplished and what the writing project had become. His pride was like that of a proud parent who wouldn’t presume to claim responsibility for the achievements of a gifted child, but would be joyful about the child’s accomplishments and willing to accept some of the credit for his role in nurturing and encouraging the child, whose father he certainly was, but who, he would insist, had many mothers including Miles Myers and Cap Lavin and Mary Kay Healy, and Mary Ann Smith and others who were in the founding cohort of the Bay Area Writing Project.
But I don’t think Jim ever contemplated the actual magnitude of his own greatness. Perhaps no great man of an introspective cast of mind can ever recognize his own greatness, since he would be so aware (as no one except himself could possibly be) of the multitude of failings, missed opportunities, minor compromises, and sins of omission that inevitably trouble the daily life of any person weighted by great public responsibilities along with the ordinary private duties of being a husband and father. But how many persons in the history of American education or in the history of western culture have had the kind of lasting and transformative impact on any professional field or arena of cultural practices as Jim has had on the entire profession of teaching – the world’s largest if not oldest profession. Where can we find thinkers or writers or leaders who have had such a profound and enduring influence on the way professional life and knowledge is understood and enhanced for so many professionals who themselves have so much impact on the civic and intellectual health of so many individuals and communities? It is no exaggeration to say that Jim Gray’s influence on the lives of teachers and children and therefore on communities is greater and more beneficial than that of many of the historic figures whose names and sculpted likenesses decorate the friezes of great libraries and public buildings – names like that of the largely discredited Freud the dubiously celebrated Marx, and semi-mythic political figures whose motives invariably turn out to have been as corrupt as their practices. For Jim’s equals in the benefits his work has yielded and will continue to yield for society we must look to such figures of lasting and positive cultural influence as Hippocrates, Confucius, Moses, the great Buddhas, and some of the great writers Jim admired, like Tolstoy or Dickens, and probably the pragmatist philosopher saint, John Dewey.
In the more immediate history of the writing project to be written in the next generation, we too -- all of us who have been Jim’s colleagues and mentees -- will occupy an honored place as the privileged ones who worked personally with Jim, who are the direct recipients of the blessing he gave to us, as it were, by the laying on of hands. We are the disciples of the master, who showed us the meaning of leadership in the writing project not by giving us his picture to place in a shrine in our offices, the way his words and admonitions and principles were already enshrined in our hearts and minds, but he showed us what it meant to be the model and master director of the writing project by putting up our pictures – portraits of every site director in the first decade or more of the California and National Writing Project -- on the walls of his office for as long as there was enough wall space and few enough writing project sites to hold the growing number of portraits that he so proudly displayed.
On November 1, I arrived home late in the evening from a Steering Committee meeting of my writing project at UC Santa Barbara to find messages on my answering machine from Stephanie Gray, Richard Sterling, and Carol Tateishi all telling me that Jim had died that afternoon. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, and his whole family was at his bedside at the nursing home where he had been living for the previous few weeks following a bad fall at home in mid September. I had been meaning to find a way to send Jim a message at the nursing home reminding him of how important he has been to my life and to the lives of writing project teachers and directors all across the country. Knowing how depressing it was for him to be where he was, I wanted to tell him that in those moments when he felt most cut off from all the things he loved to do (he could no longer read or write or work in his garden or even talk), I would hope that he would find some comfort in remembering that tens of thousands of teachers in elementary and secondary schools and colleges and universities in every state of the union were on that day functioning as more professionally expert teachers because of him and that almost all of them would claim that their professional lives had been permanently enriched and even transformed because of his vision and his faith in the professionalism of teachers and in the principle that he introduced into the discourse and practice of education, that the best teacher of teachers is another teacher. But I didn't send my message to Jim in time and so lost a precious opportunity to reach out to him one last time. He was my mentor and I feel as if I owe most of what I cherish most in my professional life to him and to what he taught me with his words and example.
Even those teachers who have never met Jim -- if you have been touched by the writing project in any positive way -- are nevertheless heirs of Jim Gray. And if you do inservice work with other teachers in the spirit of generosity, collaborative inquiry, and collegial respect that characterizes the writing project model of professional development, you might also be said to be, like me, a disciple of James Gray's. I can think of no better patrimony to have nor any teacher more worthy of our discipleship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For nine years (1961-70) Jim Gray was my office partner in Tolman Hall, University of California at Berkeley (UCB), where we both served as supervisors of secondary English. From the outset of his appointment to the university, Jim displayed an exceptional command of both English and pedagogy, a catholicity of interests, an ability to laugh at himself, an intolerance of feckless meetings, and a fierce desire to improve the status of English teachers.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by Jim’s depth of knowledge. I knew that he had received a B. A. in English and an M. A. in Comparative Literature, both from the University of Wisconsin, and, following his teaching in Wisconsin, had been a highly respected secondary teacher of English at San Leandro High School and an English instructor at Diablo Valley College. Only later did I learn that Jim had studied Greek, knew both Greek and Roman classics, and devoured authors he cared about--Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, Faulkner, Jane Austen, John Fowles. In addition to his work as a supervisor of secondary English, for years he held a part-time appointment in the comp-lit department at UCB to teach Homer to undergraduates.
Beyond literature, Jim’s interests were many. Upon entering his home, one usually heard classical music in the background. He had a wide collection of records, knew a great deal about the lives of composers, and prided himself on his hi-fi equipment. In one room of the house he had assembled an elaborate model-train set, one that included bridges, tunnels, whistling high-speed locomotives, and a complex track-switching system. In addition to enjoying playing with the set himself, he enjoyed plugging it in for visitors’ entertainment. Also an opera buff, Jim usually joined the discussion group on opera at the Asilomar Conference on Language Arts, and, when in New York City, always tried to attend at least one performance at the Met. Most strange to those of us who struggle to change batteries in smoke detectors was his interest in carpentry. During the years I taught with him, he seemed forever tearing down walls at his house and putting them elsewhere, building bookcases or stands, or expanding closets.
Jim’s knowledge of Dickens was deep. Nevertheless, when Scholastic Roto Press hired him to do a commercial study guide for A Tale of Two Cities, he first diligently reviewed Dickens’ entire oeuvre before creating a superb guide, one that taught me much about a novel I had previously taught. However, before sending to the publisher the fruits of his labor, he decided to have Ian Watts check the guide for potential flaws. Jim had met Ian, author of the critically acclaimed The Rise of the Novel, one summer in Hawaii when they had served as consultants at an English institute funded by the National Defense Education Act. After making an appointment and meeting with Ian, then professor of English at UCB, Jim returned to the office clearly dejected. He reported that when he had presented the study guide to Ian for his approval, the latter had tapped his forehead and muttered, “Tale of Two Cities, Tale of Two Cities--- Can you review that plot for me?”
I recall another time, also somewhat amusing in retrospect, when Jim’s expectations went unmet. Shortly after Herb Kohl had published 36 Children, a poignant account of his teaching elementary children in Harlem, he came to Berkeley. Impressed by Kohl’s book, Jim phoned and made a luncheon date with its author. For the occasion, Jim dressed in his nattiest attire—dark suit, white shirt, striped tie. He returned from the meal dispirited: Kohl had showed up in a casual sport shirt and weathered dungarees, the latter held up by a rope belt.
Jim could, and did, poke fun at himself. He once confided that as a college undergraduate, he and his roommate decided one evening to have a heart-to-heart talk during which they would be absolutely honest about each other’s faults. “The consequence,” Jim laughingly confessed, “was ever after, I couldn’t stand the s.o.b.” In recounting reasons for having moved from Wisconsin to California to teach, he reported that he had been so heavily imbued in his teacher-education program with the philosophy of John Dewey that in his first year of teaching he decided to let his students call him by his first name. The result, he told me and later recorded in Teachers at the Center, his memoir of the early years of the National Writing Project, was that
Eventually, he reported, such chaos existed in most of his classes that the principal sat in the back of his room at least once a day and the superintendent of schools visited regularly in the vain hope that their presence would settle students.
Although willing to hear out others’ opinions, Jim was not given to idle chitchat or verbosity. At committee meetings he would impatiently drum his fingers on the table. After giving motions a fair hearing, he would quickly move them into action and be the first to call for adjournment. He often spoke in short bursts of staccato sentences and evinced the nervous energy of one eyeing the clock with a plane to catch. Recipients of his abrupt speech might infer that he was haughty or boorish until noting the frequency of his puckish smile. He was clearly more doer than procrastinator, more teddy bear than crocodile.
In developing curriculum materials to share with practicing and student teachers, Jim was consistently on the cutting edge. He was the first among the English supervisors—Jim, Leo Ruth, Grace Maertins, Ken Lane, and me—to develop units in composition based on Francis Christensen’s “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” and “A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph.” He was the first among us to create units in literature based on Jim Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse and A Student-Centered Language Arts Curriculum. He understood before the rest of us how Ken Macrorie’s Writing to be Read would influence classroom practices. And certainly he was a visionary in creating and guiding local, state, and national writing projects that continue to affect the teaching practices of thousands of teachers and the writing practices of tens of thousands of their students. Not one threatened by the abilities of others, in developing those writing projects Jim sought out the most talented teachers he could find and helped foster their careers. Always he believed in the potential capabilities of classroom teachers to be teachers of their colleagues, to be true professionals, free of reliance upon outside consultants.
I left Berkeley in 1970 to move to the headquarters office of NCTE in Urbana, IL, a departure that preceded by a number of years Jim’s establishing the Bay Area Writing Project (1973) and the National Writing Project (1976). After moving, I saw my erstwhile office partner only infrequently. We would run into each other at NCTE conventions, exchange annual Christmas greetings, and chat at Asilomar conferences, sometimes about the health of the English profession, often about our spouses and offspring, then later about our grandchildren. In recent years, I was aware that Jim was in ill health and having problems with his memory. When I last saw him at Asilomar in 2004, he looked stooped and wizened, and he foraged, painfully and often unsuccessfully, for intended words.
In 2002 he had sent a letter to me and to others about his “brain problems,” a letter in which he described his growing inability to speak fluently. After being examined first by a neurologist, who diagnosed his condition as Mild Cognitive Impairment, the first sign of Alzheimer’s, Jim was then given a number of tests by a neuropsychologist, who reported that he had Frontal Lobe Syndrome, a condition that would leave him struggling for words the rest of his life. About the tests, Jim wrote:
When I was in high school in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, I took an I.Q. test and somehow or other I was told my score: 80—4 points away from moron. Over time, I knew that 80 could not be the correct score. I wondered how I was able to do everything I have done with an I.Q. of 80, and I began thinking that my intelligence was instinctive—that it came from my gut and my heart as well as my brain. The neuropsychologist told us that I was not only intelligent but that my intelligence was superior. I’m delighted to know that I’m not a moron, but I still believe that what I know mostly comes instinctively.
Upon receiving the letter, I immediately wrote back to Jim the following:
Indeed I was.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
On November 1, 2005 we lost one of our greatest teachers and leaders, and the Writing Project lost its founder and friend.
Jim Gray was first and foremost a teacher: a middle school teacher in Watertown, Wisconsin, a high school English teacher in San Leandro, California, and a composition teacher and English credential supervisor in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.
What Jim will be remembered and honored for is founding the Bay Area Writing Project, the California Writing Project, and the National Writing Project. What began in 1974 with 25 teachers attending the first summer institute at UC Berkeley has grown to 17 California Writing Project sites and 189 National Writing Project sites. What began with a single program in greater San Francisco has become a California network that every year provides nearly 2,000 programs, which when combined with the national network, totals 7,000 programs for teachers of all grade levels, across multiple disciplines. Jim’s vision of a new professional development model—successful classroom teachers sharing and demonstrating their expertise in the teaching of writing with their colleagues—is now the nation’s premier professional development program.
That the National Writing Project continues to thrive after thirty years is because it has taken seriously Jim’s conviction that the Writing Project is not a person but an idea. That idea was first Jim’s. It grew out of his steadfast, unwavering belief in teachers—their knowledge and expertise, their potential to make an academic difference for all students, their professional power to make lasting change in the schools with greatest needs. In fact, he often said that any educational reform movement that did not have dedicated teachers at the core was doomed from the start. Jim’s simple but powerful idea is now the foundation, the bedrock, of the Writing Project.
Jim’s legacy is staggering. If the California Writing Project has served at least 15,000 teachers a year for the last 32 years—and for most years, that number has been closer to 35,000— and the National Writing Project serves four times that number annually, just imagine the numbers of teachers and, just as important, the astounding numbers of students Jim has influenced.
In recognition of Jim’s contributions to teachers and students, CATE honored him in 2004 with its Career Achievement Award. In 2005, the CATE Board renamed its pre-convention day the James Gray Memorial Pre-Convention. Every year at the annual conference, CATE and the California Writing Project will pay tribute to Jim.
In the California Writing Project, we will remember Jim by carrying on his vision. Right now, at any of the seventeen sites, teams of directors and teacher leaders are interviewing prospective participants for the next summer invitational institute, planning summer programs for teachers and young writers programs for students, conducting family writing programs for parents and students, providing after school and weekend sessions for students who have not passed the CAHSEE, and working with groups of teachers who are assessing their students’ writing samples and making instructional decisions from what they discover and learn. Although we in the Writing Project have lost our founder, we have in no way lost our foundation. We honor Jim best by continuing to build on that foundation and on his legacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
More than twenty-five years ago, I arrived at the University of California, Irvine, fresh out of graduate school, to assume an academic position. Before I was even settled in, I returned to my alma mater, UCLA, to spend the day at the charter Summer Institute of the UCLA Writing Project. After participating in what Dick Dodge, one of the UCLA Writing Project founders, called (only partially in jest) “one-third seminar, one-third group therapy, and one-third religious experience,” I was completely hooked! I must admit that it was hard not to wax evangelical about the spirit of community engendered by this inspiring teachers-teaching-teachers model. Here was the kind of intense academic inquiry and collaboration that I had thirsted for as a doctoral candidate. My plans for creating a Writing Project site at UC Irvine began that day, and our own project was established one year later.
My first encounter with Jim Gray, who was already “the legendary Jim Gray” to me, was a telephone call that went like this: “Hello. Carol. This is Jim Gray. You’re funded. However, that was the most God-awful excuse for a grant proposal that I’ve had ever read. Don’t ever do it again!” It probably was too. As I look back, what I envisioned and wrote about, despite the stellar example of UCLA, was a top down model where the University academics tell the K-12 teachers what to do and how to do it. As the youngest member of the inaugural 1978 UCIWP Summer Institute with the fewest number of years of teaching experience (all as a Teaching Assistant at UCLA), I distinctly remember that my biggest concern was how I could bluff my way through the five-week program without revealing how green I was. I quickly discovered that in a community of learners, no one person needs to have the “right” answer. The point, I learned, is to have good questions about the dynamic processes of teaching and learning and to pursue inquiries and illuminate understanding collaboratively.
That fall, at the first of many CWP gatherings at Asilomar, I met Jim Gray in person and I came to admire him not just for his vision but for his humanity and his humor. Part of the reason for his reputation as a curmudgeon has to do with the fact that, as Mary Ann Smith, who succeeded Jim as CWP Executive Director, observed, “ he practiced outrage on a daily basis” about the lack of respect for the professionalism of teachers evidenced by the media, by legislators, by textbook publishers, and the like. “He did not suffer fools in education lightly,” Mary Kay Healy, Jim’s Master’s Program mentee at UC Berkeley and early Co-Director of the Bay Area Writing Project noted at his memorial service. But beneath that gruff exterior was a warm, welcoming, passionate advocate of teachers with a brilliant mind and a big heart.
One of the most important dimensions of Jim’s model, in my opinion, was his insistence that there is no one correct way to teach writing. Cap Lavin, co-founder of the BAWP, remarked that Jim was “not doctrinaire.” Instead, he “fostered a healthy pluralism” and created a project that was “rooted in common sense.” In this type of environment, the grammarian and the writing workshop teacher can each present their best practices and work alongside one another, each enhancing the repertoire of the other. He taught us to trust teachers’ instincts and to honor what Miles Myers, one of Jim’s closest colleagues, calls “the living wisdom in the room.”
Like so many other teachers throughout California, my conception of teachers, of teaching, of student learners, and of writing has been forever enriched by the legacy of Jim Gray. Further, I am grateful for the community of learners I have been fortunate enough to work with not just at my own Writing Project site, but through the California and National Writing Projects. Jim was fond of talking about the ripple effect of teachers teaching teachers. If he could only see how many lives of teachers and students that he has touched with his extraordinary vision!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This issue of California English both honors and reflects the work of James Gray, founder of the National Writing Project. Gray died on November 1, 2005, at home in Danville, California. He was 78. In Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Writing Project, Gray described how the National Writing Project grew out of the Bay Area Writing Project at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
“ There we were — twenty-nine of us, counting the co-directors and myself — on a Monday morning in the summer of 1974, the first day of the first invitational institute of the Bay Area Writing Project. Present in the room were: Miles Myers, the Oakland high school teacher who would one day become executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, and Mary Ann Smith, the young woman who twenty-five years later would serve as co-director of the National Writing Project, as well as her team-teaching colleague, Jo Fyfe, a future associate director of the project. Also present were future BAWP co-director Mary K. Healy, then a middle school teacher and Ph.D. candidate and Cap Lavin, the legendary University of San Francisco basketball great who was in the process of becoming a legendary teacher of English” (53-54). Jim Gray’s belief in teachers and their knowledge never wavered. His seed idea that the best teachers of teachers are other teachers flowered into 189 university-based National Writing Project sites located in fifty states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Gray also understood the tension between classroom practice and research. “Because the Writing Project has spotlighted the importance of teacher knowledge, hard-won through classroom experience, those looking at us from the outside have sometimes been left with the false impression that we are dismissive of theoretical ideas and academic research in writing … Indeed I have long had a vision that with the growth of more and more National Writing Project sites and with the growth of more subject-matter projects based on the writing project model, all of the nation’s classrooms will eventually be staffed by successful and fully informed teacher-scholars” (95).
The genre-studies articles in this issue embody the spirit of James Gray’s vision. Teachers-scholars from the California Reading and Literature Project and the California Writing Project came together under the guidance of P. David Pearson and the University of California Literacy Consortium to probe the potential of genre theory to help students become more effective readers and writers. Contributors found that greater awareness of the purpose and audience for their reading and writing improves students’ performance. As with all authentic research, tentative solutions led to further questions. What is the relationship between spoken genres and written genres? How can we link non-academic genre understandings to more academic contexts?
The genre studies initiative is exactly the kind of work James Gray urged teacher scholars to pursue. Though classroom teachers often feel they don’t have time to read research, “Our goal is to whet teachers’ appetite for this knowledge, which can enrich their classroom practice. In many cases, as teachers learn more about theory and research, they realize that practices they have come to through classroom experience have foundations supported by academics and researchers.” (96).
Along with essays written in memory of James Gray and teacher research on genre theory, the pages that follow feature images of books by teachers who have been deeply influenced by Gray’s vision. His legacy lives on.