STANDISH — On the first day of the semester in my junior English class, I ask my students to draw a picture of the voice in their heads: the one that tells them they have nothing interesting to say.

Then, I ask them to battle their inner critics by writing a dialogue with the monsters, blobs, spiders, wolves and sometimes, former teachers they’ve drawn.

This exercise results in some funny drawings, as well as some heartfelt stories of how my students’ enthusiasm for writing has been dampened by earlier criticism. Together, we move forward to produce a variety of writing products.

My students come to understand that learning to write well is a lot like playing an instrument. It takes practice, practice and more practice. But it also takes support, encouragement and the belief that first drafts are supposed to be lousy, that revision always improves things, and that we all can be successful if we write every day and persist in ignoring the voices that tell us we can’t.

This idea came from one of my colleagues at the Southern Maine Writing Project’s Summer Institute in 2007. I was among 17 teachers who spent four weeks together reading about the teaching of writing, discussing methods of teaching writing, and encouraging each other’s own personal writing.

More than 50 teaching professionals, from kindergarten teachers to post-graduate instructors, have taken part in the Southern Maine Writing Project’s Summer Institute in the past four years, according to its director, Kate Kennedy.

We come away from the experience with an arsenal of methods to improve our practice, and with the shared belief that helping students develop a healthy relationship with writing can produce profound results.

In February, the Southern Maine Writing Project, housed at USM’s College of Education and Human Development, became a full-fledged member of the National Writing Project, an amazing powerhouse of resources for teachers with more than 200 branches in all 50 states.

The SMWP now receives direct funding ($30,000 this year) from a National Writing Project grant, matched by strong support from the University of Southern Maine. This money allows SMWP to hold the summer institute, and will expand the opportunities to offer support and workshops to teachers in school districts throughout southern Maine.

Ironically, this first year of funding could be SMWP’s last.

The Obama administration’s new budget would eliminate the National Writing Project grants to the 200 independent sites nationwide. It would force state sites such as SMWP to compete within their own states for state education grant money now used to fund other educational and enrichment programs.

According to Tish McGonagel, a National Writing Project field director from Vermont, some states have already said they would refuse to fund their state writing project sites. She is working to get the message out across the country that the National Writing Project, which has been receiving federal grant money since 1991, provides a big return on its investment and should remain a part of the federal budget.

It would be a shame if, after this year, teachers and their students weren’t able to benefit from the Southern Maine Writing Project. At a time when school districts are under the gun to perform well on standardized tests, SMWP is a breath of fresh air to teachers who worry that students are losing their love of literacy in the rush for better scores.

In fact, according to Kennedy, SMWP’s director, research shows that students who are taught by Writing Project graduates like me actually perform better on standardized tests.

“If students have daily opportunity to write in a variety of genres and ways, they do improve,” says Kennedy. “It’s a method of learning, not just an end product.”

During February vacation, I brought home the journals my students had kept during the first three weeks of our class. They were charged with writing 12 full pages, either responding to daily prompts they were given, or by writing about whatever they wished.

On his first page, one young man had confided, “I’m really not into this journal thing. So don’t expect much from me.” the end of the 12th page, each one increasingly more detailed (and wonderfully interesting), I knew he’d won the battle with his inner critic.

“Thanks for sharing your thoughts,” I wrote in the margin of his final page. “I’m glad you gave this journal-writing thing a chance.”