As I fly back to the Bay Area from the National Writing Project’s (NWP) 2011 Spring Meeting, my mind swims in thoughts about the impact NWP has had on the tens of thousands of teachers we at the national office serve. For these amazing educators and leaders, I write today to show my support and solidarity for the #blog4NWP effort.
Although I was in Washington, D.C. supporting the event as a national staff member, I also co-facilitated a segment of the National Program Leaders meeting to share data I collected for an internal evaluation. The purpose of this collaborative self-study was to learn how participation on a NWP National Program leadership team may contribute to the development of both individual and site leadership capacity. For those unfamiliar with NWP’s work, such an examination is possible due to the central focus of identifying and developing teacher leadership. Sharing the data was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was thrilled to share the powerful and inspiring words of their colleagues I had captured while also moved to tears at the loss I felt by saying, “So long…” to both colleagues and friends. Nonetheless, I left strengthen by the resiliency and commitment by everyone in the room who knows undoubtedly the NWP and its national network MUST continue.
Rewind almost three years ago when I began working at the NWP office as a member of the Research & Evaluation Unit. From the beginning, I knew I would gain valuable research knowledge and skills, yet I never imagined that I would find a place to call my professional home. NWP is simply more than my employer; it has become a place of open dialogue, learning, collaboration, and unconditional support. This explains why it is with deep sadness mixed with frustration and anger that my position has been eliminated effective September 1. Although it would be easy to share the range of emotions I have experienced since hearing the news, I prefer to highlight the impact this powerfully thoughtful and unique organization has had on me. However, more than an individual impact has occurred; it’s Jim Gray’s theories (now the core values of NWP) that has led to 37 years of praxis—a cyclical process of theory, action, and reflection (Freire, 2000)—as a national model of professional development.
Freire’s notion of praxis is grounded in the fight for liberation among the oppressed. He advocates for education as the means to do so and believes engaging in education is a political act. He suggests that critical pedagogy is the best way to work with students as both educator and students are learners. I illuminate these points because our nation’s educators, hands down, fall under the category of oppressed and they often enter the profession to make a difference in the lives of students instead of expectations of a large paycheck. That’s what sets NWP apart, “teachers must be honored for their commitment, knowledge, and creativity” (Gray, 2000, p. xiii). Dating back to kindergarten, I too have had a profound love and respect for my teachers. In fact, the classroom and these caring, loving, and committed adults were my salvation from the dysfunction occurring in my home. Regardless of these feelings for my own teachers and the safe space they provided, it took moving from my public school district to an elite private school for me to see firsthand that teacher knowledge is valued differently.
NWP’s model of professional development does something that is unheard of despite its practicality—puts teachers at the center by valuing the knowledge that each professional holds by providing local, state, regional, and national opportunities for knowledge and skills to be shared through the often overlooked technique of teachers teaching teachers. With teaching and learning from one another central to the model, it’s the leadership capacity cultivated within teachers that truly makes the organization distinct. On the other hand, building such capacity is not simply restricted to those teachers we support in the network. I too have experienced it for myself.
When I was initially hired by NWP, I didn’t have all the necessary skills to acquire the position for which I applied. Nonetheless, they gave me the opportunity to apply the skills I did have while also learning the relevant knowledge and skills so that I could grow into the work and ultimately the position I have today. They believed that I had the capacity to assist in the research and evaluation of the work along with its impact on teachers, students, and education as a whole, but also in my capacity to be a steward of the organization. What’s more, I have discovered there is much to gain in a community of learners rather than in isolation. By being part of such a community, authentic collaboration and camaraderie develops both professionally and personally.
These theories (or NWP core values) I have mentioned above are put into action at the 200+ sites serving all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands through a common set of programmatic activities, which is often referred to as “the Writing Project model,” and includes the summer invitational institute, continuity activities, in-service programs, and partnerships. The invitational summer institute allows teachers from early childhood through university to engage in research, demonstrate a particular practice or approach they have had success with as teachers of writing, reflect upon their practice and desire to keep learning, and participate in peer response groups that provides a community of writers. This “career-altering experience” for many creates a foundation—“the Writing Project model”—of praxis that is exemplified for each of these teachers.
What I continue to find remarkable are two principles that have never changed: 1) teachers of writing must write and 2) there is no one correct way to teach writing. By allowing such freedom in one’s professional development, educators find their voice and often times the capacity to lead whether this be in their own school, district, local community, state, or at a national level. For nearly three years, I have had the pleasure to be part of the national office who provides the continuous support that allows the thousands of diverse educators to come to together and advocate for those who have yet to find their voice (fellow teachers) or don’t have one (students). In my mind, this is what the Spring Meeting is all about. And, in a time when data matters, our work is proven.
One thing I know for certain is that NWP has changed my life and specifically, the way I learn, think, and most importantly, lead. I do one day aspire to become a college or university professor, yet I’m the first to recognize that I don’t nor could I imagine having the courage to do what so many individuals in our network joyously do each and every day—teach in a K-12 classroom. That said, it has truly been a humble experience and honor to support the educators of the NWP network. I will continue to do so even after my position ends for I am and always will be a steward of NWP and its core values. While it’s unclear what my professional future holds, there’s no turning back…it’s now my mission to pay forward what NWP has given me!
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Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.
Gray, J. (2000).Teachers at the center: A memoir of the early years of the National Writing Project. Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.