Symbiosis

The writing project changed my life! How familiar that sounds and how true. The writing project seems to affect each of us in powerful ways. But is it not also true that each of us has made our mark on the writing project? I am reminded of that daily as I peruse the blogs and makes and website contributions of writing project teachers everywhere. My story, along with the stories of every other NWP teacher consultant, is part of the fabric of the NWP. And, like many others, my story begins with experience in the summer institute and quickly expands to others in the NWP community. The year was 1985—at the first NWP summer institute in Mississippi, Mississippi State University.

My director, Sandra Price, had spent some time in Berkeley with Jim Gray and Mary Ann Smith, and she had a long list. We did it all —in the first year of our project! Monthly continuity meetings, a school year graduate course in teacher research in which a number of us tested out our new-found expertise with quasi-experimental studies (mine was on vocabulary development for first graders). But most amazing, we served 10 schools with year-long professional development. We got permission to leave our classes and travel the state spreading the word—writing matters. Even better, I was having a blast with my first graders, writing, learning to read from their own writing, sharing our writing in circles and with parents.

Just a couple of years later, 1987, Sandra signed a contract with our state department of education to develop curriculum and professional development for a Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) statewide initiative. We would serve the teachers of 1,600 at-risk youth, ages 16 – 21, across the state in an 8-week summer program. By that time, Sandra had orchestrated the growth of our state network to include several other universities. Teachers and directors came together from all these new sites. Johnnie Gibson, Sandra Thompson, Gerry Sultan, Dan McQuagge, and Pat Melton from Delta State; Florence Box, Pat Mitchell, Dolyene Davis, Sandra and me from MSU; Ben and Susan McClelland from Ole Miss. We left our classrooms for several weeks to write lesson plans for 8 weeks of reading, writing, and math. We chose curriculum materials and activities especially for the kids we knew so well. We focused on what was important to them: grandparents, sports, work, music; you get the picture. And students wrote beyond the texts we provided; they wrote to understand and discover their own lives, dreams, hopes.

Teachers from Alcorn State University, the University of South Mississippi, and Mississippi Valley State University joined as we planned together and conducted professional development for the JTPA teachers, a week prior to the 8-week session and several afternoons at each location throughout the summer. First of all, we asked the teachers to picture one of their students, to write about their hopes and dreams for that one student. Then we asked them to write about the kind of classroom in which that student would thrive. With this invitation, the JTPA teachers took hold of the curriculum, and made it better, made it theirs. Our days were long and nights short during those months of planning and putting the program into place. We were exhausted and exhilarated.

Sandra enlisted the help of a well-known educational researcher, Dr. Herb Handley, to design a study focused on the big question: Will this curriculum and these writing project teaching strategies make a difference in the academic achievement of these students?

At that time, a lot of educational research on student achievement was based on grade equivalency. Our 1600 students at multiple locations across the state took a pre-test in reading and math and at the end of the program, a post test. Writing assessment was not a high priority at that time, but every lesson in every subject included writing. When we visited classrooms that summer, the high school students proudly pointed out their poems, drawings, and memoirs that teachers had posted in hallways and classrooms.

How did it work out? Nicely! The state department of education expected to see an average gain in grade equivalency of 4 months in reading and 4 months in math across the 1600 students in 8 weeks. That’s NOT what they saw. The reading gains averaged 1 year and 7 months! The math gains averaged 1 year and 9 months!

But the story doesn’t end there. I shared our results (read 3-inch-thick research report) with my dad who was an agricultural economist and constantly involved in research at the state and federal levels. Dad was more than excited. He had always said, “I just don’t know how you educators get any research done? You can research corn; it doesn’t go anywhere. You can do or not do anything to it and measure the results. But people go all over the place; you can’t control them. How can you know you have made a difference?” When he read our study, he beamed and said, “You know, this shows that you made a difference. I could take this study to the state legislature and probably get state funding for the writing project.” Well, he did and we got that funding.

Then the day came when Dad said, “You know, if Senator Thad Cochran saw that study, you could probably get federal funding for the National Writing Project.” The thought scared me. I told Sandra what Dad had said, “What do I tell him?” I asked. Sandra laughed out loud and said, “Well, DON’T TELL HIM NO!” Sandra called Jim Gray. Conversations were held. Then the word came, “Go for it.” Dad met with Senator Cochran and presented him with our research report.

There is more, of course, other members of congress joined forces. Jim and Mary Ann worked out the details in Berkeley and testified before congressional committees. This small local seed grew into the beginning of NWP’s federal funding that lasted from 1990 until 2008. What’s important about this story is that it demonstrates the power of good work coupled with evidence of that good work. Our funding looks different now, but we are, all of us still doing good work and still sharing the evidence of that good work. This story belongs to all of us.


SwainSherry Swain is a Senior Research Associate at the National Writing Project. She is a former Director at the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute and former teacher in the Starkville Public School system.

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The Next (New Forty) Generation

I’ve told few until now, but I’m actually a Trekkie.

Tonya Perry Trekkie
I’ve enjoyed most of the generations of Star Trek. I admit, though, I can’t always keep up, so I’m absolutely terrible at the trivia, but what I have always admired, despite my lapses in consistent viewing, is how each generation evolves with its own new set of people who are able to meet the demands of the times and remain malleable yet committed to the principles set by the directive. I’m constantly amazed by the innovative strategies and inventions that evolve with each new generation in the adaptation process.

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Thank You, Jim Gray

My NWP began in 1986 at the invitation of Susan Lytle at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education and with the founding of the Philadelphia Writing Project.

As I reflect on Our NWP today, I am filled with gratitude, awe, and renewed commitment to our mission and vision. Thank you, Jim Gray, and all who have taught, nurtured, and inspired me throughout these years. You are amazing.

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My NWP—One Big Idea, One World

“How did I get here?”

It was a thought that both arrested and intrigued me just one month ago, on June 30, a day after getting off of a 19-hour flight from Chicago. I stepped into one of the air-conditioned training rooms at the English Language Institute in Singapore (ELIS) to begin two days of a Visiting Teaching Fellowship where I was to present on the teaching of writing to an audience of over 70 educators including both teachers and members of the Ministry of Education. This Fellowship Program preceded a 10-day Starter Writing Institute that I was going to facilitate as well for its 16 inaugural summer fellows.

As I opened my backpack to take out my laptop, my black moleskine writer’s notebook, my copy of The Essential Donald Murray, and a plastic purple portfolio of handouts describing everything from writing process to writing assessment, both fear and excitement gripped me. I was glad to feel the cool air that helped tame the sudden hot flash.

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A Life That’s Good

I am 30,000 feet above somewhere between Chicago and San Francisco, making my way back from two days of a complete geek out with my Writing Project colleagues. My brain is tired, and the work that has piled up in the office and my email inbox while I was neck deep in the big questions about writing assessment are weighing on me. The drippy wet apartment I am going to have to clean up when I get home is concerning. The fact that I haven’t really been sleeping all week is taking its toll. And yet, it’s time to come clean. I live a life that’s good.

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Teacher as Poet. Poet as Teacher.

Magnetic Fridge Poetry
Flickr photograph by Steve Johnson

I began with poetry. My entry into writing started with rhymed couplets, with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. And I wrote reams of poems, spiral notebooks filled with lines, and later disks filled with hundreds of word processing documents that stored my free verse, oddly spaced stanzas. I was fortunate enough to have teachers that supported and encouraged my love of verse. Mrs. Zeinstra, my middle school English teacher, who turned us loose on her library of poetry books to find the lines that inspired us. We copied them into our daily writer’s notebooks, selecting one or two to memorize and share. And Mr. Dik, who pulled me aside after senior English class one day to ask if he could help me revise a poem I wanted to submit to a local writing competition. He encouraged me to reflect on my word choices but left authorial decisions in my hands.

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What is My NWP? Thoughts From the Red River Valley Writing Project Leadership

NWP means the world to us. Literally. As three leaders in the Red River Valley Writing Project, located in what was once the tall grass prairie region of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, we know the isolation that comes from long winters and a sparsely populated region. Through RRVWP, we connect to each other and to a larger world. We each have a small story about what the NWP means to us—Nancy Devine, our “writer-in-residence,” Pam Fisher, our co-director and outreach coordinator, and Kelly Sassi, our new director.

As a published poet, Nancy’s NWP has writing at its center:

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NWP: Where Teachers Meet True Grit

There are so many stories I could tell of my twenty years with NWP: losing power on my first day of directing a summer institute in a room without windows, sitting next to Mary Ann Smith at my first professional writing retreat, my first Maker Faire with Patty Koller, but instead of focusing on beginnings, I’d rather concentrate on continuing. In a time of data-driven decisions and teacher effectiveness ratings, of pension revamping and scripted instruction, of incessant testing and corporate–driven “reform”, the philosophy of the National Writing Project keeps me in the classroom and fosters my resilience.

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Learning to Listen: A Call for Support of the Writing Project’s Intensive Summer Institutes

The small but heavy cardboard box had been opened, closed, and put aside—part of a larger project to plow through the accumulated debris of twenty-eight years of marriage. Its moving label read “Home Office. Books. His.” My daughter Stephanie called me to ask if I might pick it up as part of my upcoming trip to Berkeley. Why not?

Steph’s husband Mike, mindful of my weak lower back, hefted the box into the back of my car. I’d had no occasion, therefore, to examine its contents until I arrived home later that afternoon and carefully set the unopened box down in the center of our living room rug. The first items surprised and amused me: the “subfusc” gown—a black cotton vest in reality—that I was required to wear while attending tutorials at Oxford;

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Push and Embrace

Over my 36-year history with the National Writing Project, I have participated in a number of cross-site leadership teams for NWP initiatives. Each time I was so grateful (and surprised) to have been invited. It may just be nostalgia settling into my brain for a nice long visit, but for me, participating in the leadership team for two phases of the NWP’s National Reading Initiative (2003-2009) remains a powerful and sustaining experience.

We were fortunate to have inspiring leaders from NWP—Marci Resnick, Tanya Baker, and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl. For me, NRI also provided a lucky opportunity to reunite after many years with Judith Rodby from the Northern California Writing Project, who served as NRI project coordinator. In what seems like another lifetime, Judith and I had collaborated on literacy-education workshops for instructors at the Center for Employment Training, a multi-site job training program in California.

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