I love to fly.

Not only does flying get me where I’m going faster, but airplanes have been important sites of development for me as a writer and a teacher leader. In fact, I am flying as I write this, traveling from Colorado, where I direct the Colorado State University Writing Project, to Berkeley, where I now serve on the NWP Board of Directors.

I took my first flight when I was seventeen. Like many first-time flyers, I was astonished by the view from above because I gained a new understanding of the structure of things. In a matter of minutes after take-off, the exit ramps on freeways became four-leaf clovers, rivers snaked through the countryside, and parcels of land made the logic of city planning apparent. Once we reached cruising altitude, I was literally in the heavens, with clouds as my only view.

This memory remains vivid because I documented it in a journal that I kept in part because my senior-English teacher Kelly Ford told me to. He believed that students had something to say, so they ought to say it in writing. In fact, we had the responsibility to preserve our flights of fancy, not only because they were personally meaningful, but also because there was an audience out there somewhere who might be interested, too.

Journals are now commonplace in classrooms, but they weren’t in 1983. As I’ve written elsewhere, the very fact that Kelly assigned them set him apart from other English teachers I’d had. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Kelly’s forward-thinking pedagogy owed to the fact that he was a Writing Project teacher.

I had bought into the NWP principle that the best teachers of writing are writers themselves.

I also didn’t know that just a few years later, I would be asking my own high school students to write in journals, to express themselves in genres seldom seen in schools, and to share their work with their peers in writing groups and with audiences beyond our classroom. I would challenge them to think of themselves as writers. After attending the Oklahoma Writing Project Summer Institute, I was trying out that identity out for myself by writing daily and submitting my work in professional and public venues. Like my senior English teacher, I had bought into the NWP principle that the best teachers of writing are writers themselves.

Another by-product of my summer institute experience was that I began to think of myself as a teacher-researcher and teacher-leader. With the ongoing support of my OWP colleagues, I developed enough confidence to form a teacher research group. I also shared what I was learning by facilitating professional development at local schools, presenting at conferences, and becoming a consultant for the College Board.

On a flight to a weeklong AP conference at the University of Mexico, I faced a moment when I had to publicly name and claim these fresh identities. Shortly after settling into my seat, the gentleman next to me posed the customary question, “What do you do for a living?” Unexpectedly, I heard myself say, “I’m a writer,” although my day job was definitely still teaching high school English. Maybe it was because I had recently published a few essays and articles, but this was the first time I’d made this announcement beyond my trusted circle of NWP colleagues. “I am a writer.” There. I said it out loud, and to a complete stranger!

That memory brings me back to today’s flight, which technically took only 40 years to complete. When I went through the Oklahoma Writing Project Summer Institute in 1991 as a young high school English teacher, I had only a vague notion that I was part of a longer journey that began in 1974. I had no way of knowing that I would go on to found the Colorado State University Writing Project in 2003.

This flight path—from Berkeley to Oklahoma to Colorado and back—is still somewhat unbelievable to me. But seemingly impossible journeys are familiar to all of us in NWP.

With NWP as our favorite means of transportation, we all take flight as writers, teacher-leaders, and scholars of our own practice. From a different height, we gain a new understanding of the structure of things in education, just as I did on my very first flight when I was seventeen. We move from being perhaps uncertain teachers who are committed to teaching writing well within our classrooms, to becoming confident teacher-leaders who recognize our own agency to transform the teaching of writing within the profession.

NWP teachers love to fly. Even forty years later, we are flying as I write this.

O'Donnell-AllenCindy O’Donnell-Allen is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, where she directs the CSU Writing Project. She has served in several leadership positions for the National Writing Project and is the author of numerous articles and two books—Tough Talk, Tough Texts: Teaching English to Change the World and The Book Companion. She taught high school English for eleven years.