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.

For the last two days I’ve been in virtual lock down in an ugly, windowless room at the O’Hare Marriott. Amazingly, I’ve been toe-to-toe with my brilliant colleagues (Joye Alberts, Tom Fox, Linda Friedrich, Sherry Swain), those with whom I am privileged to work on a daily basis; with some women who I have had the pleasure to know through Writing Project work before (MaryAnn Smith, Faye Peitzman, Carol Booth Olsen); and then with another whole group of scholars who, until this meeting, I had only heard of (Barbara Storms, Gail Offen-Brown, Anne DiPardo). For the last two days we have been tackling impossibly complex questions (so it seems to me, at least) about writing assessment and program evaluation—what, exactly, will this program of teacher professional development impact in students’ writing? What measurement tool can detect those impacts? How does writing from assigned readings change the nature of assessment of student writing? It’s heady stuff (if you are us, anyway), the kind of stuff for which you don’t mind locking yourself into a windowless room for eight or nine hours each day.

On the first night, we all go out to dinner together, and the ‘old guard’ Writing Project women tell stories from the beginning of the NWP—often about the bad behavior of gentleman scholars in the seventies and eighties, but also about each others’ weddings, and about deaths in their community. These stories are likely be much the same across any organization that was built in the 70s and 80s, but they are told by women whose work is writing. The stories are good, rich, funny, poignant. You can tell that they love their work, and each other, and those men with and against whom they built their professional lives. We laugh a lot. I say little. I feel like I have been stretching my ears wide open, all day and all night, so as not to miss anything.

On the second night I am sad to miss the dinner. I am interviewing Meenoo Rami, a young Writing Project teacher from Philadelphia. She’s just written a book, and is traveling to do some work in Memphis. There’s a storm in Philadelphia, they’ve changed her flight, she can’t make our scheduled interview time, so would I, could I do it tonight, instead? While everyone else is at dinner, I spend an hour and a bit on the phone with Meenoo, and am amazed at the depth of her thinking. How did she get so wise, so young? How can she speak so eloquently about our shared profession? Her short answer, of course, is that she learned it at the Writing Project. It being the joy of working and learning in community. We agree, Meenoo and me, that that’s the big it underneath everything else.

This morning I am up at 6:00 a.m., which, I note because I never reset my watch when I travel, is actually 4:00 a.m. in California. I shower and pack and meet Tom in the shuttle line. We ride to the airport together, to catch the same flight home. On the way, we talk about his daughter, Nicki, and how she’s basically built a car from scratch, and is programming code in Palo Alto and going to Nicaragua for girls surf camp and how amazed we both are at her belief that she can do anything.

On this plane, 30,000 feet above somewhere between Chicago and San Francisco two rows back, Tom works and reworks the keynote speech he will give tomorrow at the CATE conference in San Diego while I open a packet of student writing from the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. Once again I have been invited to judge national, award-winning writing from youth in grades 7 to 12 from around the country. The writing is fresh and lively, often at the breaking edge of the writer’s potential, sometimes utterly surprising. I feel privileged to read it at all, let alone to be a judge of it.

I have stumbled into a network of brilliant and generous teacher-scholars, and somehow have had the good sense to build my life here.

And this is the feeling I’ve not been able to shake ever since the first round of introductions at this meeting Monday morning: a sense of privilege, a sense that in my work I get more than I give, more than I deserve, more than, left to my own devices, I would have known to ask for. I have stumbled into a network of brilliant and generous teacher-scholars, and somehow have had the good sense to build my life here. I have learned with and from colleagues who know that practice must inform theory must inform practice. Who know that we should always stop to write, to know where we are and what we think and what we might do next. Who know that this work is personal, that colleagues often become friends, and who take time to break bread, to ask about your family and to tell you about theirs.

Here, in the middle of this day in the middle of my career, despite the papers still to be read, the email to be answered, the work to be done, the sleep I so desperately need, I take a moment to think about the depth and breadth of the NWP network, of my hand extended forward to Carol Booth Olsen, who whispers to me over dinner to take care of myself, to write and publish more, and back to Meenoo, who through her work that has virtually just begun, connects me to a thousand teachers and them to each other. It’s intricate, delicate, and strong, this network. And I am privileged to be a part of it, to have good work to do with so many lovely and amazing people. To have a life that’s good.



Tanya Baker-NWPTanya Baker is director of National Programs at the National Writing Project (NWP) where she oversees a wide range of cooperative research and program development initiatives involving NWP’s university-based local sites. One of the authors of Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy 6-12 (Heinemann, 2001), Tanya is interested in teacher learning communities, and in reading and writing in the disciplines. Before coming to NWP, Baker was a high school English teacher and staff developer, and co-director for the Maine Writing Project at the University of Maine, Orono where she earned a doctoral degree in Education.

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