In Ohio it was homemade lasagna, iced mochas from a Greek family coffee house, something called “pretzel dessert.” In California it was plums from a backyard tree, hummus, sushi, Arnold Palmers. Each summer, at National Writing Project sites across the country, teachers gather to share writing, to share knowledge, and probably most importantly, to share questions. They also share food. We know that families come to the dinner table not only to eat but to laugh, argue, trade stories, and ultimately build the values that make a family. I have had the good fortune to dine at many NWP Summer Institute tables—learning there the values of a family of the best teachers doing their best work.

As a teacher I have learned from the NWP the things so many of us learn: that my own writing life matters for my classroom. That I can do better than simply assigning writing; I can teach writing.

As a researcher I have learned from NWP how inquiry makes a difference in professional development. I have learned how teacher-writers navigate questions of authority in writing for publication. I have learned how writing in the Summer Institute fosters teacher transformation.

But when asked “What is MY NWP?” it is my heart that answers. I testify not as a professional, as only a teacher or only a researcher, but simply as a member of the family.

When asked “What is MY NWP?” it is my heart that answers.

The NWP began to feed me before I knew it existed. Teachers in my high school in the late 1980s had just begun to get the Writing Project, then at the Greater Houston Area Writing Project. Though I can’t say I was a willing student, words and concepts that would define me as a writer first became known to me there: Draft. Revise. Publish. Even as I dozed in the back row or “lost” my essay the day it was due, those were verbs I would eventually spend my life doing.

The NWP also fed me wholesome fare when I first became a teacher. Don Zancanella, my mentor in teacher education at the University of New Mexico, was also an NWP site director. You could tell. In his courses we wrote, shared, revised. Don modeled a kind of learning community I would spend my career working toward. After my first year teaching, when circumstance led me across the country and out of a job, the NWP caught me in its arms. Nancy McCracken, then at Kent State, invited me to the second summer institute of what is now the NWP at Kent State. Experienced teachers there took me as I was, took this teacher with one year’s experience seriously as a writer and co-creator of professional knowledge.

The NWP also fed me when I pursued a doctorate. Sheridan Blau, my graduate adviser, educational father and guide, then directed the South Coast Writing Project (SCWriP) at the University of California Santa Barbara. At SCWriP’s table I spent four years pigging out, attending two of its summer institutes full time and spending all four years engaged firsthand in the life of the project. Sheridan gave me real work to do from the first day: believing, as all Writing Project people believe, that we are all just about to do our best work, he brought me right to conferences, retreats, Urban Sites, the California Writing Project, site continuity gatherings, meetings at schools. Rosemary Cabe, then Director of Inservice, held my hand though first steps in doing professional development and in doing my life. “Take yourself seriously when you speak,” she coached me on the way to my doctoral dissertation defense. In between all of these delights, Tim Dewar and I sat elbow-to-elbow in our closet-turned-office, marveling at our good fortune. Tim now directs that site.

The NWP also fed me in the first years of my career as a researcher and university professor. Seven teachers opened their notebooks and hearts to me, showing me what teacher transformation look like up close and in the moment. At the NWP Research Unit in Berkeley, former unit director Paul LeMahieu and present unit director Linda Friedrich first trusted me with projects within the Local Sites Research Initiative and the NWP Legacy study—and then patiently taught me all the skills I lacked to actually complete the projects. Sites invited me to join them as a summer institute guest. Joye Alberts, National Director for Site Development at NWP, listened and counseled as I wondered whether it was time to start a site of my own. And when, because of the changing particulars of finances, work, and family, I didn’t start one, they all loved me anyway.

At the NWP’s rich table I was enculturated into an intellectual community with heart.

I learned to abhor fake things in school and in life, to be daring enough to go for what is real in the classroom. Writing takes us both inward to a clearer view of ourselves and our experiences, and outward, to understand and influence the world. Neither of these is easy or safe.

I learned to work from abundance, not scarcity. We tend to treat ideas—and success, and love, and all the rest—like they are scarce commodities. But really there are infinite ideas, and ideas lead to more ideas. Rosemary Cabe taught me to “write from abundance,” getting so many poems out there and so many kernels up on the board and so many words in the air and on the tips of our tongues that of course we would write. Of course we would. This principle of abundance I take with me everywhere. Most of my bad days are days when I forget this principle and become jealous, a miser of ideas, scared to open my hands for fear the ideas will all slip out.

I learned that it is impossible to learn when afraid, and that the true prerequisite for learning together is love. When you are loved you can learn and do things you never thought you could do.

May the teachers of the NWP continue the feast. May they dine on love and share a rich menu of laughter, arguing, and stories.



Anne WhitneyAnne Elrod Whitney is an associate professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University. She studies writing as it connects to teaching, learning, and living.

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