Like many other November days in Michigan, I remember it being cold, wet, and windy. This was not uncommon for my birthday, which in years past had seen everything from glorious fall sunshine to a few inches of snow. This particular afternoon, I was finishing up at the gas station and preparing to pick my children up from school when my phone buzzed.
Not a number I recognized, but it was identified as coming from California. As I answered, I was trying to put the pieces into place, wondering who might be trying to get in touch with me. I was in my second year at Central Michigan University, having made the successful leap from graduate student and co-director of the Red Cedar Writing Project at Michigan State University to be a newly minted assistant professor of English. At the time, I had been working on a few projects with other NWP colleagues, including early drafts of Because Digital Writing Matters with Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Danielle DeVoss. Perhaps Elyse was trying to get in touch with me from her office?
“Hello, this is Troy.”
I was finishing up at the gas pump, struggling to hear with the wind, but I’m pretty sure that the voice on the other end replied with something like this:
“Hello, Troy. This is Sharon Washington, Executive Director of the National Writing Project. I am happy to inform you…”
At this point, I’d settled into my car so the wind was not whipping ferociously around me, blocking nearly every other word that Sharon spoke. And though I can’t quite remember the entire conversation, the gist of it was pretty clear. New site application accepted. Funding to begin in spring of 2009. Team from NWP to visit in winter. Looking forward to seeing you at the annual meeting in a few weeks. Congratulations!
Somehow—since my first summer at Red Cedar in 2003, through a number of Annual Meetings, in connection with my work as a Technology Liaison and the Technology Matters advanced institutes, with my efforts to be bold and suggesting that we write a book called Because Digital Writing Matters when NWP gathered dozens of technology leaders in Baltimore in the summer of 2007, and as a results of my initial collaborations with colleagues at Central Michigan to write the new site application—somehow, I was about to become a new site director. The Chippewa River Writing Project (CRWP) had begun.
The weeks and months that followed were a flurry of new site planning including a retreat in Arizona, a visit from NWP colleagues to meet with our leadership team and campus administrators, a great deal of recruitment to pull together a cohort for the first summer institute that would happen in just a few months, and the realization that—as a new site director—I needed to provide both the practical, day-to-day guidance for the site as well as a long-term vision.
One of the first decisions that needed to be made was how our site, coming of age in the era of digital writing, would honor the principles of NWP while also attempting to innovate by connecting reading and writing, technology and teaching in new ways. The first digital imprint of this decision-making came with the decision to center our site’s work on a wiki.
I remember that particular moment distinctly. Peter Kittle and Bruce Penniman were our new site visiting team, and we sat around a table in the CMU Writing Center, thinking through the ways that we would represent CRWP’s web presence. My co-directors, Penny Lew and Liz Brockman, were eager to begin.
I immediately suggested a wiki. At the time, I didn’t consider it too radical. Organizing our site’s work, especially the summer institute, on a wiki, rather than with jam-packed binders seemed to make sense. This would be much better than having to go through the bureaucratic steps to upload something on the university’s official website; teacher-consultants could add to the site as they saw fit, and we could rely on the open architecture of the wiki as a way to organize our summer institute. Thus, on a Saturday morning in late February, both the technical and pedagogical beginnings of our writing project were born with a few clicks.
Little did I know that, in making this decision to house our work on a wiki, I would be presenting a framework for how our teachers collaborated in the summer institute, stayed connected to the site through continuity events, shared materials for professional development, and represented the public face of CRWP to the world. Since that first day, our wiki’s homepage has undergone 211 revisions, some significant, some minor. The wiki site itself has grown to include teaching demonstration pages from everyone who has gone through our summer institutes as well as countless workshop and conference presentation agendas, slideshows, handouts, and other materials.
At the time I am composing this blog post, in June 2014, there are 1,237 individual pages on the wiki, contributed by teacher-consultants and other visitors to our site. While we have also produced more traditional forms of scholarship,—such as articles, book chapters, and, with teacher-consultant Jeremy Hyler, a co-authored book, Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing and Learning with Digital Tools—by imagining our work for a wider public, and positioning teachers as knowledge makers and experts in their craft, our wiki has made CRWP’s work widely available and useful to other educators, at least to the tune of 26,796 unique visitors so far in 2014, with the largest number of hits coming right before and during our annual writing conference in late January.
Sitting in my car that November afternoon over five years ago, I never could have imagined that I would have been enriched even more by the National Writing Project, a network that had already fueled my graduate study and renewed my passion for teacher education. But, there it was, ready to be unwrapped: this gift of a new site.
Nearly speechless, I was barely able to utter, “Thank you, Sharon.”
“Thank you, Troy. See you in San Antonio in a few weeks.”
As we reflect on 40 years, I continue to be enriched and encouraged by NWP. We at CRWP have held four full invitational summer institutes, broadening our ranks to nearly 50 teachers, celebrating our 5th anniversary earlier this spring. Hundreds of others have been influenced by our workshops, conference presentations, and online presence. By continuing to make our work public and available through workshops, conferences, our wiki and, most recently, our new Teachers as Writers blog, my hope is that I have written NWP, and educators everywhere, a very public thank you note for this gift that I have been given.
Congratulations to the National Writing Project on four amazing decades, and thank you for what remains the best birthday present I have ever received.