Two factors delayed my initiation into the National Writing Project: I never wanted to be a teacher; I am not a joiner. When I was a kid, the teachers I had didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves. I remember a strong emphasis on discipline, on sitting up straight and paying attention, on making the most of your time because school was so important. Teachers knew things. They had emerged from the grind into positions of ever-vigilant authority. Teachers were taskmasters: they put us through our paces, kept us in line, kept the line straight…. Teaching looked so serious. An organization of teachers sounded downright oppressive.

When I finally came to my senses, concluded that my athletic skills would not carry me to the big leagues, that my verbal skills were no guarantee of a best seller, when I realized that I had to make a living (!), teaching turned out to be more enjoyable than I ever imagined. I thought teachers had to have the answers, but that was a mistake. When I started teaching I learned to value good questions. If I came with curiosity, shared it with the group, invited them to ask questions, too, school could be pretty engaging.

I was several years into my teaching career, sitting with a group of teachers in Stillwater, OK, participating in the Oklahoma State University Writing Project Summer Institute, when this insight—that the best teachers come to class to learn—hit me. I had joined thinking that the Writing Project was about writing, but that was a mistake. Teaching is the focus. What is good teaching? That question energizes every summer institute. We share two assumptions: that writing, from discovering what we know to reporting what we learn, is elemental to the search for answers; that the search, not the answer, is the thing.

OSUWP and the national network have been my refuge as I worked through my questions during a teaching career that has lasted more than a quarter century.

OSUWP and the national network have been my refuge as I worked through my questions during a teaching career that has lasted more than a quarter century now. My colleagues have helped me think of myself as a teacher, to recognize the many talents and resources students bring to class, how to leverage students’ interests, curiosity, and abilities to create learning experiences. I have been co-director of the OSUWP Summer Institute for at least the last ten years, but I don’t keep count. I come back every summer to read, write, speak, and listen as teachers reflect on what happened in class last semester and speculate about what we want to try next time.

The Writing Project makes me a better teacher.

The Writing Project makes me a better teacher. The summer institute enabled me to exchange ideas with Joye Alberts, Britton Gildersleeve, Pat Mumford, Annie Ortiz, Lisa Ummel-Ingram, Dewayne Dickens, Shanedra Nowell, Sylvia Muse, Mary Jane Fahey, Eileen Simmons, Lauren Skarvla, Kyle Peaden…. I have to stop when I’m just getting started and that’s only a tiny sample of my Oklahoma network, classroom teachers all, full of wisdom and wit.

And if I hadn’t done the summer institute I would never have met the late Marcie Resnick, or Vanessa Brown, or Nanci Mintz, or Astra Cherry, or Pam Morgan, or Carrie Usui, or Amy Schrader, or Tomas Moniz, or Chris Tsang, or Steve Gordon, or Linda Christensen, or Katie Kline, or Judy Buchanan, or Sharon Washington, or Don McQuade, or Steve Fox, or Tom Fox, or Pat Fox, or…. But you get the idea, and you understand that I couldn’t possibly list all the teacher-consultants who have questioned and tutored and nurtured and invigorated me since I joined the National Writing Project. I’m proud to include myself in their number.

Ben Bates-NWPBen Bates has worked to help inner-city, low-income students develop academic skills and gain access to colleges and universities. He became a National Writing Project teacher-consultant at Oklahoma State University in 1997 and has participated in a variety of NWP activities, including the summer institute (Co-director), the African American Learners Project, and the Urban Sites Network Leadership Team.