“How did I get here?”

It was a thought that both arrested and intrigued me just one month ago, on June 30, a day after getting off of a 19-hour flight from Chicago. I stepped into one of the air-conditioned training rooms at the English Language Institute in Singapore (ELIS) to begin two days of a Visiting Teaching Fellowship where I was to present on the teaching of writing to an audience of over 70 educators including both teachers and members of the Ministry of Education. This Fellowship Program preceded a 10-day Starter Writing Institute that I was going to facilitate as well for its 16 inaugural summer fellows.

As I opened my backpack to take out my laptop, my black moleskine writer’s notebook, my copy of The Essential Donald Murray, and a plastic purple portfolio of handouts describing everything from writing process to writing assessment, both fear and excitement gripped me. I was glad to feel the cool air that helped tame the sudden hot flash.

I wasn’t the only one in the room feeling this same mix of hope and doubt. Vara Durai, a Master Teacher for ELIS, sat in the audience ready to see the result of months and months of her own Fulbright Award research, writing, and traveling to learn about NWP and determining its feasibility in Singapore. Her Fulbright brought her to the University of Maryland where she was mentored by Dr. Joseph McCaleb, Site Director for the University of Maryland Writing Project. After her initial hour-long conversation over tea with Joseph, Vara had left with her “mind buzzing with one big idea—if we wanted to impact students’ writing, we needed teachers to write!”

This one big idea propelled Vara into the NWP network where she met teachers such as Troy Bradbury, Michelle McGee, and Megan Purcell of Eleanor Roosevelt High School who brought their summer institute experience into their classrooms. She soon also connected with Joye Alberts and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl who guided her through the process of becoming a Writing Project site. Back in Singapore, after further conversations and studies, she was encouraged by the ELIS Principal, Mrs. Wai Yin Pryke, to return and attend a Summer Institute with their program director, Dr. May Yin Tay. This led them to Chicago where our paths crossed at the 2013 CAWP Summer Institute. Vara recalled her first writing entry and reflected on her summer institute experience:

I have little light of my own. It will have to be borrowed light. But reflect light, I must, if I want to matter. Because if all were darkness, if my darkness matched the darkness around me, then how will I be seen? How will I be real? I need to catch a little bit of light first. I could start with just a little—with one spot of kindness, one drop of forgiveness, one shard of grudge released.

May Yin and I were there, at the 2013 Summer Institute Plus of the Chicago Area Writing Project (CAWP), because many helping hands had laid down stepping stones—Wai Yin who was willing to try small; Joye and Elyse who had helped us look for sites that would fit our schedule; Barbara Kato who had adopted us, found us a place to live, and carried an assortment of goods from her home to our dorm—printer, forks, toilet paper, rugs, blankets, a television! And Roel, who facilitated a transformative experience for 10 teachers for 10 magical days.

After their own summer institute experience, Vara and May Yin were determined to share it with teachers in Singapore. In this, they were again helped by the NWP network when Joye put them in touch with Tom Meyer from the Hudson Valley Writing Project. Tom was on sabbatical in Singapore at the time and was able to consult and advise on interviewing and selecting the inaugural summer institute fellows.

Vara and May Yin’s journey to bring NWP to Singapore brought me there. Many people from NWP were a part of this journey, and not just the people Vara and May Yin had direct contact with. As easily as Writing Project travels over the ocean, it travels over time and space. As my fears and doubts surfaced before I began my work in Singapore, I was immediately encouraged by the voice of my own summer institute teacher and CAWP founder Betty Jane (BJ) Wagner saying, “Be Bold!” which were the first words she told me and my summer institute classmates 10 years ago as we began our own transformative journey into our own writing. And as the group opened their notebooks and took up their pens, those were the same words I shared with them. These were the words that guided our writing and our conversations about the potential and possibilities for a new culture of writing for teachers and students. I remember looking out on the group and saying to myself, “Welcome to Singapore, BJ! Welcome to Singapore, NWP!”

Out of our efforts to be bold with writing, our Starter Writing Institute group composed this poem through a process inspired by BJ:

Clouds still drifting…
Silence is such inner peace
Calmness in the sea of thoughts
Happiness is contentment
Jingles shatter the silence
There’s no rest for the weary.
I am like clothes on a clothesline.
A cat on the hot tin roof
Wind like the puffing engine
A seed blown away to bloom
Life choices at a junction
After long journey, unpack.
Sunrise sunset they connect
It’s the start of a new tribe.

Signapore ELIS Summer InstituteI remember stepping back to watch the 16 participants marvel at their creation. “It’s beautiful!” said one. “I didn’t know we could do this!” said another. One asked in reflection, “How did we get here? How did this piece get here?” As a group, we had devoted time to prewriting heuristics and strategies for revision. We examined writer’s craft techniques. But at this memorable moment that strengthened the bond of this group and our belief in the power of writing, I knew that all of us and this piece got here, quite simply, by being bold.

Anyone who leads the summer institute hopes to recreate the magic of his or her own writing experience. I have learned that there is less that I have to do to recreate rather than to allow—to allow time, to allow risks, to allow discovery. Given this special time in this special place, I allowed writing and teaching and the spirit of NWP to take place. It was this spirit that led to this final reflection by Vara:

16 July 2014. It was Day 10 of the Starter Writing Institute 2014 and we sat in a circle, listening as first then another teacher read out one of the two pieces of writing they had worked on for the past two weeks. We listened to words of sadness, wonder, determination, strength. For the first time I saw teachers still lingering at the end of a professional development activity, still talking, comparing notes, having to be shooed out. They didn’t want it to end, they didn’t want to let go of the experience, or of each other.

From Berkeley, CA to College Park, MD to Chicago, IL, to Singapore, there is a magic that happens. It happens when teachers reach inside themselves and tell their stories, when teachers demonstrate lessons and tell each other “try this.” When teachers experience themselves as writers.

This is the power and magic of One Big Idea.


RoelVivit_NWP Roel Vivit is the co-founder and director of Academics at Polaris Charter Academy, the first Expeditionary Learning School in Chicago. Prior to founding Polaris Charter Academy, Roel taught middle school for nine years in the Chicago Catholic Schools. He is co-director and teacher-consultant for the Chicago Area Writing Project (CAWP). He received the Heart of the School “Rising Star” award (2001) given to emerging school leaders by the Archdiocese of Chicago, as well as the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching (2005).
Vara Hariharan Vara Hariharan taught English Literature at high school level for 20 years, before joining the Ministry of Education, Singapore, where she served as a Senior Curriculum Specialist. Currently, Vara is a Master Teacher with the English Language Institute of Singapore and she designs and conducts professional development courses for teachers. Her interest in the NWP grew while she was in the U.S. in 2012, as a recipient of the Distinguished Fulbright Award for Teachers.

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