Learning, for me, at its best moment, is connected to play. And I do not mean “play” in a free spirited or anything goes, trivial sense. I mean focused, forget-what-time-it-is, completely-engaged-in-an-idea kind of play: the kind of play that Vygotsky or Dewey or Csikszentmihalyi write about. We often forget this connection between play and learning or create structures in educational contexts that get in the way of the enjoyment we get from learning. Often, we have to imagine something we learned to do outside of school—bake, play guitar, restore old cars—before we can remember that learning should not be a chore. So, speaking as an adult who still likes video games and a big crate of Legos, it is no surprise to me that I fell in love with the way the National Writing Project works, or better, with the way the NWP plays.

Often, we have to imagine something we learned to do outside of school—bake, play guitar, restore old cars—before we can remember that learning should not be a chore. So, it is no surprise to me that I fell in love with the way NWP works, or better, with the way the NWP plays.

I first encountered the ways of the NWP in the Northern California Writing Project’s Summer Institute in 2001. Tom Fox was the director at that time and he immediately set the tone as one of rigor and of play. We would work hard, but we would have a lot of freedom in how we constructed that work. We would do challenging reading, writing, and talking, but we would be supported by the familiar rituals of the summer institute: presenting in the morning, talking over food, writing and reading in the summer shade, and all the while laughing, and sometimes crying, as we shared stories of students, teaching, and our personal lives.

One of the biggest lessons I learned that summer was how much I could benefit from the experience of elementary school teachers. I teach college, so it might be easy to assume only challenges in implementing ideas to my classroom from a kindergarten classroom, for example. But elementary school teachers get the idea of play, and inquiry, and developing curiosities at their core; they live it every day, coming up with incredibly creative ways to engage students and ways to build off students’ interests. That summer, in 2001, I met Kathy Wainwright, a now retired first-grade teacher. I watched in awe as she shared her student writing, incredibly rich writing that arose from the stories she read like Strega Nona. I saw how her 7 year-old students, completely engaged in their reading and writing lives, asked for “their idea conference,” “their feedback conference,” or “their editing conference.” Her students knew what they needed as writers, knew how to ask, and knew how to maintain a playful and rigorous attitude toward literacy. It was nothing less than stunning. When the pre-service teachers I work with sometimes worry about what “kids can do,” I simply share the stories and practices I have witnessed from elementary school teachers in the Writing Project. And I tell them that kids and teachers can do anything.

It’s hard to believe that my first summer institute took place thirteen years ago. And since then, I returned to study the NWP for my dissertation, and eventually co-directed the summer institute with an amazing colleague, Amanda Von Kleist, in recent summers. There are a thousand memories rolled up in those various roles, but the common thread is this amazing gift of time to play—with ideas, with lesson plans, with writing, and the best part of all, playing with fellow teachers who support, challenge, and laugh alongside me.

I have an easier time telling my story of the NWP through image. So, in the video below from the NCWP’s Summer Institute in 2010, I’ve tried to capture the life of a summer institute in a snapshot. I am grateful for the playful and meaningful experience that is the National Writing Project.



JaxonKim Jaxon is an assistant professor of English (Composition & Literacy) at California State University, Chico, a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project, and a curator for Digital Is. Her research interests focus on theories of literacy, particularly digital literacies, participation, classroom design, game theories, and teacher education. In her research and teaching, she uses a variety of digital platforms and considers the affordances in terms of student learning and participation. She’s also a gamer and a self proclaimed geek.

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