There are so many stories I could tell of my twenty years with NWP: losing power on my first day of directing a summer institute in a room without windows, sitting next to Mary Ann Smith at my first professional writing retreat, my first Maker Faire with Patty Koller, but instead of focusing on beginnings, I’d rather concentrate on continuing. In a time of data-driven decisions and teacher effectiveness ratings, of pension revamping and scripted instruction, of incessant testing and corporate–driven “reform”, the philosophy of the National Writing Project keeps me in the classroom and fosters my resilience.

I’ve written before of a particularly cantankerous low ability 8th grade class I had a few years back. Whoever invented tracking thought it would make teaching students like this easier but obviously never tried it. The kids took a look around them, gathered they were a lost cause, and so decided to live up to that expectation. They were very good at it. So good, in fact, that few of my predecessors really tried to teach them. They were given workbooks to keep them quiet and to assuage guilt when their test scores didn’t improve.

When I got this class, they had spent the previous two years together doing as they pleased with the exception of those workbook pages. In fact, they liked them. Where you and I would find these exercises mind-numbing, they clamored for them. There wasn’t a lot to read or think about. You didn’t have to write more than a sentence in response to any question. There were definite right and wrong answers. They begged me for them when I told them they would be reading full-length books and writing essays, stories, and the like instead.

You’d think that they’d jump at the chance to choose what to read and write about, but when you believe that you’re overmatched before you start, choice is scary. Instead, they complained, misbehaved, and generally made me want to pull my hair out. I’d been teaching for over twenty years and discipline had never been an issue before. I’d been a teacher-consultant (TC) for almost as long and taught graduate courses. I was no babe in the woods. I’d seen how authentic reading and writing transformed teachers and students alike, but it wasn’t working with them.

A few teachers in my building urged me to just give in and give them workbooks. Why give yourself the headache? Luckily, I had far more NWP colleagues urging me to stay the course. Whether at my local Writing Project site or over drinks at various NWP meetings, many friends listened to me lament and affirmed what I knew in my heart to be true, that though true reading and writing may be daunting, the only way to get better at them is to actually read and write.

As the year progressed, though the grousing continued (both mine and theirs), it did diminish as did the off-task behavior. Each library trip, book selection was less tiresome. They began advising each other which authors to read. Arguing about having to read turned into arguing about what they had read. Each writing assignment saw them less miserly with their words and more willing to reconsider earlier drafts. “Can you listen to this?” was asked more frequently as spring approached. By the end of the year, most students were much better readers and writers. None had passed the state reading test the year before. More than half of them did as eighth graders. Two-thirds had moved up at least one quartile, and several jumped up two. One girl vaulted from the lowest to the highest tier.

None of this would have been possible without this amazing support system. When we go to DC each spring to educate legislators about our work, we always highlight the importance of the infrastructure that the National Writing Project provides—networks and initiatives like Digital Is, Urban and Rural Sites—but it’s also the philosophy that undergirds all of our work that matters too. To stay with the infrastructure metaphor, if these networks are the highways and railroads that allow us to share ideas across the country, then choice, authentic audiences, teacher as writer, these are the bricks and mortar that they are made of. We stand on the shoulders of Britton, Murray, Emig et al, but also those of Jim Gray and those who started the Bay Area Writing Project forty years ago.

Much is made of resilience and grit in student learning today, but it’s just as important in teachers too. Who knows where the next forty years will take us as an organization, but as long as we stay true to the principles that guide us, we’re sure to show the grit that has sustained us so far.

Judy JesterJudy Jester has taught 8th grade English for twenty-eight years in the Kennett Consolidated School District. She’s a co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University and blogs with two colleagues at Third and Rosedale. She can be found on Twitter as @judyjester.