Forty years of National Writing Project? Wow. It seems such a short time ago…

Almost 20 years ago—half a lifetime for NWP—I was accepted to the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. Everything since that summer pivots on that moment. Before? Tentative movements, lack of resources and community, an inability to articulate what was wrong. After? The universe. Standard life-changing event, that’s my NWP.

I was lucky when I first entered a classroom. I knew from the start that my familiarity with writing, with journalism, with literature, didn’t mean I could teach. In fact, it quickly became evident that I knew squat-all about teaching. So I applied to the National Writing Project Summer Institute in my area, the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. I figured I could trade what I did know—writing—for pedagogy. IF they’d trade.

I was terrified they would reject me—I needed them! And all I had to offer was…poetry? So I asked the people who knew my teaching (or lack thereof) to write me glowing recs. I sent in an activity I did in my classes. I wrote a (frankly begging) letter. And wonder of life-changing wonders: they let me join.

That summer was a frantic one—I had a fellowship to Oxford for a month, to write, and be part of a professional colloquy. I returned the day before SI began. Most folks, hearing ‘Oxford,’ and ‘The Bodleian Library,’ would assume that the professional development I received that month in Oxford outshone the 5 weeks in Stillwater, Oklahoma. They would be wrong: OSUWP Summer Institute was the sun, Oxford a paler moon.

Because during those brain-overload weeks at SI, I became a teacher. I also became a teacher of writing, something most folks would think a published writer, an award-winning writer, would know how to do. Again, they would be wrong.

Because during those brain-overload weeks at Summer Institute, I became a teacher.

Being able to do something—even well—means nothing if you can’t reach and motivate students to do it. If you can’t sequence assignments for success. If you don’t know how to build classroom community and create a space to share, to be vulnerable. If you can’t build that space so that learning curves are free to show (your own included). All of these I first began to learn that summer at Writing Project.

But what was most important—what has woven an increasingly bright and wide ribbon through my life’s tapestry—was the community I entered. Community: that’s my NWP. It’s where I learned that research is more than a book or an article. It’s also the unanswered question in a classroom, the social problem that seems too large to tackle. It’s a new technology, the dissonance of that outlier kid in the back, and narrative strategies for my own writing. It’s Heideggerian (and NWP also gave me the confidence, as a writer, to make up words): teaching, and writing, and the teaching of writing, are like Heidegger’s hammer. You learn them in the doing, not the contemplation. You can look at a classroom, read about it, sit in it, and talk about it all you like. But none of that is much like teaching. Just like talking about writing isn’t much like doing it.

The other life-changing piece of my NWP? Learning how critical that sense of community is, how necessary it is that we are friends before we share fragile thoughts and feelings. How can I reveal the vulnerability that learning requires if I don’t trust you? Writing Project taught me that if we build community in any group—a reading group, a classroom, a non-profit, or a company—we are far closer than half-way to any goal. Today, as a result of that community-building, most of my best friends are NWP: teachers of all demographics, all ages, all subjects. We share common values, and we know that writing is key in each of them: education, equity, social justice, the humanities.

Professional development is a buzz-word, and certainly that’s part of ‘my’ NWP. PD has always been popular as a cure-all, even when it was merely a drive-by 2-hour lecture. But the experience means zip if there’s no ‘personal’ development, as well. If there’s no connection, no relationship. If—as with students in too many classrooms—there’s no mutual respect and trust. Teaching (perhaps especially the teaching of cynical, often-disappointed adults) is about relationships. And building those relationships is hard. Thankfully, I had (and have) NWP.

If you haven’t stood in front of a class—any age, any subject—and tried to focus that multi-headed hydra on a single topic and/or goal, you have no credibility when you talk education reform. At least not to me, and not to most other classroom teachers. And no, it doesn’t matter that once you were a student. Or that you have children in the system. Each of these, while legitimate positions, is quite different from facing 40+ high school students, trying to teach writing. Or 25 little-bitties under the age of 6 who all need you STAT.

Writing Project opened my life to everything from the teaching of those little-bitties (teaching poetry to a 2nd grader!) to presenting at a national conference w/ the best teachers in the country. It’s given me the confidence to send off manuscripts, to pursue my doctorate, to write grants, to confront political bullies. It’s brought me friends and fulfillment, publication, fees for workshops, and great happiness.

So what’s my NWP? It’s all of this: teaching, community, PD, writing, learning, research. It’s a national organization that took a chance on a non-teacher who only had some writing credits to barter for a lifetime of friends, travel, writing, and incredible professional conversation. I owe you big time, NWP.

GildersleeveBritton Gildersleeve is Director Emerita of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, in Stillwater, OK. She also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Humanities Council. Gildersleeve spent her childhood and adolescence in Southeast Asia, which she thinks explains a lot. She has three chapbooks, and blogs at