When I think about the National Writing Project, the image that comes to mind is a small group of teachers talking and listening to one another as they share their questions and as they imagine possibilities. This image highlights teachers in conversation, creating and cultivating relationships, tackling something that’s confusing or difficult or filled with tension. It’s an image of people whose work lives are filled with constant decisions and dilemmas, and yet, there they are—taking the time to pause together.

In her book The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life, Mary Rose O’Reilley argues that teaching is a “contemplative practice.” “Contemplative pedagogy,” she writes, “has to do with focused attention, silence, hospitality, and humility, and so my questions generally have to do with our experience of these ways of being” (p. vii). It’s a pedagogy that I recognize as a National Writing Project practice, because contemplation has been central to my experiences within our NWP community.

Focused Attention

O’Reilley writes about contemplation as “a radical exercise” (xiii), and I think the practice of taking time with colleagues to focus our attention on students and their work might be the most radical practice we can engage in together. We pay close attention to ourselves, to our students, to larger contexts, and to the connections and relationships between them.

One NWP space where this is practiced is in our Teacher Inquiry Communities. In these communities we suspend our judgment, and we begin with our observations. We can see a recent example of this in Writing and Teaching to Change the World, where teachers in an inquiry community from the Red Clay Writing Project each focus on one vulnerable student over the course of the school year. They pay close attention to students and to themselves. Stephanie Jones explains:

We decided to open ourselves, to see what we might have been afraid of, to look again at ourselves and others, to relieve ourselves of the pain of separateness (e.g., Boler, 1999) we may not have even realized had captured us into a pattern of seeing and being that might have been too certain…we stumbled into new fears, new vulnerabilities, and new uncertainties—all spaces fertile for powerful change” (pp. 13-14).

By focusing our attention and sharing what we notice, we create a chance to offer multiple interpretations and possibilities. Our focused attention creates an opportunity for fostering change in us and for others.

Silence

Often, I get in my own way. A few semesters ago, for example, I kept frustrating a student, and she kept frustrating me. We talked past one another, and it took almost ten weeks for me to stop trying to be “right.” I had to re-learn something I learned talking with seventh grade writers 20 years ago: be silent, listen, and try to understand.

Katherine Shultz writes about trying to understand silence not as good or bad, but as a form of participation. O’Reilley would agree. “Allow some space and silence in your classroom,” O’Reilly writes, “and watch how everything changes—everything is up for grabs, your whole life” (p. xiv).

When I started to listen to the student who frustrated me, I modeled a new way for her to participate. We still had many bumps along the way, but the silence we started to share changed the frustration into an inquiry. I learned this from NWP teachers when we share silence during “sacred writing time” or when we take turns demonstrating our teaching practices or any of the number of times we think together.

Hospitality

O’Reilley also writes about the ability to “inhabit paradox” and “to resist certainty—to live the questions” (p. 47). This reminds me that hospitality is an action and a stance that we practice in the NWP. When we share food and drink with one another, it reflects the care and connection we seek. When we share our teaching and writing, we invite one another into our slice of the world.

This reminds me that hospitality is an action and a stance that we practice in the NWP.

At the Boise State Writing Project we are fortunate because during each invitational summer institute we are able to retreat for a weekend at a beautiful site a couple of hours away from Boise. We sleep in yurts and cabins, share meals and demos and writing, make time to laugh and swap meaningful songs, build campfires and tell tales under the stars.

We also invite one another into our professional lives through our demonstration lessons and our learning autobiographies. We share experiences that have shaped us as learners and as teachers. We take the vulnerable step of sharing our flops and failures, inviting others to connect with us. The hospitality makes it ok to sit with the paradoxes, ambiguity, and questions we face professionally.

Humility

As a beginning teacher, I was humble. I knew I didn’t have “the” answers. There was a point though, maybe year 8 or 9 of my teaching career, where I felt like I had things figured out. I might have even said something like this to a new teacher, “Oh, we’ve tried that already and it didn’t work.” Even as I uttered the statement, I was embarrassed, and I knew then that it was time to learn something that would challenge me. Months later, I saw a flier for an Illinois Writing Project summer institute, and it was there I was introduced to the NWP.

It was that summer when I experienced the NWP rituals, structures, language, and ideas that widened my professional network and fostered a belief that teaching could be a contemplative practice. I learned how not to hoist my advice on others and how not to try to persuade colleagues that I was right. Instead, I learned how to be a thinking partner, which required the humility it takes to learn and to understand.

My NWP story is that I am one of those teachers, sitting in a small group, talking and listening to one another, sharing questions and imagining possibilities.

My NWP story is that I am one of those teachers, sitting in a small group, talking and listening to one another, sharing questions and imagining possibilities. It’s a story of others’ generosity and my gratitude.

It’s an ongoing story of practicing the ways of being that make the contemplative practice of teaching a radical exercise and the role of being a teacher a hopeful profession where growth and change are possible and valued.



FredricksenJim Fredricksen is an Associate Professor of English at Boise State University and the Co-Director of the Boise State Writing Project.

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