Over my 36-year history with the National Writing Project, I have participated in a number of cross-site leadership teams for NWP initiatives. Each time I was so grateful (and surprised) to have been invited. It may just be nostalgia settling into my brain for a nice long visit, but for me, participating in the leadership team for two phases of the NWP’s National Reading Initiative (2003-2009) remains a powerful and sustaining experience.

We were fortunate to have inspiring leaders from NWP—Marci Resnick, Tanya Baker, and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl. For me, NRI also provided a lucky opportunity to reunite after many years with Judith Rodby from the Northern California Writing Project, who served as NRI project coordinator. In what seems like another lifetime, Judith and I had collaborated on literacy-education workshops for instructors at the Center for Employment Training, a multi-site job training program in California.

The leadership team for NRI, like other, similar groups, illustrated the NWP’s commitment to collaborative planning and diverse perspectives. We represented various sites and regions of the country, some of us bringing deep work with reading at different school levels, others of us experienced in youth/adult literacy or writing across the curriculum. And the participants from the nine lead sites were at least as impressive.

We gathered as a leadership team to design how the participating sites would explore reading in the content areas, focusing specifically on informational and expository texts, and ultimately create local and cross-site professional development models and resources. And yes, we did all that. Every participating NWP site conducted an inquiry project related to reading (and writing, of course) and shared their work at our cross-site meetings and through resources developed for the NWP network. We all learned so much from each other.

Much of this learning was influenced by Judith’s bold aspiration for the project: to seed a deep investigation into the purposes and politics of literacy. Thus we read and reflected on Elizabeth Moje’s “third space” scholarship describing how middle-grade students’ home and community knowledge intersected with or diverged from schools’ literacy practices. Boston Writing Project’s Stephen Gordon brought us Carol D. Lee’s work on culturally relevant teaching with urban youth. Judith brought us Tanya Baker’s work with Jeff Wilhelm, and Tanya, in turn, shared Jeff Wilhelm’s and Michael Smith’s then-recent study of boys’ literacy. Using Lave & Wenger’s work in situated learning as a touchstone, Judith refocused some of our discussions on the ways reading might support students’ interests both within and beyond school, where youth might see the necessity of reading in accomplishing “loved work,” as my colleague Elaine Avidon would say. Chicago’s Susan Kajiwara-Ansai and I led some workshops designed to explore “keywords” in the reading debates, using cultural critic Raymond Williams’s book as inspiration.

As we all know, writing and thinking are risk-taking enterprises, and our affiliation with the Writing Project enables us to struggle together in a group we can count on both to push and embrace.

Now all of this sounds tidier and more unified in retrospect than it was in the moment. Back then, I remember some tension: how could we stay focused on achieving the aims of the project while also complicating our thinking about why many students don’t or won’t read? What do teachers at our sites need or want, and is it situated learning? Through it all—at least in my memory of it—there was a sense of striving to articulate something just beyond our reach that united literacy practice with a justice framework about student opportunity and capacity. There we were: Writing Project site leaders and teacher-consultants from all over, picking up the threads again at each subsequent cross-site meeting, working collectively through some dissonance and discomfort, on ideas that we did not fully own and needed to explore. Indeed, many of the final products—workshop plans, PD resources, bibliographies, website writing—illustrated how sites had begun integrating some of NRI’s theoretical discussions into their work with teachers.

I can think of no other place in my professional life where I can expect to experience struggle and trust simultaneously, and where it’s hard to know at any moment which thing is a gift and which is a challenge. It’s what we all, as Writing Project people, provide for each other. As we all know, writing and thinking are risk-taking enterprises, and our affiliation with the Writing Project enables us to struggle together in a group we can count on both to push and embrace. Push-and-embrace, struggle-and-trust: this is what “community” means in my NWP.



WolfeMarcie Wolfe, a past director of the New York City Writing Project, is the executive director of the Institute for Literacy Studies at Lehman College, CUNY, and a coordinator of Lehman’s Writing Across the Curriculum program. In 1978, as an English teacher from the HS of Art & Design, she participated in the NYCWP’s first summer institute.

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