With regard to professional development in general, I’m neither an optimist nor a cheerleader. I choose to participate in professional organizations based on the degree to which I see their work positively supporting real teachers and real kids in a variety of contexts all across America. That said, I am excited to write about the National Writing Project, because my decade-long relationship with NWP—at my local site and nationally—has been unfailingly inspiring. This organization offers the smartest and most effective model of professional development that I’ve come across in my 30 years in the profession.

For the better part of two weeks now, I’ve struggled with my own form of writer’s block (let’s call it “self-editor’s nausea”) because I’ve written and spoken about NWP before and I wanted this paean to offer a different look, a fresh take on why NWP means so much to me. But when I cut to the core of why I’m so impressed with the organization, it always comes down to the simple fact that the success of NWP’s PD model rests on the shoulders of the people who do the work. The goal is to facilitate first-rate instruction every day for every kid who attends school in America, and the people affiliated with the Writing Project’s national network work tirelessly and intelligently to improve the opportunities available for all students. Not surprisingly, the organization attracts and retains the most dedicated and innovative teachers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working.

So I’ve said it again: it’s all about the people.

I’ll offer a brief example here, even though the “people” involved includes me. In September of 2005, Michelle Ohanion, then Chair of NWP’s ELL Network Leadership Team, called me at home on a Saturday morning. We knew each other from a couple of ELL Network Writing Retreats and we caught up briefly. As with much that happens in the NWP network, Michelle was at home in Virginia while I live in Colorado. She got to the point quickly and asked if I’d consider serving a 3-year term as a member of the ELL Leadership Team. Surprised and a little embarrassed, I reminded her “Michelle, I’m happy to help, but I don’t teach ELL; I teach English. I don’t feel qualified to contribute intelligently to the team’s work.” Michelle, having done her homework, countered “Your teaching ELL doesn’t matter one way or another, so don’t worry about that. We’re interested in your willingness and ability to advocate for kids and in your administrative skills.” I agreed to serve, and the next week began an enlightening and inspiring three- or four-year stint as a member of the team. (After I hung up, I thought to myself “Administrative skills? That’s the first time I’ve been accused of that.” But I’ll leave that topic for another blog entry.)

My point in citing our exchange is simply to illustrate that NWP seeks teacher-leaders who care, people who are willing to go the extra mile (or occasionally, marathon) in the effort to help other educators help their students. As far as I can tell 13 years into this Writing Project work, there is no glamour, fortune, or fame to be gained through working with NWP. This is an organization comprised—at all levels—of devoted, innovative, and indefatigable educators, willing to do whatever is necessary to help just because it’s the right thing to do.

This is an organization comprised – at all levels – of devoted, innovative and indefatigable educators, willing to do whatever necessary to help just because it’s the right thing to do.

(I have to confess that the pessimist in me can’t understand why I get to hang out and work with these people. I feel like I’m back in second grade and the substitute teacher mistakenly placed me in the reading group with the smart kids. I am still waiting to be busted. But I’ll leave that for yet another blog.)

My relationship with NWP began in 2002, when I participated in my first summer institute. That initial experience with the Denver Writing Project remains the single most exhilarating professional development achievement of my career. The variety of voices and genres, the quality of presentations and everyone’s willingness to risk sharing some part of their own story inspired me as teacher and as a writer. I remain good friends with several participants in that 2002 cohort, as I do with other colleagues within NWP’s national network. Quite literally, the exposure to NWP principles and practices changed the way I think about instruction and completely restored my faith in the possibilities inherent in professional development. Not surprisingly, I’ve stuck around ever since (not busted yet), and accepted an opportunity to begin working with others within the larger NWP network the next summer. I learn more about effective teaching every time I interact with NWP participants and I’ve had the pleasure of working with—and watching present—dozens of NWP members in dozens of venues over the last 13 years. Each opportunity to interact with the organization has been enlightening, largely because the people involved (I call them “NWP-types”) carry with them enthusiasm for our goals that seems to me born of and tempered by the complex realities in America’s schools. It might be more clear to say that many of the best minds in our country are busy at work building the future, one day and one child a time. That’s a pretty noble endeavor—to my mind, among the greatest things a person can do with his or her career. And I get to work with these people.

Over the years (sometimes I’m a slow learner), I’ve come to recognize some of the elements that attract folks to NWP and keep them coming back. The organizational plan is simple, ingenious and almost unique in my experience. Where else, and especially on such a large scale, can we find an organization that has held strongly for so long to the idea that “teachers teaching teachers” affords the most authentic and long-lasting professional development? That writing should be at the center of student learning? These basic, core ideas are neither catchy nor particularly cute; they are instead smart, effective, and sustainable. I mentioned earlier that I’m not much of a cheerleader, and the simple reason why I’ve stuck with NWP for the past 13 years is that the network offers real educational practices, tested and revised in real classrooms in front of real students by really bright, professional educators.

Again, it’s all about the people.

One of the most helpful aspects of my involvement with NWP—and an aspect that is available to anyone who has 60 seconds to set up an online account at NWP.org—is that I can get intelligent, research-based, classroom-tried and revised answers and helpful techniques from hundreds of colleagues across the country on virtually any educational topic I or my students or colleagues need. Just as sharing strategies or lessons with in-building colleagues, NWP members nationwide—including experts in just about every issue in our profession—are quick to share whatever they can that will help teachers and students.

In the current cutthroat and often unethical educational climate in America, where big money and often over-emphasized test scores seem to matter more than kids and their teachers, NWP’s approach to professional development and support of educators—in all grades and in all subjects—is invaluable. I feel fortunate to be part of the organization and to contribute as I can.

ArgysRichard Argys is a veteran of 24 years teaching high school English and humanities and currently teaches English Education and writing at the University of Colorado Denver and Co-Directs the Denver Writing Project. He has been involved with DWP since 2002, and served on NWP’s ELL Leadership Team.