NWP means the world to us. Literally. As three leaders in the Red River Valley Writing Project, located in what was once the tall grass prairie region of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, we know the isolation that comes from long winters and a sparsely populated region. Through RRVWP, we connect to each other and to a larger world. We each have a small story about what the NWP means to us—Nancy Devine, our “writer-in-residence,” Pam Fisher, our co-director and outreach coordinator, and Kelly Sassi, our new director.

As a published poet, Nancy’s NWP has writing at its center:

Because I’m part of the Red River Valley Writing Project, I’m part of this network of like-minded teachers who write both personally and professionally to become better writers and teachers. This is absolutely the most important part of NWP for me, because it enables me to grow as a teacher. Without this connection, I would be isolated and unaware of important professional development, in effect stagnant, or worse, burned out.

I want NWP to focus more on helping teachers, and, therefore students, write well. I think this means more emphasis on revision—what is really what writing is—and less on text generation. While I understand the importance of generating text, I think good writing—great writing—is borne of revision, which to me, means work on both the clarity and style appropriate to any given piece. In this, revision is not just a thing done to a piece of writing but rather thought so intense and powerful, it seems aerobic.

As co-director in charge of outreach (and full-time high school Spanish teacher), Pam Fisher is all about putting teachers in touch with the center that Nancy described:

My work with the Red River Valley Writing Project has caused me to develop a new, more sophisticated stance towards teaching and learning—a stance that has propelled me to read professional literature about teaching and learning, made me hungry to search out best practices in literacy, and eager to have conversations with other informed professionals. This stance has led me to an increased commitment to writing and revision as well as a passion for teaching and learning in ALL subject areas, not just my own.

As part of my work with the RRVWP, I have been responsible for designing and delivering a variety of professional development sessions for our new fellows and current members. This work requires me to dig deep to explore what I want participants to learn, and more importantly, how I am going to move that learning along.

I have come to realize through my rich experience with the RRVWP that we teachers must have the same engaging, productive learning experiences that students do. Teachers as learners need to be thoroughly engaged in learning and act on that learning through writing, talk, drama, and visualization, not through lecture. We need to be put in the same psychological seat as our students and experience strategies and learning activities to see the power they have with students. We need to be forced to think and be outside our comfort zone the same as we ask of students every day. And, as a step further, teachers must not only learn strategies and learning activities, but also understand the need for theory to undergird instruction.

In short, my NWP has made me a significantly better teacher of students as well as of other teachers.

Our director, Kelly Sassi, takes a perspective that is wider yet. After 40 years of living out West, up in Alaska, and in eastern Michigan, she returned to Fargo, her birthplace. A social justice researcher, she is concerned about the 43-point achievement gap between Native American and white students in the state, and the way some students are segregated from others.

To me, NWP is a means to do the work that really matters with the teaching and learning of writing. For example, we were fortunate to partner with the other Writing Project site in our state on a SEED grant for a high-needs school, which funded a year-long intensive writing institute with 12 teachers who work entirely with Native American students.

A brief story from this institute will illustrate the difference our NWP can make. Early on, one teacher related a story of working with students’ writing. When she saw the students’ first writing assignment, she was so upset by the low level of writing, that she marked all over their papers to correct the errors she saw. Because this experience was so frustrating, she didn’t assign another writing assignment. Instead, she worked mainly on reading. Other teachers in the institute encouraged her to try again, to engage her students in some other kinds of writing. At first she refused, but with support she began to experiment, and by the end of the school year, she was seeing some promising writing from her students. At one of our last meetings as a writing institute, she testified with the strong beliefs of a new convert—writing WAS important to do with her students; she COULD see improvement; and she would NEVER go back to NOT having her students write. This teacher’s transformation made a difference with the students she came into contact with that year, and will continue to make a difference with future students. Not every teacher we work with changes so dramatically, but every teacher is transformed in important ways.

In all three of our stories, collaboration and community are an important part of NWP, a much-needed antidote to the isolation we sometimes feel. Writing, honestly, is often done alone—Nancy writes poetry on her farm, far away from other people—but teaching writing brings us together, to share, model, question, analyze, and network. NWP makes it all possible.

Kelli Sassi-Our NWP Kelli Sassi is the director of the Red River Valley Writing Project and an associate professor of English and education at North Dakota State University.
Nancy Devine Nancy Devine teaches high school language arts in Grand Forks, North Dakota and is the writer-in-residence of the Red River Valley Writing Project (RRVWP).
Pamela Fisher Pam Fisher teaches high school Spanish in Grand Forks, North Dakota and is a part-time instructor at the University of North Dakota. She is currently the Co-Director of the Red River Valley Writing Project, in charge of outreach and continuity, and co-facilitates the RRVWP’s Summer Institute.