NWP = Magical Kingdom

  Guest Post by Jan Sabin, Site Director Upper Peninsula Writing Project

The NWP Helps Rural Teachers and Students Find Their Voices


Please don’t ever make me sing the rainbow song!  That was a statement I made years ago at my first National Writing Project conference. I was a second grade teacher serving as a co-director of the Upper Peninsula Writing Project. I had been in the classroom for 20 years and had spent many hours sitting on the rug with seven-year-olds singing silly songs. It was not something I wanted to do at a NWP conference in a roomful of adults. I was there to find out how our site could provide experiences for our area teachers that would keep them connected and build a professional network.

So, how did I end up as a co-director of this writing project?  A class full of young learners was enjoyable but I needed more if I were to continue to grow as a learner, too. With a bit of nudging from a colleague, I applied for and was accepted into the Upper Peninsula Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute in 1997.

Those five weeks changed my whole world. I became a writer and a much deeper thinker about literacy and learning. And I kept coming back to UPWP functions; Saturday Sessions, summer retreats, spring kick-offs. I found my professional learning community and it felt good.

When changes in leadership happened, I was invited to step into the co-director role. Me?, I questioned. I was good at organizing and motivating teachers to take risks and participate in a write-around. I knew the important parts of a demonstration lesson and how to facilitate a meeting. I worked hard in my classroom providing real world lessons incorporating social studies and language arts. My second graders wrote sweet stories for writing workshop, and I took them to the Young Author’s conference. But what did I know about leading other teachers, especially high school English teachers?

Past UPWP Director Dr. Suzanne Standerford reminded me of the key principles of the NWP: that “to teach writing well, teachers must write themselves” and “teachers are often the best teachers of other teachers” along with “teachers must become and remain active members of a network of motivated, knowledgeable colleagues.” I had been doing all of these things. The NWP empowers teachers to look within themselves to learn how to improve their instruction and supports them in this process. It had empowered me!

In 2003, I accepted the role as co-director. Seven years later, leadership again changed and, out of loyalty, commitment and a deep sense of gratitude, I agreed to carry on as one of two of the site’s directors.

For the past eight Novembers,  I’ve had the privilege of traveling to a major city in the United States to gather with a special group of writers – educators from over 200 National Writing Project (NWP) sites. San Francisco, San Antonio, Nashville, Philadelphia, and other places have offered their rich landscapes and cultures as perfect settings. In 2010, Florida’s Walt Disney World was our host with over 1,400 teachers registered. NWP Executive Director Sharon Washington calls it “a culture of continuous learning.”

From the moment I enter the lobby of the hotel where the NWP’s Annual Meeting is held until the final session is attended, NWP’s magical synergy travels through me. Passionate talk about writing and reading and expanding thinking while learning new digital literacies
surrounds me. People with familiar faces reach out with hugs, and others with new smiles engage in dialogue on motivating young writers living in impoverished backgrounds and conversations on how to keep up with the technology our students are already using. Thoughtful planning of this three-day event connects various leadership networks. It is intentionally scheduled back-to-back with the National Council for the Teachers of English’s annual conference, too.

One might think a conference scheduled in Florida would allow a teacher to lie on the beach, basking in the sun. Not this conference! My first session looks at incorporating inquiry into teaching demonstrations. I’m intrigued. Finding new ways to offer guidance when coaching teachers in the delivery of their required lesson is something I have been exploring. Summer Institute participants often lack student work as evidence that a particular lesson resulted in expanded learning, or that it could use some tweaking for greater success. Four writing project sites shared their stories. My take away is that a demo needs to contain an inquiry question that pushes the teacher consultant to wonder: How do I know this is a successful lesson? What data do I have that shows this? What student work comes out of this? What does the research say about this practice? I look forward to digging deeper into integrating inquiry in our UPWP teaching demonstrations.

Next, I attend “Games for Education and Social Impact” led by Allen Gershenfeld, the founder and president of E-Line Media, a publisher of video games. Wow, he has my head spinning. Gershenfeld provides ten convincing reasons why video games teach storytelling (according to narratologists). I love his challenge: capture the motivation kids have for playing video games and funnel it into having them create original video games. This will naturally involve them in using and/or learning sophisticated 21st century reading and writing skills.

I collect flyers for the 2011 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards contest to pass on to our middle and high school teachers. (Later, three of our local Gwinn High School students receive silver key and honorable mention regional awards. Their teacher Amy Laitinen is a National Writing Project teacher!)

In previous years, I was a co-director sharing my leadership role with two other directors. This year, I attend sessions looking through a different lens, one that leaves me feeling a bit overwhelmed at times, that of a site director. Listening to other directors share their stories at the Leadership Transitions session gives me a greater sense of what tasks lie ahead for us as a Writing Project site and the leadership it will take to continually strengthen our site in improving the teaching of writing and learning in schools. Collaboration is key.

Accomplishing the work of a Writing Project takes a team of leaders. I am proud to say we brought eleven UPWP teacher consultants with us to Orlando. Our attendance is possible, partly, because the Upper Peninsula Writing Project, through local and federal grant monies, subsidizes expenses, and Northern Michigan University, along with our local school districts, realizes the value of this venture and supports us in multiple ways, too. Of the 11 National Writing Project sites in Michigan, ours serves the largest geographic area. It is critical that we continue to have opportunities like this so that we may return to our rural communities and connect with teachers across the Upper Peninsula region.

We meet Saturday morning before heading home to reflect on our experiences. Upon returning, we will share new resources and the latest research at staff meeting and grade level meetings. As a literacy coach in my district, I will incorporate new strategies in modeled writing lessons. Our UPWP workshop and conference offerings also will expand when we try new ideas gathered from our sessions. I feel grateful for this valuable opportunity. The magic of the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting 2010 will continue long after I ride the monorail back to the airport. I wave goodbye to Mickey and Minnie feeling lucky to be a part of it all!

With the recent turn of events in the U. S. legislation the magic of the NWP is in jeopardy! My career as an educator is testimony to the impact that the National Writing Project makes. I urge our government to continue funding this collaboration of teachers across the United States. This message is able to travel across the digital divide due to the strength of the NWP network.  Honor it, nurture it, and help us keep it alive!

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