PLEASE SAVE THE NWP: A Student’s Perspective (Amy)

I ask our elected officials to imagine the students across America whose lives have been touched by National Writing Project teachers and programs. The NWP creates an authentic audience for young writers in print, public events and the digital landscape. The NWP creates avenues for students to flex and share their voices and become critical thinkers and agents of hope and change.  Please save the NWP! 

~Amy Laitinen

Gwinn High School Student Jeni Schrandt with Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow: 2006

Heather Hollands and I teach high school English in the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Our district, Gwinn Area Community Schools, educates 1,200 students.  While the U.P. comprises nearly a third of Michigan’s land area, it contains only 3% of its population. The people who live in the U.P. are vibrant, hardworking and friendly, but the economy in the U.P. has long been dismal.  In our district alone 61% of our students receive free and reduced lunches and in one of our elementary schools (346 students) 87% receive free/reduced lunches. Our district has taken many measures to slash spending and like districts all over the U.P. our future is looking very grim. As educators we try not to let this energy seep into our classrooms and we arrive each morning empowered with a passion to help our students reach and realize their potential.  Our superintendent, Michael Maino recently sent a letter to Governor Snyder and Michigan Legislature voicing his concerns about recent education cuts in Michigan.

At a recent staff meeting Mr. Maino congratulated the Gwinn High School faculty and shared his excitement that recent data shows, as detailed in his letter, that our district ranks # 4 in the Upper Peninsula and # 81 in the State in the percentage of students we graduate each year who are considered “college ready”.  (The ranking was based on +900 high schools, charter schools and public school academies that award high school diplomas in Michigan.)

Yet, educators in our district know that we cannot take too long patting ourselves on the back because GACS is facing a deficit of dramatic proportion. In spite of employee pay freezes, privatization of custodial services, a teacher buy-out, new employee health-care plans that include higher employee co-pays and deductibles, administrator reduction and restructure, energy upgrades, building closure, and reduced and eliminated upgrades and purchases of technology, textbooks and teaching supplies we are facing a staggering financial deficit. 

I will admit that I have spent many sleepless nights reflecting on my future and the negative tone that has permeated media outlets demonizing teachers. It is shocking how many times I must defend my salary and the hours spent grading and lesson planning outside of my classroom. It hurts me to the core to hear that so many people believe educators are lazy, greedy and the root of America’s dire financial situation. I try to focus my energy on my students’ brave voices and the poems, digital pieces, essays and dreams they share in English 9 and creative writing.  I cannot lie. My heart falls every-single-time I have a student tell me that someday they want to follow in my footsteps and be an English teacher. I fear for the future of my students and education. 

When I heard that on March 2nd President Obama signed a  bill to cut federal funding to the National Writing Project as part of a Congressional effort to eliminate earmarks – (federal funds legislated to support certain programs like the NWP) I was in denial. No, this cannot be happening! On February 10, 2011 I watched with my students as President Obama spoke from Northern Michigan University (a mere 30 miles away from my classroom) about the importance of digital outreach to rural areas and I celebrated the fact that this “Winning our Future” goal so perfectly matches what the National Writing Project does to help connect rural educators. I attended a session at the NWP Annual Meeting in November showcasing the NWP’s Digital Is website and was excited to explore the possibilities of this new resource with my students and peers.

For the past ten years Heather and I have been active in the National Writing Project and cannot count the opportunities that the NWP and Upper Peninsula Writing Project (UPWP) have afforded us. This summer the UPWP will be working with the Third Coast Writing Project, NWP, and Memorial Library to provide a professional development opportunity for educators across Michigan  by creating a Holocaust Educators Network of Michigan for the 11 Michigan Writing Project sites to study the Holocaust and conduct  Social Justice Inquiry

While our district does not have the resources to send us to national conferences, through grants we have been able to travel each November to the NWP Annual Meeting that takes place in various locations throughout the country.  The NWP connects the UPWP to other rural educators through the Rural Sites Network and Heather and I count these experiences as priceless. Our blog is testament to the resources we have brought back from the NWP network to enrich our classrooms and students. We both believe that the NWP has helped shaped our classroom practice and has helped us become teacher leaders with the ability to share what we have learned with other educators.

For the past few summers the UPWP has been a vehicle for Heather and I to offer professional development opportunities to other educators by holding a UPWP Advanced Institute on the campus of Northern Michigan University and this summer we will be guiding a workshop on how educators can turn a mentor text from their classroom into a digital story.  This course will introduce teachers to ways in which technology can be used as a tool to enhance writing. After the course, participants will have a multi-purpose digital story to be used in classroom instruction or in a professional development presentation as a mentor text. Without the NWP we would not have been able to envision ourselves in leading professional development nor would we have had an audience for our exploration of digital literacy.

It is easy to feel isolated in the rural U.P. and the NWP has helped us bridge this gap by staying connected via the National Writing Projects of Michigan network. We communicate using digital tools such as wikis, Skype, listserves and with grant money are able to drive to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan to attend conferences. Michigan entails such a large expanse and because of our geographic location this network is very precious. Losing NWP funding would be extremely detrimental to the professional development opportunities and many the literacy programs that the UPWP supplies for rural educators.

Cutting funding for the NWP creates such a deep wound inside me that I don’t think I can fully absorb the lasting impact it will have my classroom and educational spaces across the country. I continue to go to work armed with my best smile and to the best of my ability try to meet my students’ vast educational needs. My students keep me going. They are resilient, beautiful and charged with boundless energy. They are why I do what I do. I love reconnecting with former students and last weekend I ran into Jeni. Perhaps it was serendipity that our paths would cross at that moment because Jeni is one of my students whose life was directly touched by a program that was offered  by the NWP.

In December 2005 the Upper Peninsula Writing Project applied for and received a $3,000 mini-grant to help us promote poetry and place-conscious writing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The process involved collaboration with the National Writing Project and the Rural School and Community Trust. The Nebraska Writing Project coordinated the initiative, which was inspired by the work of Nebraska poet and United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Upon receiving the grant, we developed a Rural Poetry Initiative to celebrate and reflect rural life in the U.P. Students from across the Upper Peninsula submitted poetry, which was judged by Northern Michigan University faculty members. One student, Jeni Schrandt, was chosen to travel to Washington, D.C., as a representative for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to read her poetry at the Library of Congress.  (Taken from Heather’s post under the Rural Poetry link )

Jeni is one of those students who graduated and left an indelible impression. With deep critical thinking she understood the writing process and would rush up to me with a newly penned draft of the piece of writing she was working on. As a writer she craved constructive criticism and her poetry took my breath away. Her verse, like a rare U.P. bird, was exactly what the Rural Poetry Initiative was trying to capture.

While my mind was still reeling from the loss of funding for the NWP I reached out to Jeni

Jeni reading her poetry at the Library of Congress

 and asked her to put into words what it meant for her to be involved in a program sponsored by the NWP. Jeni sent me this piece last night after she finished working.  I ask our elected officials to imagine Jeni and the students across America whose lives have been touched by NWP teachers and programs. Here is Jeni’s response to my request: 

We are who we are because of what we do, what we see, what we learn, and what we love. But without sharing what we do, and what we love, and what we learn, how would anyone know us? Furthermore, without writing it all down, how would we be able to share? Writing is one of the most essential ways to chronicle our stories, define our being, and learn about who we are. Writing connects us as one singular unit inhabiting this big blue sphere we call our world.

Children tend to pursue avenues at which they excel. Fortunately writing can neither be good nor bad; it is a personal form of expression. Children (both young and old) need to be encouraged to write and understand the freedom and beauty within it. My personal love for writing came at a young age; a time where play-doh, story time, and frolicking around a ballet studio consumed most of me. I was fortunate to have an education that offered many opportunities to foster a love for writing. As a twenty-three year old student studying radiology at Northern Michigan University, I can confidently say I would not be where I am today without writing and the impact it has on my life. I wish upon every person the opportunities I have been given and continue to receive.  Writing have proven its benefits to me, it continues to surprise me every day in new shapes and forms. Writing has taken me many places and taught me about me. Perhaps one of the most rewarding and unforgettable opportunities bestowed upon me came from the National Writing Project.

High school students often fear they are insignificant and their voice small, but I have proven this fear wrong. Voices are big and powerful and carry hope. Every person has their moment and these moments can be plentiful. I will never forget the day I had one of my many moments. It was 2006 and I was a senior in high school and was just returning home from a dip in the local pool with my grandma. We smelt like chlorine and were bundled up because of the April chill that still lingered in the air. I felt perfectly content about where I was at that moment, little did I know, things were about to change. We made our way up the drive way and heard a car pull up along side the road. We both were quite curious because typically we don’t greet visitors with wet hair and a strong chlorine aroma. When the surprise subsided and recognition set in, my grandma and I both realized they were coming for me. Two smiling faces moved swiftly up the hill and began to bellow, “You Won!!” Needless to say there were tears, and hugs, and dog barking, and much planning to be done.  My two high school English teachers, friends, and colleagues Amy Laitinen and Heather Hollands came to deliver the news that I had been chosen as the winner for the Upper Peninsula Writing Project’s Rural Poetry contest sponsored by the National Writing Project, The Nebraska Writing Project and Rural School and Community Trust.

My senior year of High School I spent a great amount of time writing poetry, papers, and short stories. Not with the hope of winning something, but because I love to and had a lot to say. When spring time came, the National Writing Project (NWP) decided to sponsor a rural poetry initiative in hopes to find beautiful stories in poetry from young people of our nation. Together this small group of students would travel to our nation’s capital to read and celebrate together our rural poetry. In D.C. I met wonderful student poets. We shared stories of simplicity, small towns, and a love for our surroundings that make us who we are. With the NWP, perhaps I would not yet have been to Washington D.C. or have yet met our representatives (Debbie Stabenow) and be able to see first hand a city bustling with politics and government. I would not yet touch the statuesque symbolism, the wall, and the memorials that whisper stories of our nations past. The collaborative work done between myself and the students is a true depiction of what our young people are capable of when given such opportunities. We are the future, our voices our loud, and in order for change to ensue, we need to be heard. Without programs to foster young writing and language, the world will be quieter, and hope could be lost. We are a unit, we learn from what we know, and what we hear, but without being able to share, learning will cease.

-Jennifer Kobylinski

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