In 1987, I began my teaching career at Kelso High School, located in a lumber town on the Columbia river in southwest Washington state. I was part of a small English department, with eight others who had been teaching between 2 and 20+ years. My new colleagues were, for the most part, welcoming and helpful, and did their best to mentor me in whatever ways they could. But like many other teachers, I felt pretty isolated. When we met for department meetings or even full-school staff meetings, the focus was always on administrivia; we never seemed to have conversations focused on what we were actually doing in our classes. It’s not that they were disinterested; rather, like all teachers, they were busy with their own classes. But it felt a little like this:
I seriously doubt I had many of those “Best Ever!” days at Kelso High, where I was just learning the craft of teaching and generally experimenting and failing more often than succeeding. But every once in a while, something exciting would happen, and I missed the opportunity of sharing with a group of like-minded folks.
One of the things I loved most about being an English Education major at Oregon State in the early ’80s was the collection of fun, quirky, and smart people in the program with me. Our classes and socializing were lively affairs, and I loved being able to talk about cool books, complicated ideas, what we were writing, what we were thinking–you know, those synergies that happen when we’re in an open and safe (but intellectually challenging) space. It was this kind of dynamic environment that I missed. I want to reiterate that I’m not trying to place any kind of blame here; I could have done something to start up a different kind of collegial interchange–but I didn’t, and so I continued to feel isolated in my five years at KHS.
Fast forward eight years to the summer of 2000. I’d made my way through a PhD program and finished my second year as an English Education prof in the Cal State Chico English Department. I was gearing up to attend the Northern California Writing Project’s Summer Institute, under the direction of my friend and colleague Tom Fox. I was feeling more than a little trepidation, frankly. My first two years at Chico State had been a bit like Kelso High all over again, but multiplied by the stresses of trying publish in anticipation of tenure, hoping that my new colleagues wouldn’t discover that hiring me had been a huge mistake, etc., etc. I suspect that Tom recognized this, hence he _______ed me to the SI (while “browbeat” is undoubtedly too strong a verb, neither “suggest” nor “invite” convey the sense of urgency in his communique!). But as so many teachers before me, I found the Summer Institute to be a transformative experience. I was surrounded by smart, seasoned, and engaging professionals in the kind of environment I had craved when teaching high school. I felt that I had found colleagues with whom I could be honest about my teaching and scholarship (warts and all), colleagues with whom and from whom I could continue to learn and expand my teaching practices. It felt, in short, like finding myself at home.
But I was still essentially clueless about what the Writing Project’s scope. Almost immediately after the Summer Institute (i.e., within a few weeks) I was a sort of participant-leader in a professional development institute with local high school teachers, and seeing how the Writing Project model worked outside the Summer Institute. Having been a high school teacher, I was well aware of the ways that professional development could go wrong, and so I was deeply impressed by the ways that the leadership team of Tom Fox, Lynn Jacobs, and Rochelle Ramay worked with the teachers. While this was not like the Summer Institute, the values of honoring teacher knowledge, adapting to local context needs, and inviting participants to be active members of a professional community around the effective teaching of reading and writing. To this day, we at the NCWP insist on identifying our work with teachers and schools as Professional Development and eschew the use of the term “training” (although we can’t seem to get any traction from schools or districts, for whom the efficiency of two syllables trumps our preferred eight). Since those humble beginnings, I have participated in and led many hundreds of hours of local site work, and none of it (well, hardly any!) has made me want to leave my professional home.
And while the NCWP is and will remain that home, I’ve found that I have lots of safe havens of like-minded folk well beyond the Austria-sized service area of my local site. Since 2003, the NWP Annual Meeting has been my only consistent professional pilgrimage. I remember the first meeting I attended in San Francisco, where I marveled at the seemingly endless parade of people that Tom Fox knew from all over the US (and, often, beyond), while I knew only a handful. The scope of the network was actually boggling to me; while I knew of the network conceptually, its manifestation in the form of real people who knew, liked, and respected each other was a revelation. In the intervening years, I’ve had too many opportunities to list to work with smart Writing Project people from across the US, so that now, going to the Annual Meeting each year feels like a reunion where we all have the chance to talk, laugh, connect, and learn together.
What I think is striking about my story here, which might be dismissed as just so much solipsism, is that it seems to capture a ubiquity within the NWP network. Most of us enter the Writing Project without knowing much about it, and then stick around because it does something for us as educators that no other organization seems able to do: allow us to chart our own paths to professional fulfillment, while connecting us to people, ideas, resources, and opportunities that we would never have found if we had simply decided to do our good work in isolation behind a closed classroom door. On this, the 40th Anniversary of the first Summer Institute at Berkeley, I’m grateful to the vision of Jim Gray, who first believed that putting smart teachers in a room together would yield great things. Few educational endeavors can claim such longevity, and I’m grateful each day for the connections his legacy has enabled me, and thousands of other TCs like me, to make.