The National Writing Project is 40


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:

Bad Luck Brian memeI 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 Screenshot 6:9:14, 10:20 AMsuspect 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. One does not simply "train" a teacher.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 SaThere are writing project sites all across the country?n 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 fulfiThe NWP is 40 years old?llment, 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.


Common Core Tech Camp

I’m writing this on the eve of our first of four Saturday sessions that comprise the Northern California Writing Project‘s Common Core Tech Camp. The participants have been part of a group working since 201, the Content Area Literacy Network project, a California Department of Education-funded grant program whose aim is to jump-start the Common Core Literacy Standards in science, social science, and technical subjects. The work of the teachers involved has been really exemplary–and it needs to be more visible.

Hence the Tech Camp. Our purpose is to take this work from the participants’ classrooms and go public with it online. To that end, we’ll be using a number of different tools. In keeping with the NCWP’s commitment to the mission of Mozilla’s Webmaker program and tools, we will create webpages using Thimble that will serve as the central home for the resources. We’ll be using mobile computing devices to make movies and whiteboard presentations to embed in the webpages. We’ll play with graphics and infographics as well, starting with simple tools like Wordle and We will use Popcorn to remix media, and learn about (and earn!) Open Badges (which we’ll store in our Mozilla Backpacks).

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Wish us luck!

Make/Hack/Play: Week 1

I’ve enrolled in the P2PU Make/Hack/Play Together course, offered by the talented Karen Fasimpaur (she hand-built her own off-the-grid house in the Arizona desert!). Our task this week was to make something in the real world. Of the many suggestions on offer, one seemed particularly appealing to me: a toy hack. I especially liked the idea of creating a visual pun.

I had already been thinking about using a set of darts as the centerpiece of whatever my make would be for the week, and so I did a sort of mashup of the toy hack and my darts (which, as any respectable darts manufacturer will tell you, are NOT toys!). Here’s what I started with:


This is a set of replica darts that are nearly impossible to throw well, but they’re pretty cool looking.


Here’s the first make. Supplies: old legos, index cards, and sharpies. Can you guess the pun I was going for?


photo-3 My second make. Supplies: sculpey. I’m no sculptor, but I hope you can get at what I was thinking.

Third make. I don’t know why this image won’t rotate for me. Tried editing it on my computer, on my phone, and in WordPress. I’m flummoxed. Supplies: index cards and sharpies. Probably a tough one unless you play video games. 🙂 Oh, ignore the tardis as it has no relation to the make (it’s just the USB hub that sits on my desk at home).

And here they are all together.

This project reminded me of how much fun it is to make things with my hands and to take a shot at simply being creative. I enjoyed spending a couple hours on a Saturday making these little projects.

Oh, and if you’re looking for answers: Make 1: Dodge Dart. Make 2: Dart Frog. Make 3: Dart Feld (from Legend of Dragoon).

#SummerofMake: Making with Our Hands

The Northern California Writing Project held two different Maker Day events this summer. The first, reported on here, had a Making with Technology focus; the second focused on making things with our hands.

We were lucky to be able to meet at Kim Jaxon’s home, which features the perfect setting for a day of making. We used the large outbuilding, which is divided into a huge shop with all the tools and supplies we could have wanted, and the infamous Elwood’s Cyberpunk Saloon, featuring tons of cool and inspirational steampunk art created by Kim’s awesome spousal unit, Jeff. Don’t worry, the saloon just provided an awesome backdrop for our day–no offerings that might have impaired our abilities! But being surrounded by things like the confessional boar, complete with working webcam, made us want to make cool things, too!



We started out with a paper theme, first by making paper rockets and launching them using a compressed-air launcher (we built our own launchers later in the afternoon), then making basketball-sized decorative tissue-paper puffballs, and finishing with origami books.


After a make-your-own sandwich (hey, it was a maker day, after all!) for lunch, we made LED blinkybugs (here’s a link to the instructable; for cheap LEDs and batteries, try one of the Hong Kong retailers like Deal eXtreme). Success again. The only real fail of the day came when we tried to make chain maille bracelets like the ones in this Kickstarter campaign. But without failure, we never grow. Or that’s the type of platitude my kind friends provided when my instructional skills in this arena proved futile. 🙂 I guess we should have had on hand a tutorial on weaving the Persian 3-in-1 pattern to help people out.

We ended the day with the opportunity to remix all the makes, and finished with further rocket launches after the creation of four more brand-new launchers had entered the world. Such fun. Aren’t you sorry you missed it?

What’s interesting, though, is how much cross-curricular thinking went into the whole making process. Making the rockets helped us think about dimensions, aerodynamics, air pressure; the puffballs led us to think about patterns and iterations; the books made us consider structures, organization, and measurement; the bugs let us see circuitry and switches; the chain maille — well, that showed us the value of failure and frustration, I guess. All of the projects, though, made us think aesthetically along with all of the other aspects. It seemed to really hit home the relationship between form, function, and beauty.