National Writing Project

Remembering Jo Fyfe

By: Mary Ann Smith
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 1
Date: 2004

Summary: The writing project fondly remembers Jo Fyfe, a participant in the first summer institute of the Bay Area Writing Project in 1974, a former associate director of the National Writing Project, and a co-director of the California Writing Project state network.


Jo Fyfe, former associate director of the National Writing Project and co-director of the California Writing Project, died on September 26, 2003. The writing project mourns the loss of its long-time friend.

I met Jo in September 1971 at the start of school. While she vacationed during the summer in her homeland, New Zealand, her principal hired me to team teach with her. I arrived at Loma Vista Intermediate in Concord, California, a brand new graduate from the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), credential program, green as could be. Jo and I hardly knew how to look for each other at that first faculty meeting of the year. Little did I appreciate the fact that a respected, veteran teacher had been dealt a wild card. I simply hoped, with the hope of a first-year teacher, for someone to watch over me.

Before I met Jo, I had collected a multitude of approaches for teaching reading and writing, all of them supplied by my preservice supervisor, James Gray, at the time a relatively unknown lecturer at UC Berkeley. Jo was completely open and welcoming when I hinted at my cache. She recognized a promising curriculum, and she offered to show me how to tailor what I had to our particular students—without any dumbing down. Jo knew how to aim higher than high, and yet how to craft every lesson so that, in her words, "there is a place for every student to plug in."

As a thrown-together team, Jo and I were constantly amazed that our students, many of whom had experienced limited academic success, were writing to beat the band. However, Jo, always the clear-eyed one, reminded me that some of our best lessons, if inflicted on the "wrong" students, could legitimately fail. She understood in her bones that a single curriculum could never serve every variation of student.

Students wanted to please Jo. Once when she was teaching a language lesson—in her constant quest to take eighth-graders beyond their "200-word vocabulary," as she called it—she stumped the class with bedlam. Silence and a palpable search for answers followed. To disappoint Mrs. Fyfe, the teacher with the funny accent, was unthinkable. At last one halter-topped girl raised her hand and made a guess. "Is it when you get a little husband?"

Jo was the ideal participant in the first summer institute of the Bay Area Writing Project in 1974. For starters, she came to learn. She also had something important to contribute. When we were invited to the institute, she and I had been piloting James Moffett's Interaction materials, a venture that would not have been possible without Jo. She had no hesitation, in the era when school phones were available to everyone but teachers, about calling Moffett and asking him why this or that was not working. And in her inimitable way, she translated what Moffett said in return. If small groups were not humming along, Jo interpreted, was standing in front of the classroom a guaranteed alternative? She insisted that we continue experimenting with our "roller skate" method of teaching—moving from small group to small group, teaching as we braked, and reaching more of our students than we might have from a pedestal.

Jo would try anything to accomplish an important purpose with students. She turned out to be fearless as a principal of a diverse middle school in West Pittsburg, California, one time running for blocks down the street to catch up with a parent for a conference. She pushed students and teachers to achieve more than they ever imagined they could do, while noting that on her first day as principal, she found her training manual—a center desk drawer full of bullets.

Jo taught middle and high school for 26 years. A Fulbright scholar, she also taught one year in England before becoming a school principal and eventually, curriculum director for the tenth largest district in California, Mt. Diablo.

Instead of retiring at the end of a successful career, Jo came to the writing project, first as co-director of the California Writing Project and then as associate director of the National Writing Project. She invented the Thursday sessions at our annual meeting, and, in former days, she virtually assembled the annual meeting program by herself. She also conducted workshops for teachers in the Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Spain and Germany. Finally, in her "retirement," she worked on several projects with Inverness Research Associates.

Jo inspired several generations, from my own children to her peers. When she was dying of cancer, she considered, as anyone might, how to scale down her life, where to put her energy, and which magazine subscriptions she should discard. She kept the Economist so she could spar with Richard Sterling, one of her favorite colleagues. She kept her wit so that those of us who visited her regularly could sharpen our own and honor hers. As it turned out, she made additions to her life rather than subtractions—more dinners out, more trips to loved ones, more friends dropping by. Indeed, her illness only intensified the interest she took in all of us. She kept up on all that was happening at the National Writing Project, and, less than two weeks before she died, she was reviewing new-site proposals.

Those who knew Jo experienced the wonderful mixture of her dignity, intelligence, and downright irreverence. She was possibly the wisest person I have ever known and certainly one of the most well informed. It was hard to find a book she hadn't read, many of them more than once, and impossible to find someone who didn't enjoy her company. She took great delight in children, especially her own, Chris and Kate, now grown.

Remembering Jo Fyfe is remembering her smile. Tom Fox, director of the Northern California Writing Project, described it as the smile of someone who "is on the inside of every joke." Now she is forever inside our hearts.

About the Author Mary Ann Smith is the director of government relations and public affairs for the National Writing Project.

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