National Writing Project

Getting in Step with NWP's New-Site Directors

By: Art Peterson
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: As part of an ongoing series introducing directors of new writing project sites, this article profiles Kyle Shanton, director of the Borderlands Writing Project; and Janelle Mathis and Carol Wickstrom, directors of the North Star of Texas Writing Project.


In this ongoing series, The Voice profiles directors of new writing project sites. In a fourth installment on the leaders of the ten new sites from 2003, readers meet leaders from the Borderlands Writing Project (New Mexico) and the North Star of Texas Writing Project.

Kyle Shanton, Director
Borderlands Writing Project New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

Kyle Shanton may not have known it at the time, but he was preparing himself for his writing project immersion years ago when he took his first teaching assignment in Nogales, Arizona. Graduating from the University of Iowa with a commitment to bilingual education, Shanton took the advice of one of his professors and went to teach in that border town because it was in such a setting that a teacher could become truly bilingual.

The job in Nogales, teaching a third grade bilingual class, however, lasted only one year. "There was no actual support for bilingual education and too much micromanaging. My lesson plans had to show that I was teaching on the same page of each of the approved textbooks as outlined in the district calendar." It was Shanton's first experience with a system "that positioned teachers in subordination to others who supposedly knew what they needed."

Unwilling to accept the role of teacher as know-nothing, Shanton moved north to Tucson, working with "teachers and administrators who were unequivocally committed to making bilingual education available and successful." He taught in Spanish-English bilingual programs there for the next eight years.

Returning to school to complete his doctorate, he worked seven days a week with children, teachers, and parents in five neighborhood schools contiguously connected across the urban heart of Tucson. "Our goal," he said, "was educational and community change." Graduating with a Ph.D., he soon realized "that I had become a teacher on a landscape of bilingualism and in contexts of students, teachers, and parents struggling for social justice and more critical multicultural education." So he moved to New Mexico State University. "Here my colleagues are excellent scholars and friends, and I find myself feeling `at home.'"

Almost immediately on his arrival at the Las Cruces campus three years ago, Shanton made plans to apply for the establishment of a National Writing Project site. From his intensive experience working with action-oriented research focused on community change, student achievement, literacy, and professional development, he had concluded that top-down professional development doesn't work. In his previous work, he had experienced the promise of a model that placed teachers at the center, so when his application was accepted by NWP, he knew he was in such a position again. With funding for his new site assured, Shanton was ready for his first summer institute. "We brought in teachers from all across the southern borderlands of New Mexico. It was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have ever had."

Shanton has also been cheered by substantial support from his university. "We knew that unless we obtained on-campus housing at no cost for the five weeks of the institute, teachers from rural schools would not come. I decided that that would be one of my `non-negotiables' with the dean. I was ready with my arguments, except I never had to make any of them. As I told the dean about the request, he nodded in agreement and said, `We'll do that; no problem.'"

Despite the exhilaration of successfully launching a new site, however, Shanton knows difficult tasks lie ahead. "Our challenges are the same as those faced by teachers in this borderlands area since the beginning of compulsory education in this country. We need to promote bilingualism by opening up spaces in all our programs for Spanish, Apache, Dine, and Pueblo languages. We need to embrace a sense of community in the ways we relate to and work with one another rather than acquiescing to [the principle of] `majority rule.'"

None of this sounds easy, but a clue in Shanton's early history suggests he can make this happen: He went to college on a scholarship as a professional gymnast. If he brings to his responsibilities as the Borderlands Writing Project director the same discipline and fortitude required of him in that earlier life, a perfect ten may not be out of the question.

Janelle Mathis (left) and Carol Wickstrom, Directors North Star of Texas Writing Project,University of North Texas, Denton

There is no cookie-cutter version of a successful director for a new writing project site. Each director brings with her different strengths. Yet, if one were to put together a recipe for the kind of person who can make a site work, it would likely include many of the ingredients that Janelle Mathis and Carol Wickstrom bring to the job. For example, although both are now college professors at the University of North Texas, both had many years of experience as public schoolteachers. Mathis taught in North Carolina, Arizona, and for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Europe. "And I am a schoolteacher at heart," said Wickstrom, who spent 23 years in the classroom in the first through sixth grades and in special education. During those years, her students spent most of their time reading and writing, "even if it was science or social studies."

Wickstrom, working with teacher candidates at the university the last four years, sees her greatest challenge as "sending teachers out into the classroom who love and value reading and writing because I know that children deserve this experience."

Mathis, as dedicated as Wickstrom to the advancement of the teaching of writing, also brings to the new writing project site an expertise in reading and children's literature. She currently serves as program coordinator for the university's reading program. Part of her motivation for becoming a writing project director was that "I knew my passions for children's and adolescent literature could intersect distinctly within the framework of NWP."

It was this dedication to literacy that made Wickstrom vulnerable to the blandishments of another faculty member—Leslie Patterson—who encouraged her to bring the writing project to the university. "She thought it would be a good match for me. At first I was unsure, but my experience with the Greater Houston Area Writing Project let me know I was in the right place." Meanwhile, Mathis, working with a local school district, became aware that the district had both a desire and a need for a writing project site in the area.

But, as both Wickstrom and Mathis have discovered, desire and need do not smooth all the bumps in the road. And, like many other new site directors, they have had occasion to draw on their stored-up optimism. As is the case with other Texas sites, the North Star of Texas Writing Project competes with writing "programs" that have left many teachers satiated—if not jaded—when it comes to professional development. Under the circumstances, both directors see the fact that their first summer institute drew 28 participants as a real accomplishment. As almost always happens, by the conclusion of the institute, "People couldn't thank me enough," Wickstrom said.

Mathis believes that a big part of this change came about because of the way the institute nurtured these teachers as writers. "There was a joke among us," she says. "We got to referring to the institute as `Camp Wanna Be a Writer.' But the truth is we saw this first group of teacher-consultants realize themselves as authors, creating a writing community where they responded enthusiastically to the writing generated within the institute."

Wickstrom and Mathis know it's part of their job to keep these enthusiastic new teacher-consultants engaged. Eleven of the participants from their first class presented at the Texas Association for the Improvement of Reading Conference and another ten attend monthly meetings at which "camaraderie fills the room." But given the wide open spaces of Texas, initiating a continuity program has been a challenge. "Our first group of teacher-consultants has been so spread out that it has been hard to keep them engaged. And when they go back into their schools and their ideas are not valued, the distances make it harder to help them."

Wickstrom, however, is not given to discouraging words. She is confident that those who do participate in the institute will be hooked. "I know that if they spend just a little time with other writing project folks they will know what it is to have a support system—a lifeline."

As for the long run, Mathis adds, "We want the North Star of Texas Writing Project to become a state recognized, critical influence in nurturing and supporting writing teachers."

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