National Writing Project

New-Site Directors Tell Their Stories

By: NWP Staff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 3
Date: 2005

Summary: The Voice introduces two more directors of new sites that joined the NWP network in 2004: Robert Yagelski, Director of the Capital District Writing Project, University at Albany, State University of New York, and Maryann Manning, director of the Red Mountain Writing Project, University of Alabama at Birmingham.


Robert Yagelski, Director
Capital District Writing Project
University at Albany, State University of New York
Albany, New York

Robert Yagelski

In 1983 Robert Yagelski, a recent B.A. from Penn State University under his belt, was patching together a living working as a freelance writer for magazines, a stringer for local newspapers, a cook in his parents' restaurant, a book store clerk, and a sound man for a rock group. He resolved to get a little more structure in his life: "I decided to enter the University of New Hampshire to pursue a master's degree in English. I had no idea that there was a nationally known composition program there. I didn't even know there was a subdiscipline of English called composition. I just wanted to return to studying writing and literature."

But working as a teaching assistant in a first-year composition course, learning about composition theory in his graduate courses, and studying with the likes of Thomas Newkirk, Donald Murray, and Donald Graves, Yagelski realized he had found his path. He went from the university to a series of positions and experiences that could all serve as appropriate items on a writing project director's resume: he applied what he had learned at the university teaching at a small independent high school in Vermont; he pursued a doctorate in rhetoric and composition at Ohio State; he worked while a Ph.D. candidate to prepare secondary English teachers; and he taught in the English departments at Purdue and the State University of New York at Albany before accepting, in 2001, his current position in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at SUNY Albany. He has directed a university writing center and taught in a university-run prison program and continues to work with preservice and inservice English teachers.

But even with all these site-director qualifying credentials, Yagelski might not have applied to restart the Capital District Writing Project (CDWP) if he had not been urged on by others in the local educational community. Ellen Sullivan, assistant director of the Greater Capital Region Teacher Center, which runs professional development programs for about 100 school districts, was very interested in bringing the writing project back to the Albany region. Sullivan contacted Yagelski and Carol Forman-Pemberton, who had served for several years as co-director of the original Capital District Writing Project, to urge them to take on reestablishing the local project, and they applied for an NWP site at the Albany campus. Forman-Pemberton—with 30 years of teaching experience—is now the project's co-director.

To Yagelski, his newly minted site has arrived not a moment too soon. "Teachers who come to our project bring with them a deep sense of frustration from trying to make positive change in their schools and great anxiety about the current direction of education in the United States." The writing project provides an antidote, he says. "The writing project is driven by a sense of possibility. The teachers who have participated in CDWP so far have made it clear that they are hungry for professional opportunities that enable them to channel their energies toward improving teaching and learning—and to do so with like-minded professionals that they would not have an opportunity to work with otherwise."

Yagelski's enthusiastic words may bubble from the page here, but he has learned the hard way that such true-believer passion can be a little scary to others. "When we interviewed applicants for our first summer institute, most of them were unfamiliar with the National Writing Project and applied only after seeing announcements and flyers about our summer institute." He and Forman-Pemberton conducted group interviews in which they poured out their ardor for their new endeavor in a style characterized more by zeal than orderly exposition. "I think we came off as confused and disorganized," he admits. "Luckily," he adds, "the teachers were not put off by our faux pas; rather they were engaged by the sense of commitment that Carol and I brought to the project. They had faith that the summer institute would be worthwhile, though after the interviews many of them were confused about what the institute would actually involve."

Since the completion of the institute, however, Yagelski has seen evidence that focus has replaced confusion. "Two teachers have returned to their districts advocating for a new approach to professional development based on their experience in the institute. Both have been granted permission to organize professional development institutes for their districts for the coming year." These teachers credit the writing project for their accomplishments. "They say CDWP gave them the confidence to raise their voices to advocate for teachers as professionals and intellectuals. Their efforts reflect the kind of possibilities that the writing project represents." And, for the record, Yagelski—who has now completed his second summer institute—reports that his new crop of teacher-consultants entered the institute much less confused but emerged equally inspired.

Maryann Manning, Director
Red Mountain Writing Project
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama

Maryann Manning
For the past 30 years, teaching in the School of Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Maryann Manning could have served as a poster child for professional collegiality. "I've been working with teachers for all these years," she says. "I believe I learn something from every teacher and every student." It is not difficult to understand how an educator with such an attitude would be just the right fit for the directorship of the new Red Mountain Writing Project. But Manning hasn't always had this network. Starting her career in a one-room schoolhouse, she was very much on her own.

"In those days at the Madison County, Nebraska, K–8 School where I taught there was no such thing as process writing. Donald Graves had not started writing for elementary teachers. My main strategy was providing `story starters.' I guess whatever else I was doing must have worked, as I remember my students winning a lot of essay contests."

But after 12 years of this relative isolation, Manning moved to the university, where she took up her professional responsibilities in a serious way. Since the 1970s she has been an editor and writer for Teaching K–8 (formerly Early Years), published by the Highlights for Children Corporation. Looking at the current state of literacy education from the perspective of 30 years as an editor, Manning says, "I don't think good teaching has changed a lot over the years, but there are many new strategies for teaching reading and writing other than the three reading groups and creative writing curriculum of the past."

Her editorial responsibilities have kept Manning in touch with teachers beyond her writing project and region. "Many teachers write me each month, and I try to respond to their concerns."

With these contacts and associations furthered by her active participation in NCTE, Manning came to know teachers all over the country. So it was not surprising that she had been hearing about the National Writing Project from diverse sources for a long time. "I've been impressed with everything I know about NWP and I wanted my university to share a better way to teach writing with area teachers."

Beginning her site (along with colleague Bruce Cominsky, who will be profiled in the next issue of The Voice), Manning faced the usual rocky road common to a new site. "We looked under every leaf for our matching funds. At my university, as at most institutions, there isn't a lot of money left over for new programs. We have been lucky to have a development officer who was helpful in raising money, two area inservice directors who shared the dream of improving writing, and income we have saved from inservice activities. But we still kid around that we're going to have to have a bake sale."

In addition to school inservice programs that were quick to get off the ground, the Red Mountain site has also faced up to the challenge that comes with serving an extensive geographic area. "We've found that presenting at conferences is one way to make our work known to teachers outside of the Birmingham area. We participated in the MidSouth Reading and Writing Institute in June, which was attended by more than 1,200 teachers."

Now, having completed its second summer institute in July, the Red Mountain Writing Project can lay claim to some traditions. "One of these is a luncheon on the final day, when the fellows invite their administrators to celebrate the conclusion of a wonderful four weeks."

Luncheons for administrators? Manning has traveled some distance from her one-room schoolhouse.

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