National Writing Project

Spotlight on New-Site Directors

By: NWP Staff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 2
Date: 2006

Summary: The Voice introduces the directors of three new sites that have recently joined the NWP network: Katherine Frank, director of the Southern Colorado Writing Project; Vicki Holmsten, director of the Bisti Writing Project (New Mexico); and Jeff Wilhelm, director of the Boise State University Writing Project (Idaho).


Katherine Frank, Director
Southern Colorado Writing Project
Colorado State University-Pueblo
Pueblo, Colorado

Katherine Frank
Anyone looking for an example of the power of NWP networking needs look no further than the example of Katherine Frank. Not long after she accepted the position of director of writing at Colorado State University-Pueblo (CSU), her chair in the department of English and Foreign Languages, Bill Sheidley, began encouraging her to apply to establish a writing project site at CSU-Pueblo. It turns out that Sheidley had been a cofounder of the Connecticut Writing Project and was "a huge supporter of NWP." Sheidley was joined in his urgings by Frank's dean (now provost), Russ Meyer, another writing project devotee, who had worked with the Missouri Writing Project. Says Frank, "Their enthusiasm for NWP was contagious, and they convinced me to work on establishing a site at our university."

Then the serious networking began. "Once I decided to pursue the project, I spent quite a bit of time working with Cindy O'Donnell-Allen, Director of the Colorado State University Writing Project located in Ft. Collins. Before applying for the NWP grant, I attended portions of the summer institute at her site and consulted with her about NWP philosophy and management of a site. I learned so much through this early partnership."

The other site directors in Colorado, Rick VanDeWeghe and Julie Robinson, also contributed to Frank's initiation. "I feel lucky to be part of such a strong local NWP network; the sites in Colorado work well together, really helping all of our sites to grow."

But despite this strong support, Frank wasn't eager to plunge into NWP work without first getting her toes wet. "We ran two pilot institutes before becoming an official NWP site, to see if there was interest in our area. The experience was extremely positive." So Frank moved forward quickly. "We established a presence in the community. We had requests for inservice programs before we became an official NWP site. After only one year of NWP affiliation we had multiple yearlong inservice contracts with several schools and organizations in southern Colorado."

The early success has brought with it important lessons. "We developed too quickly without having the resources to support our growth. As a result of this experience we are going to take a few steps back, make sure we have a firm foundation, and avoid growing too fast." Frank looks to an active leadership council to plan for building the site's capacity to meet the needs of teachers and schools in the service area.

Despite the growing pains generated by a youthful site enthusiasm, Frank and her colleagues have demonstrated a solid understanding of NWP principles. Nowhere is this more evident than in the results of summer institute recruiting. "We've successfully recruited across the disciplines. In addition to many talented language arts teachers, we have also had two science teachers, one math teacher, one special education teacher, one Spanish teacher, and three reading teachers participate in our two summer institutes. Our fellows and teacher-consultants represent the range for K through 16 and come from across southern Colorado."

This diverse and dedicated group of teacher-consultants has gone to work, providing not only staff development for teachers, but outreach to the community as well. For example, "In October 2005, we formed a partnership with the Pueblo City-County Library District to sponsor a community writing marathon. Then, with the instigation of one of our co-directors, Lynette Lievers, we went on to sponsor a family writing marathon in April 2006 in which 40 people between the ages of 8 and 80 participated."

While Frank understands that outreach events such as this are important, she maintains a focus on the core work of the project, including the summer institute. Her work there reminds her "time and time again of the hard work that teachers engage in on a daily basis, the deep concern they have for their students and their learning, and the dedication they feel toward their careers and professional development."

For these and other insights Frank credits her NWP experience. "Now, after having been part of the NWP family for only little over a year, I cannot imagine my life without it."

Vicki Holmsten, Director
Bisti Writing Project
San Juan College
Farmington, New Mexico

Vicki Holmsten has been involved with Native American students for many of her 28 years as an educator—first as a teacher of English language arts, sometimes on Indian reservations, and now as a teacher at San Juan College, Farmington, New Mexico, in the heart of Navajo country. But she sees the Bisti Writing Project site that she directs not as ethnically one dimensional, but rather as made up of "a complicated mixture of people, cultures, languages, and history.

Vicki Holmsten
Around here,"she says "there is no easy way to explain who lives where and speaks what language and gets classified as Native American or Hispanic or Anglo or other. In fact we resist efforts by outsiders to try to put us into these classifications. This is not to say that we don't recognize and try to celebrate our differences at our site, but the simple explanations of these different groups don't really fit."

However, the name of Holmsten's site—Bisti (pronounced BIS-tee by English speakers)—is a straightforward recognition of the importance of Native American culture in the region. Before forming their own site, Holmsten and her colleagues had run four summer institutes as a satellite of the Four Corners Writing Project. "At the last of these summer institutes, when we knew we were getting ready to embark on our own site adventure, we covered the walls with possible names for the new site. Finally the Navajo word Bisti clicked. To different Navajo speakers the word either means `between the hills' or refers to the kind of clay found on the ground in that area south of Farmington. The four Navajo speakers in our group gave us permission to go ahead with it. We were told it would be a blessing for our site because this is where the Navajo people started."

Though Holmsten is the titular director of the Bisti site, she says, "I am not comfortable taking too much credit as director, because our process in establishing the Bisti Writing Project has been very collaborative. I've worked with Kristine Ashworth and Uma Krishnaswami, a local author of children's literature whom we drafted to work with us on the Four Corners institutes. And now we have co-director Mary Schumacher-Hoerner and our tech liaison, Ed Fincher. I guess I'm the director because I'm the full-time employee at San Juan College."

She admits, "It's been a steep learning curve for me doing the paperwork and the budgets and background support. I take to heart [writing project founder] Jim Gray's often-quoted description of the director, `The director is the one who makes sure the copy machine is running.'"

If that's true, Bisti's well-maintained machine has been put to good use. Emerging from the first summer institute, Bisti teacher-consultants organized a spring seminar series for local teachers, recruiting 32 people from the four local school districts, Navajo Preparatory School, and San Juan College. "The topics we covered ranged from writing across the curriculum, to arts and writing, to the teacher as a writer. The districts paid for teachers to attend and participants received one graduate credit.

"From this enthusiastic group of teachers we recruited two wonderful fellows who participated in this year's second summer institute."

Having recently completed this second institute, Holmsten describes one lesson she brought from the first-year institute experience in planning for this round. "Probably the biggest lesson we learned was to let the fellows take the lead. This time we tried to provide a framework, including the basic requirements and lots of good reading and time for group work, and let the fellows fill in more of the details. It has been fun (and sometime exhausting) to watch where fellows have taken our work this summer."

Jeff Wilhelm, Director
Boise State University Writing Project
Boise, Idaho

Ever since his experience as a young teacher participating in the Maryland Writing Project, Jeff Wilhelm has been carrying the writing project idea around with him. "My involvement with the Maryland project was the seminal experience of my teaching life," he says.

So, when Wilhelm went to work at the University of Maine—after working for 13 years as a middle and high school teacher in Maryland, Switzerland, and Wisconsin—it was no shocker that he became the founding director of the University of Maine Writing Project. He stayed in that position for 8 years until, 3 years ago, he accepted a position at Boise State University in Idaho, handing over the Maine project's directorship to Rich Kent, one of the first-year fellows.

Wilhelm brought with him to Boise the itch to organize a project on that campus. "I decided to do this once more because I saw how NWP can change teachers, schools, and lives. I began lobbying for a writing project before I arrived here. I think a well-functioning writing project is the most important contribution one can make to the teaching community, and to local students."

Jeff Wilhelm
Given his previous experience, Wilhelm was able to hit the ground running in Boise. He knew that the summer institute needed to be a launching pad for other writing project work. "After the institute, we met in initiative and writing groups throughout the year. These resulted in summer offerings of two open institutes and two advanced institutes: one on inquiry and literacy, and another on using the Lewis and Clark expedition to think about teaching.

"We are looking forward to combining our first-year fellows with our outstanding crop of second-year fellows, so we can grow our site and continue to meet new needs of our schools and students."

In addition to this work, Wilhelm sees another mission for the Boise State site: "Our big challenge is to create dialogue around many issues and practices that are accepted in our schools, such as formulas for teaching writing. We are currently addressing the issue of high-stakes standardized tests. We are writing op-ed pieces for local newspapers and magazines. We don't know what the results will be, but we want to open a conversation about creating more robust and performance-based assessment programs instead of relying solely on exams that test only information retrieval rather than understanding and the use of knowledge."

If this aspiration sounds rather ambitious, please keep in mind that we are hearing from a man who has among his personal goals a Worldloppet Meistershaft, which means he will have completed cross-country skiing marathons in 12 countries around the world. From that perspective, the much tougher challenge of local education reform seems less daunting.

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