National Writing Project

Four “Aha!” Moments from the 2006 New-Site Leadership Institute

Date: July 2007

Summary: The National Writing Project's model of professional development sounds straightforward, but what does it look like in action? In January 2006, four leaders of new NWP sites found answers in our own experiences at the New-Site Leadership Institute.


“Teachers teaching teachers.” The National Writing Project model of professional development. It sounds straightforward, and the striking success of the NWP over the past thirty years suggests that it works. But what does it look like? In January 2006, four leaders of new NWP sites found answers in our own experiences at the New-Site Leadership Institute.

The New-Site Leadership Institute (NSLI) is a three-day annual event at which leaders from new NWP sites come together to look beyond the initial setting up of a writing project site and examine the work involved in building on the success of the summer invitational institute to develop year-round programs.

It became clear that unless either Bob or Carol suddenly learned how to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the CDWP leadership team would have to take a more active role in developing our site.

As we gathered with teams from eight new NWP sites, we expected to learn from our NWP leaders about how to run a writing project site. We had questions about how new sites develop and at what pace, how to solve difficult problems, and how to be good leaders. We all were uncertain, and we looked to the NSLI leaders for answers. Characteristically, they looked to us.

We came away from those three days with a deeper understanding of what it means to say that an NWP site is a place where teachers teach teachers, and our experiences left us inspired not only to take our new insights back to our sites, but also to share them with a wider audience.

So here we describe the “aha!” moments each of us experienced and offer four different perspectives on facing the challenges of learning to direct an NWP site. Our stories illuminate the ways in which the NWP’s model of teachers teaching teachers applies to site leaders as much as to institute fellows, teacher-consultants, and the educators and community members who participate in our programs.

It Takes a Team to Raise a Site

Brigid Schmidt, Teacher-Consultant, Capital District Writing Project, New York (CDWP)

When I reflect on my experience at NSLI, I’m reminded of the fable of the blind men and the elephant; while it’s critical to see the big picture, it is also often difficult to do so without a bit of friendly help.

Attending the 2005 NWP Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh had helped me begin to see the elephant’s head and to recognize CDWP’s role within the larger NWP network. Then at the NSLI, collaborative work with other new-site leaders and the NWP leadership team helped me appreciate the director’s role in a writing project site. That in turn allowed me to begin to envision my own role as a teacher-consultant on our site’s leadership team.

Our site is blessed to have Bob Yagelski and Carol Forman-Pemberton as its directors; they are passionate about writing, about teaching, and about nurturing teacher leadership. Yet, as I learned about A Year in the Life of a Director at the NSLI, I came to a new understanding of what it takes to raise a healthy NWP site.

It became clear that unless either Bob or Carol suddenly learned how to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the CDWP leadership team would have to take a more active role in developing our site. And that is exactly what I was able to do at the NSLI—take an active role in planning for our site’s growth.

The recognition of “teacher as professional,” a cornerstone of the NWP model, was not only personally empowering during the institute, it also challenged me to bring that sense of shared leadership home to my fellow teacher-consultants. I could feel myself growing into the role of collaborative partner as Bob and I spent the weekend problem-solving and imagining the future of our site.

Self-Discovery: That Insufferable, Messy, Empowering Experience

Robert Yagelski, Director, Capital District Writing Project

If you have taught writing, you know this student. Call him Bob. He is earnest, hard-working, and capable, but he struggles with his writing, for he is inexperienced and has trouble seeing past himself. It’s frustrating to watch him. You can see where he stumbles, and you try to show him how he can avoid those struggles. But he doesn’t yet see it.

“Here’s your focus, Bob. It’s right in front of you. Forget this other idea that you’re infatuated with.”

But you know that won’t work. Bob, like all students, has to find the way himself. You can’t do it for him. You can only give him the opportunity to learn through that insufferable, messy, empowering experience of writing. As his teacher, you must have patience as you watch him stumble and try again. Mostly you just have to have confidence that he will learn, that his own writing will teach him.

At NSLI 2006, a few wise teachers from the NWP gathered a group of new-site leaders not unlike Bob. I was one of them. I am Bob, of course, struggling—like the young writer I once was, like the heavy-handed teacher I try not to be, like the other new-site directors—to learn how to be a site director. Our NWP leaders understand that struggle, just as good teachers understand the struggle of student writers like Bob.

They gave us advice and support and lots of information about the intricacies of running an NWP site. They gave us time to write and share and think and complain and question and struggle and worry and plan. They explained financing and funding. And they left us alone—to work through, together, the problems that we all brought with us, the very same problems we didn’t think we knew how to solve.

And then, almost miraculously, we began to solve them—to find answers to our questions, models for our visions, and the confidence that we would find the way to build successful sites. Our NWP leaders modeled for us the careful, confident, subtle way to help our site’s teacher-leaders learn to build our sites.

I left feeling that I had learned a new lesson that I had known all along. Good writing teachers don’t teach writing; they make it possible for students to learn to write. Good site directors do the same thing. How simple and extraordinary is that! And in that extraordinary simplicity lies the power of the NWP.

Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

Lynette Lievers, Co-director, Southern Colorado Writing Project (SCWP)

Anticipating my second summer institute as a co-director, having been involved in planning and organizing a community writing marathon, presenting at inservice engagements, and working with site continuity, I still felt that I was fumbling around in my role as SCWP co-director.

My burning question for several months had been, “What exactly does a co-director do?” I was looking for a job description. My “aha” moment came when I realized that to be a successful co-director I must bring home to our summer invitational institute teachers the idea of NWP as a network of colleagues. For teacher-consultants, participating in a summer institute is the beginning of a journey toward collegiality and a kindred vision of teaching, writing, and growing professionally. A co-director contributes by facilitating and leading.

During the NSLI, Cathie English, from the Nebraska Writing Project, discussed her growth as a teacher-leader and spoke of moving outside her comfort zone; I immediately identified with her.

When I came to the SCWP summer institute, I wanted to grow beyond my classroom, and writing was what brought me there. Writing remains my primary passion, my comfort zone. But now I have gone beyond this personal enthusiasm to become a contributing voice in the professional community of our site. I have emerged as a teacher, as a teacher of teachers, and as a writer.

I’m still working on my job description, but I’m certain it will include more risk-taking and relationship building. Stepping outside my comfort zone seems to be a permanent part of what it means to be an NWP co-director.

How I Learned That Faster Isn’t Better

Katherine Frank, Director, Southern Colorado Writing Project

My co-director Lynette Lievers told me that we were trying to do too much, too fast, and too soon; I heard her, but I did not necessarily listen. I mean, didn’t she realize what was expected of us as a new NWP site? Didn’t she understand the model? Didn’t she realize how much we had to do?

At NSLI, I had my “aha” moment when I realized that Lynette was right. She did know; she did understand the model, she did understand what it means to be a new National Writing Project site, and she tried to tell me . . . again and again.
But I am a poor listener.

Prior to the institute, we had been asked to read “The National Writing Project: Scaling Up and Scaling Down.” On the plane, Lynette glanced periodically over my shoulder as I read. “I just wanted to see if we marked the same passages,” she said as she settled back into her seat with a satisfied smile. That smile, I would later realize, was in response to my underlining such sections as:

The NWP experience addresses the problem of ensuring that, as a reform extends its reach, it also attends to depth. (100)

In NWP’s version of scaling down . . . the status of [a teacher’s] own experience as a potential source of insight is equal to that of outside experts. (100–101)

In work with complex systems . . . people often forget that it is in the nature of such systems to break down regularly—to become “perturbed.” (102)

Reform requires not only breadth but also depth, teachers should be treated as experts, and organizations break down; well, I knew this already, so why was Lynette smiling?

It was not long before I realized why. Lynette wanted me to think deeply about the concept of “scaling down,” to consider this concept in relation to our new site, to think carefully about my role as site director and the relationships upon which this role depends, and to accept the fact that SCWP would experience periodic breakdowns. She wanted me to trust my own expertise and the expertise of the SCWP leadership, to be patient, to persevere, and most importantly, to listen carefully to others and myself.

And so I did. For three days I tried to listen carefully, to think deeply, and to “thicken” my understanding of the necessary foundation upon which a healthy site grows. I came away from the NSLI with confidence that by putting down strong roots we will grow, and likely flourish, with the help of colleagues on both the local and national level—which is just what Lynette had been trying to tell me all along.

Works Cited

McDonald, J.P., J.Buchanan, and R. Sterling. 2004. “The National Writing Project: Scaling Up and Scaling Down.” In Expanding the Reach of Education Reform, edited by T.K. Glennan et al., 81–106. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

National Writing Project and C. Nagin. 2006. Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools. Rev. ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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