National Writing Project

A Reunion and a Patchwork Quilt: Taking the Directors Retreat Home

By: Nick Coles
Date: June 2008

Summary: Site leaders who attended the 2007 Directors Retreat reunite to talk about the programs and changes they've implemented at their sites. The Directors Retreat experience continues to live on in unexpected ways.

 

Directors Retreat
Directors Retreat participants work
together in a cross-site group.

The 25 NWP site leaders gathered in a windowless room beneath the elevators of New York City's Javits Center had not seen each other for six months, and they were eager to hear of each other's site developments. It was now November 2007, and the National Writing Project's Annual Meeting was in full swing. The group had last been together in June in a significantly more bucolic environment, the Oglebay Resort and Conference Center in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they had participated in the NWP Directors Retreat.

The Directors Retreat, which is designed to advance the practice of leadership at writing project sites and to support sites' development, had generated a strong sense of camaraderie among participants, a sense of mutual commitment sparked by the ways participants had challenged and learned from each other—much like a summer institute.

For example, in cross-site discussion groups, teams of leaders (directors, co-directors, program coordinators) from three sites met daily to mine the successes and difficulties in the work of their sites. Using protocols for collaborative inquiry and strategic planning, participants in each group drafted a set of plans to develop a key piece of work back at their own site. Often these plans focused on reorganizing a site's leadership structure or on improving aspects of core programs for summer institutes, continuity, or professional development.

The group was eager to hear about the things others had accomplished since returning to their sites, so a writing prompt was proposed: "What is something you'd like to share with your cross-site group from the summer? How did the sharing, protocols, or ideas from the Directors Retreat influence the work at your site?"

The quilt was a representation of how the strength of each square contributed to the overall warmth and longevity of the quilt itself.

One site reported that it began "a new initiative on professional writing that would mine some of the writing done in the summer institute and move it toward more public publication." Another site formed an executive board and held regular leadership meetings "as a way of broadening teacher-consultants' participation in the work of the site." Others mentioned things like initiating "NWP Saturdays" to expand programming, or using the ideas heard at the Directors Retreat to recruit and plan the summer institute.

And then one site said it had simply "stolen" the whole retreat and taken it home with them.

The Gestalt—Breaking Down Silos

The leaders of the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project (KMWP) said that the retreat's "uninterrupted time to envision new goals with our new and traditional leadership team members" was so invaluable that their first plan was to duplicate the experience for key leaders within the site by holding their own Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project Leadership Team Retreat in the fall of 2007.

"We blatantly stole the activities, sequencing, and time for small group work that had been so valuable to the three of us who attended the NWP retreat and, in turn, collaboratively led this retreat," said Dawn Kirby, director of KMWP, who attended the retreat with Michelle Goodsite, co-director of the site, and Mary Lynn Huie, advisory council chair of the site.

The cross-site discussion group that had been so effective at the Directors Retreat was a key way to spark cross-fertilization at Kennesaw Mountain's retreat as well. For example, members of Kennesaw Mountain's leadership team each had an individual responsibility: the summer institute, continuity, or professional development. Kirby realized that the site needed to encourage these leaders to think beyond their own "silos" in the way that participants in the Directors Retreat were pushed to think beyond their own sites.

"The major gestalt that I took away from the Director's Retreat was that all elements of NWP's model—the summer institute, continuity, and professional development—work together to feed the larger mission of the site."

Patching Together a Quilt

In one activity at the Directors Retreat participants were asked to develop a graphic that metaphorically represented "some of the challenges and opportunities you find in your work."

Returning home, site leaders at Kennesaw Mountain introduced this strategy at their leadership retreat. Participants created a metaphor and drawing to symbolize how the aspects of the site interacted for overall site growth, capacity, and leadership. It was a traditional Southern patchwork quilt.

"We liked the variety and uniqueness of each square (symbolically, the summer institute, continuity, professional development, and our principles of diversity and distributed leadership)," said Kirby. "The quilt was a representation of how the strength of each square contributed to the overall warmth and longevity of the quilt itself. It was our way of saying that that our organization works more effectively when all parts support and interact with all other parts of our site."

The "key piece of work" that the Kennesaw site set out to implement, then, centered on implementing the quilt metaphor at all aspects of their site.

Says Kirby: "At our first Advisory Council meeting of the year, we displayed our quilt drawing and explained a shared vision for the work of the site. We overtly discussed the role of the summer institute in supporting professional development and continuity. In our summer institute we introduce our newest fellows to the quilt metaphor and their potential roles in adding to the quilt."

Kennesaw Mountain's experience in taking the Directors Retreat home demonstrates how building community can be key to forwarding the work, not only in an NWP program, but at a local writing project site.

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