National Writing Project

The NWP Directors Retreat: Fox Valley Writing Project Finds Lessons That Keep On Giving

Date: June 16, 2009

Summary: Fox Valley Writing Project leaders share their thinking about the connections among leadership development, continuity, and site development—thinking that has grown from their experiences at the 2007 Directors Retreat.


The work of leading an NWP site falls into two distinct periods: pre–Directors Retreat and post–Directors Retreat. That was the conclusion Fox Valley Writing Project leaders Pat Scanlan and Lisa Weiss reached after attending the 2007 Directors Retreat.

The NWP Directors Retreat shaped not only the work of the site, but its leaders' understanding of what a site is and does.

"Prior to our experiences at the Directors Retreat, I had assumed that a site director was the one who did 95 percent of the work," says Scanlan, who had recently taken over as director of the Fox Valley Writing Project in Wisconsin. "The director called the meetings, listened to and encouraged teachers' ideas, and then returned to her office with a to-do list as long as her arm. Needless to say, I attended the Directors Retreat with countless questions. As a newcomer to NWP, I knew I had a lot to learn."

At the Directors Retreat, Scanlan and Weiss, the site's continuity coordinator, were invited to think about their local site—its goals, strengths, and challenges. NWP facilitators provided big blocks of time for them to examine their understandings of each of the components of year-round site work.

"While we had previously recognized that for many Fox Valley teachers, the invitational summer institute is a life-changing experience, we hadn't understood its relationship to our site's continuity efforts and professional development," says Scanlan.

Time and Support for Strategic Planning

The Directors Retreat is an annual event intended to provide site leaders with the time and support to work on strategic planning. Over the three and a half days of the retreat, leaders are invited to consider the relationships between their site's goals and aspirations and the three core elements of NWP sites' work: the invitational summer institute, continuity, and professional development.

The work of a site is developing teacher-leaders, and continuity is the work of developing the site as their intellectual home.

Site leaders work in teams to develop strategic action plans and timelines. They also share drafts of their plans and questions in cross-site group consultancies with other site leaders who have similar goals and challenges—in the case of the Fox Valley Writing Project, leaders who were also facing transitions in leadership.

"This retreat was clearly not for wimps," says Scanlan. "During one of our cross-site group meetings, I distinctly remember having a 'deer-in-headlights' moment when my eyes glazed over and my brain froze from information overload."

Scanlan and Weiss left the Directors Retreat with the draft of an action plan and a fragile but growing understanding of the work of leading an NWP site, inspired by the following:

  • a clearer sense of the organic relationship between and among the elements of year-round work—the invitational summer institute, continuity, and professional development
  • an emerging understanding of the essential role of continuity in creating and sustaining the site as a professional home for teachers
  • insights into the importance of building a site infrastructure, along with some ideas about organizing leadership at the site.

Equally valuable, they left the retreat having formulated the following key questions, which continue to guide their work:

  • How do we grow teacher-leaders in the summer institute and beyond?
  • What are the current strengths and challenges of our site?
  • What are the strengths of our teachers and how can we engage them in site leadership?
  • How do we develop and organize a structure to support shared leadership?

Bringing the Directors Retreat Home

Scanlan and Weiss returned to their site and put their plan into action. In the fall, they established a leadership team, a schedule of monthly meetings, and an updated website featuring the site's planning calendar for the year.

In the spring, the site's teacher-consultant community held four monthly meetings, offered a readers/writers workshop class, hosted their Second Annual Spring Fling—a one-day workshop that serves as a forum for teacher-consultants as presenters—and selected 21 participants from 33 applicants for the 2008 Invitational Summer Institute.

As the Fox Valley site leaders continue to refine their understandings, Scanlan and Weiss share with them the set of principles that guide the work of the site:

1. The work of a site is developing teacher-leaders, and continuity is the work of developing the site as their intellectual home.

At its best, writing project work is seamless. We now understand continuity meetings as an extension of the work of the summer institute, where we invite teacher-consultants to write and talk—sharing successes, challenges, and questions about their teaching. Continuity is the work of providing an intellectual home for our teachers.

2. We need structures and protocols to support our work.

Once it became clear that the role of leading a site required sharing leadership responsibilities, our first step was to set a calendar with meeting times. Before we could invite teacher-leaders to become part of a leadership team, we had to have an agenda and a clear purpose for meeting. Expanding our site leadership required an infrastructure with regular processes and meeting times to support our work.

3. We make progress in small steps.

One of the key insights of our time at the Directors Retreat was our recognition that site work includes endless possibilities. Our immediate temptation was to do as much as possible: contact teachers, schedule meetings, plan events. Do stuff. But while "doing something" is certainly an important way to move forward, being strategic also means taking small steps.

Following the Directors Retreat, Scanlan and Weiss convened a group of Fox Valley Writing Project teacher-leaders to share their draft action plan, take stock of the site's work, identify priorities, and challenge one another to be realistic.

"Our experiences at the Directors Retreat and since have confirmed that confusion is often a necessary part of life's transitions," says Scanlan. "So is the occasional `deer-in-headlights' feeling. Beyond those scary moments, however, transitions provide opportunities for learning and growth."

The next opportunity for growth is with the site's teacher-leaders. "Moving forward in our leadership transition means that we will focus on the development of teacher-leaders who are prepared to assume leadership when it is time for the next site transition to occur," says Scanlan.

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