National Writing Project

New York City Writing Project “Retreats” to Write Again!

By: Joe Bellacero
Date: June 17, 2009

Summary: Overcoming the challenges of expense, distance, writer's fear of rejection, and being "just-too-darn-busy," the NYCWP organized its own Professional Writing Retreat and integrated professional writing into its regular work.


Time to write—and time to get critical feedback.

In its 30-year history the New York City Writing Project has served more than 10,000 teachers in workshops, courses, and institutes, and participated in countless national programs. As a result, many of its site leaders are known as go-to resources throughout the network.

But could there be a cost to all of this activity? Might it be difficult for such a hardworking site to find time to write about all it knows?

In 2006, determined to rectify this situation and make the site's important work more visible, Site Director Nancy Mintz began to push for more writing. I joined a team of other site leaders to work on the site's professional writing initiative.

We started with a gathering of 20 teacher-consultants, who were recruited for a weekend to write, share, and talk at the home of Amanda Gulla. Two teachers from this retreat, Gulla and Ed Osterman, took another step by attending the NWP Professional Writing Retreat.

Then NYCWP took a large step forward: Gulla and Osterman helped the site get a small grant from the NWP to fund a more ambitious NYCWP professional writing retreat.

We needed to extend that initial gathering to nurture the pieces that had begun, create comfort within the site with the idea of writing about our work, and reengage past members of our institutes in activities at the site.

Structuring a Retreat Around Busy Lives

But how to accomplish such a goals in the hurly-burly life of New York City, where travel from anywhere in the city can eat up hours like they're potato chips? And, although the NWP grant was helpful, New York is, frankly, darned expensive.

So, in addition to the usual challenges of professional writing—teachers feeling they have nothing new to say, aren't good writers, have little spare time, and might be rejected—there is the near impossibility of coordinating the schedules of more than a couple of individuals.

To meet these challenges, we planned an experience that would involve two pre-retreat meetings to ease fears, a getaway retreat to do and share the writing, and a follow-up program.

We also added a virtual component to augment our face-to-face meetings, the Google Groups listserv, which allows participants to share challenges and get advice on an ongoing basis.

To recruit for the retreat, we sent out a flyer to institute participants from the previous three years, which attracted twelve people. Word of mouth brought others to us, and we had a nice group to start.

Finding a Way to Escape

In the first pre-retreat session we explored writing ideas and examined publication guidelines. Then in the second meeting we brought like-minded writers together in groups.

One purpose behind our decision to have two preliminary meetings was to accommodate the busy schedules of our participants, knowing that not everyone would be able to get to both meetings. There were, in fact, six participants at each meeting—but only two attended both. Using our Google Group, though, we shared the notes from each meeting with those who had not been able to attend.

Our getaway retreat continued to loom as a problem. We were determined that we needed to truly escape from our lives if the writing was going to really take shape. But quotes from conference centers ranged from $150 to $300 per person per night—slightly above our budget of $15 per person per night.

Fortunately, we discovered a summer camp facility in New Jersey where one of our members was associate director. It was free at the end of April and for the price of a cook, could be ours. It wasn't a resort, but it was both cheap and comfortable, had a technology center with WiFi, and wasn't far away.

From Writing to Publishing

Using models provided by the NWP, we structured long periods of writing, easy access to editorial friends, and abundant snacks—and the retreat turned out to be all we had hoped.

Amanda Gulla published "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard: Nurturing Creativity and Developing Voice in the Preparation of English Teachers" in The New Educator. Victoria Donaldson wrote a piece that helped her gain acceptance into the special "Program for Lead Teachers" at Bank Street College. Ed Osterman's piece eventually became the monograph Supporting On-Site Teacher-Consultants: New York City Writing Project's Community of Learners, published by NWP.

Two other pieces became reports to NWP, and the remaining two are nearing completion, one having grown to a book of 70,000 words about the teaching life.

One disappointment was that several of the institute fellows found they simply could not keep up with the writing under the pressure of their heavy teaching and grad school schedules and had to drop out. Still, we have planted a seed in them that may yet bear fruit.

Writing Beyond the Retreat

Even more important than the immediate results is the excitement about professional writing that has been created at the site.

Gulla and long-time NYCWP member Elaine Avidon now serve as facilitators/editors/butt-kickers to our core group of teacher-consultants, each of whom is writing a piece about the work they have done as "alongside writing consultants" to teachers of all subjects.

As a result of meeting regularly, communicating online, and sharing informally with each other, pieces such as "Students Write Tabloid Tabulations in a Math Gossip Magazine" by Tom Murray and myself are gradually emerging and will do much toward accomplishing our goal of making our work visible.

Struggles with time, space, money, and finding participants will be common to every site that attempts a professional writing retreat, but the experience at NYCWP shows that meeting those challenges is worth the effort. Enhancing continuity, increasing visibility, and building a greater understanding of the process and challenge of writing have energized all aspects of our site's work.

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