National Writing Project

Site Leaders Explore Continuity—Enacting the Culture of the NWP Model Year Round

By: Susan Connell Biggs
Date: May 20, 2010

Summary: How do NWP sites develop leadership and build the capacity to meet the needs of their service areas? Site leaders explored this question and others at the 2009 Directors Retreat, where they learned how sites build leadership capacity by engaging teacher-leaders in ongoing opportunities to learn together about NWP site work.


Stepping into the role of director at a well-established Writing Project site seemed at first a daunting task to Marilyn McKinney of the Southern Nevada Writing Project (SNWP).

"What made me finally decide to take on the role was realizing that our efforts to build leadership capacity, including holding an advanced leadership institute, were starting to show success; so I knew that I wouldn't be alone."

What would our leadership team meetings look like if
. . . we were to continue to read and write and learn together?

But McKinney knew the site needed to support further leadership development, so she and SNWP teacher-leader and technology liaison Ian Salzman attended the 2009 NWP Directors Retreat in Tubac, Arizona, with the following key question: How do we continue to build leadership capacity and support and organize teachers to lead the work of our site?

This question was also on the minds of the Directors Retreat Leadership Team while planning the retreat—an annual three-day event designed to support site development and advance the practice of leadership at local Writing Project sites.

"As a leadership team, we spent a good part of the year steeped in our own inquiry into the connections between site development and leadership development, and in the process we affirmed that both are intricately connected with the concept of continuity," says leadership team member Nancy Remington.

Exploring Continuity

To prepare for the retreat, participating site leaders were invited to read two of the NWP at Work continuity monographs that illustrate the ways in which sites engage teacher-leaders in ongoing inquiry about the work of NWP sites: The Challenge of Change: Growth Through Inquiry at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and Continuity in the Rhode Island Writing Project: Keeping Teachers at the Center.

At the retreat, participants revisited the foreword to the continuity monographsa short text that captures the key principles and underlying theory of continuity. The reading prompted small-group discussions about the role of continuity in the year-round work of a site.

This idea of inviting site leaders to read and learn together seemed to be a critical insight.

To further facilitate an exploration of continuity the Directors Retreat Leadership Team shared the graphic "Exploring Implications for Year-Round Work (PDF)," developed as a resource for sites to begin to map out their year-round work in a way that encouraged seeing the interconnection between and among programs.

As participants highlighted phrases from the foreword that stood out, one group of leaders from Northern Kentucky, Southwest Georgia, and Central Virginia focused their conversation around the line "Continuity . . . extends and deepens the cultural values enacted in the invitational summer institute: learning is ongoing, and it is socially and collaboratively constructed."

A new idea for some and an affirmation for others was this idea of extending the culture of the invitational summer institute throughout the year in all the work of the site, whether it be a leadership meeting, writing retreat, or professional development program in the schools.

This insight gave rise to a new question: "What would our leadership team meetings look like if, beyond just working through our 'to-do' list, we were to continue to read and write and learn together?"

"Maybe they'd look exactly like what we're doing here," offered Irmgard Schopen-Davis from the Southwest Georgia Writing Project.

At a nearby table, McKinney and Salzman were beginning to answer the question that had brought them to the retreat. This idea of inviting site leaders to read and learn together seemed to be a critical insight, and in her end-of-the-day reflection McKinney imagined how to bring this new understanding of continuity back to SNWP:

"I think it will be important to have our Writing Project leadership team engage in the same processes that Ian and I are engaged in here—reading, writing, mapping, discussing," she wrote. "This will help us affirm that what makes NWP sites unique as professional communities is this idea of continuity as finding occasions to learn together year round in all the work we do."

Taking the Directors Retreat Home

And that's exactly what McKinney and Salzman did. Scheduling a series of working meetings in which SNWP site leaders and potential leaders came together to explore the work of leading an NWP site, they read the continuity monographs and began to map out the year-round work of the site using the graphic "Exploring Implications for Year-Round Work."

As they continued to explore interconnections between and among site programs, they compared their maps to another NWP resource—Year in the Life of a Director (PDF)—a timeline resource that maps out the responsibilities of an NWP site director across the year.

Salzman noted, "When we worked with this at the Directors Retreat, I saw 'Year in the Life' as offering a comprehensive overview of the work of leading an NWP site and an opportunity to invite other site leaders to contribute to and collaborate in leading the work."

Just as McKinney and Salzman had imagined, as SNWP teacher-leaders came to better understand the work of the site, they were discovering ways to support and organize themselves to lead that work.

"We broke into task force groups with Southern Nevada Writing Project leaders to work on bringing this new learning into our site's planning and programming, and the impact was immediate," McKinney reported.

For example, the Youth Programs group mapped out their year's work on the graphic to help themselves see new possibilities for their work. In the process, they identified ways to integrate a professional development component extending the programs' impact and leveraging the investment of program leaders' efforts.

This new perspective also helped the group reconsider their Youth Writing Fairs, as they weighed the demand on leadership these programs made and considered better ways to put that leadership to work to build capacity in other areas.

In the months after the Directors Retreat, SNWP leadership team meetings engaged site leaders in ongoing inquiry into the work of the site. In the process, McKinney affirmed that her role as director included nurturing Southern Nevada Writing Project as a community of learners.

By honoring teacher knowledge and expertise, putting teachers at the center, and engaging in their own ongoing learning, SNWP site leaders were "enacting the culture" of the NWP model. Taking the time to learn together allowed them to better understand that the work of an NWP site is to continue to learn together about what the professional development needs of the service area are and how best to build leadership capacity to serve them.

Site leaders from SNWP and seventeen other sites affirmed in their experiences at the Directors Retreat, and took home to share with leaders at their sites the lesson, captured in the foreword to the continuity monographs (PDF), that learning together is the work of NWP sites:

"It is through continuity that each site invests over time in the continued learning of its community of teacher-consultants. Continuity, essentially, consists of those practices that nurture ongoing professional development and provide an essential source for sustained leadership development at a site."

Susan Connell Biggs is the special projects coordinator at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and a field director for the National Writing Project.

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