National Writing Project

Navigating the Tensions in Designing a Professional Writing Retreat

By: Susan Martens-Baker, Robert Petrone
Date: July 29, 2010

Summary: Two Nebraska Writing Project facilitators share their process of navigating tensions as they developed their site's first professional writing retreat. Their reflection on these tensions helped them think strategically about the demands of designing such a retreat.


The Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP) has had great success in helping teachers stay connected to their identity as writers, in part by the development of personal writing retreats.

As Nebraska Writing Project teacher-consultants have become more active educational leaders, their desire to increase their presence in professional literature has also grown. Recognizing this, the site's advisory board recently allocated $2,000 from its annual budget for a group of facilitators to conceptualize, organize, and facilitate the site's first-ever professional writing retreat.

Doing so, however, was a much more difficult task than we had imagined.

As we sat down to write the flyer for the professional writing retreat , several tensions underpinned our drafting process—tensions that helped us think more strategically about how to develop a professional writing retreat that both engendered a nurturing atmosphere and addressed the expectations of writing for professional publication.

Tension No. 1—Drawing a distinction from previous retreats

In promoting the professional writing retreat, we knew we wanted to build on the success and momentum of our previous retreats, but we also knew that we would need to draw a clear distinction between those retreats and this one.

This retreat would consist of more intensive, personalized, and critical facilitator coaching and feedback than previous retreats.

For example, in previous retreats, facilitators actively fostered a relaxed, friendly, and celebratory atmosphere that integrated NWP structures such as writing marathons and read-arounds.

We wanted to keep that creative and nurturing environment, but we also wanted to convey that the tone of this retreat, the stakes for publication, the expectations for participation, and the interaction structures would be different. This retreat would necessarily consist of more intensive, personalized, and critical facilitator coaching and feedback than previous retreats.

Also unlike the previous retreats, which were an open invitation to all teacher-consultants and their writing-friendly friends and family (and on occasions, dogs!), this one would be limited to ten writers who would be chosen from a pool of applicants; those accepted would be funded for room and board during the two-day retreat.

Finally, unlike the other retreats, in which participants wrote in any genre they liked, this retreat would require all participants to do professional writing.

At the same time that we wanted to distinguish this retreat from previous ones, we wanted to be inclusive and not present it in a manner that would feel off-putting or elitist to our teacher-consultants.

We didn't want teacher-consultants to think, "Well, that retreat's not for me," or "I'm not smart enough or advanced enough to write like that." Keeping this in mind, we employed a broad definition of what this professional writing might look like, including, for example, the traditional idea of the journal article, but also other possibilities such as conference proposals and presentations, grant applications, and professional development workshops.

We made it a point to welcome writers at any level of their development, and we agreed that we would do some personal recruiting to make sure we targeted NeWP newbies as well as veterans.

And one thing stayed the same. We continued to capitalize on such well-established NWP traditions as the importance of great food, as well as plenty of time to write and connect with others. Thus, as our dining tables and campfire stories overflowed, so did our writing.

Tension No. 2—Situating facilitators in relation to participants

Upon completion of the first draft of the flyer, we submitted it to the Nebraska Writing Project leadership team, who sent it back to us requesting that each of us add a brief biographical sketch highlighting our publication experience. They explained that it would help the applicants know our credentials as coaches for professional writing.

We felt uneasy, though, because we realized that the inclusion of our bios on the flyer represented a tension between how we were positioning ourselves as experts and our long-held model and practice of expertise-sharing. In the Nebraska Writing Project (as in other sites, we're sure) our facilitators are always careful to position themselves as fellow participants, as one teacher teaching and learning from other teachers.

We know that this ethos is vital in creating credibility for the program and in establishing the spirit of collective work. In the Nebraska Writing Project, we typically veer away from anything that smacks of the ivory tower or top-down approaches that teachers often find problematic. Our concerns about the bios were that they would position us as experts and establish us as separate or distinct from the other participants, potentially creating a sense of hierarchy.

At the same time that we struggled with these issues, we knew that our participants would need (and most likely want) coaches and consultants who could talk from experience about the processes of submission and editing, the choice of the right journal for a manuscript, the nuances of reading calls for conference proposals, and the subtle rhetorical strategies involved in successful grant writing.

In the end we included our bios on the flyer, but in planning for the retreat itself we know that we would need to work hard to maintain the delicate balance of being coaches and consultants at the same time that we participated as fellow writers.

Tensions lead to deeper understanding and commitment

Embracing, navigating, and reflecting upon these tensions led us to a deeper understanding of the kind of work that we needed to do with our participants at the professional writing retreat.

Specifically, we more clearly see ourselves thinking critically with our writers, using our expertise to guide them through the kinds of demanding revisions needed for professional writing while at the same time honoring their experience and expertise.

In addition to helping us deepen our understanding of how to create an environment in which teacher-consultants can thrive, reflecting on the tensions inherent in developing a professional writing retreat has also deepened our commitment to why such a space for teachers is vital to their own growth as educators and to the betterment of young people's lives in and outside of schools.

At a time when most educational debates, discussions, and policies ignore or actively dismiss the voices of teachers, professional writing retreats have the potential to provide educators with a collective staging ground where they can hone their words so that their stories and wisdom will be heard at last.

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