National Writing Project

State and Regional Networks Gain Focus with Visioning Retreats

By: Bruce Penniman
Date: February 23, 2011

Summary: Determining what kinds of work NWP sites can do better together than separately is challenging. Many networks have used visioning retreats to discover focus areas and decide what kinds of activities add value to sites.


As the National Writing Project network grows closer to its goal of placing a site within reach of every teacher in the country, more and more sites are discovering the benefits of networking at the state or regional level.

At an intermediate step between local and national interests, state and regional networks provide opportunities for sharing resources and strategies, discussing common problems and challenges, mentoring new site leaders, and introducing teacher-consultants to the bigger picture of National Writing Project work.

State and regional network gatherings usually generate loads of enthusiasm and long lists of project ideas. In spite—or perhaps because—of this energy, site directors and network coordinators often find it necessary to step back and ask, "What should the focus of the network be now? What work can the network's sites do better together than separately?"

Some state and regional networks, both new and established, seek answers to these essential questions through visioning retreats, which have been used successfully by many individual sites for "taking stock of the current work of the site and, in view of that, envisioning the road to future growth and development," according to NWP's continuity monograph (Re)Visioning Site Work: Extending the Reach and Relevance of NWP Sites.

Like every local site, each network needs to revisit its mission and goals periodically in light of current circumstances, and a visioning retreat—typically a carefully planned weekend meeting of site leaders and teacher-leaders from all of the network's sites—can provide the right atmosphere.

Determining the Value Added by a State Network

In 2008, after several years of robust development, including two statewide conferences (see Massachusetts Sites Increase Statewide Visibility), the Massachusetts Writing Project (MWP) network was facing some growing pains. One of the four sites, the one that had always hosted the network meetings, had closed, and the other three sites were in the midst of leadership transitions.

Collegial relationships and a shared philosophy—not a lengthy to-do list—are paramount for the health of the network.

After the 2008 conference, frazzled site leaders asked each other, in effect, "Are state network activities siphoning off too much of the sites' energy? Do we currently have the capacity to mount statewide programs when we need all hands on deck at our sites?"

To ask these questions was to answer them. It was clear that the purpose and direction of the network needed some rethinking. With the help of a State and Regional Networks (SRN) minigrant, MWP held a visioning retreat in January 2009 to affirm that the state network was "of the sites, by the sites, and for the sites," not a separate, competing entity.

Elizabeth Glenn Mitchell, director of the Boston Writing Project, came up with the focus question of the retreat: "What is the value added to the sites by the state network?"

Answering that question took some time, both during the retreat and over the ensuing months. Since many of the site leaders and teacher-consultants who participated in the meeting had not previously known each other, retreat facilitators planned activities that enabled them to share their individual Writing Project stories and to look at the state network using success as a lens before engaging in analysis, problem-solving, and goal-setting (see MWP Retreat Agenda (PDF)).

One of the most useful segments of the retreat was a "SWOT analysis" (see the SWOT Analysis Worksheet (PDF) available at MindTools ). "SWOT" stands for "Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats," and the activity began with brainstorming about the state network under each of those headings. Then cross-site teams explored potential strategies by connecting strengths with opportunities, strengths with threats, and weaknesses with opportunities.

From this broad array of possibilities, the group distilled several key goals and developed a set of modest action plans (which did not include maintaining a statewide conference but did include improving advocacy and visibility).

"My sense is that retreat participants found this vision-planning 'protocol' empowering since it encouraged divergent thinking about four key factors (the SWOTs) that each of us knew something about," said Mitchell. "It helped us think in novel ways about how to proceed with strategic planning, and our site-based and cross-site conversations were fluent and passionate because of it."

But the process of reinventing the network was far from over. Momentum on some projects proved difficult to maintain, and when site leaders met again in the spring, they decided to refine the network's focus even further. Returning to one of the "strength-opportunity" themes generated by the SWOT analysis, they decided that MWP could best serve the sites by nurturing the relationship between the state network and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Since then, network liaisons (appointed MWP representatives) and site directors have maintained regular contact with DESE officials. As a result, MWP leaders have been asked to serve on a number of DESE committees, and individual sites have been awarded contracts to deliver DESE-funded professional development institutes. Current network efforts are focused on building capacity to collaborate on DESE-sponsored work.

"Through our visioning retreat we rediscovered some of our core added values as a network," said Mitchell. Mitchell listed the following:

  • a state-based web presence that can nimbly showcase the network's knowledge base and professional development offerings
  • a diverse collection of skilled teacher-consultants, which the network can draw upon to expand individual site's capacities for open professional development institutes and tailored district-based assistance teams
  • a deeper understanding and recognition of how to draw upon each site's unique resources and expertise areas for the invitational summer institute and continuity programming.

Developing Strategic Plans for Network Development

Like the Massachusetts network, the Pennsylvania Writing Project Network (PWPN) had originally been formed with a three-year grant from the State Network Action Plan (SNAP), which allowed the state's well-established site directors to come together to forge a common identity. By 2008, the network had already completed several major projects, including developing an online database of standards-aligned lesson plans. But with several new sites opening and site leadership shifting, some participants no longer felt a sense of urgency about the network.

"We needed to develop some clarity about the resources and value of PWPN," said Nancy Coco, director of the Penn State Lehigh Valley Writing Project. "We were on the verge of our next chapter, with the potential to cover the whole state, but we needed to see if there was still a vested interest in collaborating."

PWPN decided to hold a visioning retreat for the stated purposes of crafting strategic plans for disseminating the work of the sites and increasing the network's visibility, but with the underlying goal of relationship-building among the sites.

Many of the teacher-consultants who attended were emerging site and network leaders with little actual decision-making power. Yet, by working together, they developed a renewed vision of the network's potential. Using a Venn Diagram (PDF) that connected the state's educational needs to the network's resources, they realized that no other entity in Pennsylvania was so well positioned to impact teaching and learning. Other activities included brainstorming a three- to five-year vision for the network.

A key decision in planning the retreat was to invite Diane Simaska, a "friend of PWPN" from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), to participate. Involving state officials in network retreats is not always appropriate, but Simaska was the right person at the right time. She recommended connecting with the department's Intermediate Units as a way to be recognized as a professional development entity.

"She spoke as one of us and was a real advocate on our behalf," said Coco. As a result of Simaska's participation in the retreat, PWPN was invited to meet with department of education representatives to consider offering workshops entitled "Teaching Writing Using the Domains" at locations around the state. Due to a budget crisis, the funding for these workshops never materialized, but the collaboration had the effect of getting the network on the radar of PDE, the Intermediate Units, and district superintendents.

The most important outcome of the visioning retreat, according to Coco, was the realization that collegial relationships and a shared philosophy—not a lengthy to-do list—are paramount for the health of the network.

"Must there always be a project around which to gather, or is mentorship through collegial conversation a meaningful end in itself?" she asked in her report on the retreat. As for the Massachusetts network, its challenge was to settle on a few realizable goals. One example was the decision to conduct a network writing retreat with legislative aides before the "Day on Capitol Hill" at the NWP Spring Meeting.

PWPN is still drawing on the shared vision developed by participants at the retreat. "The process was capacity-building," said Coco. "There's great value in collective planning and support."

Like all other organizations, state and regional networks go through life cycles and periodically need to rethink their missions. Carefully planned visioning retreats are precious opportunities to renew relationships, find new focus areas, and establish priorities.

Download Related Resources

PDF Download "2009 MWP Retreat Agenda"
PDF Download "PWPN Venn Diagram"

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