April 8, 2011
Written by Paula Diedrich, Upper Peninsula Writing Project Associate Director of Professional Development
The National Writing Project…WAIT. Don’t stop reading just because I used the word writing and you don’t consider yourself a writer. The National Writing Project is so much more. Each time I approach a fellow educator about applying for an NWP fellowship, I spend at least the first five to ten minutes explaining that is not “just about writing.” Some days I wish the NWP was called something else. The National Educator Advancement Program. Or maybe the National Teacher-Leader Program. Then again, maybe the National Educators’ Community Program. All of these titles would work without scaring away those “non-writers.”
The NWP believes in teachers teaching teachers. This results in a community of educators where all are respected for their knowledge, regardless of years of experience or advanced degrees. I became a part of this community through my local site, the Upper Peninsula Writing Project, in 1999. I am thankful my graduate advisor, Dr. Suzanne Standerford, directed our local site and suggested I apply. I never considered myself a writer, though I knew I could write well enough to earn those coveted “A” grades on my paper when I put the time and effort into the writing, so I did the same as most potential applicants; I debated if I wanted to spend four weeks, four days a week, from 8:30 am until 4:00 pm, of my summer in a graduate course. If I had known then that the NWP would provide me with all the opportunities, learning, and support I crave as a life-long learner and educator, there would not have been a debate.
Since that summer of ’99, I have stayed connected to the UPWP and NWP. Because of this connection, I provide my students a challenging and rewarding school experience. My most rewarding experience comes at the end of the year when my students look through their writing portfolios and can explain how their writing has improved, along with stating their strengths and weaknesses. Without the NWP, my knowledge of what makes a piece of writing better than another, would be limited. I especially am thankful for my opportunities to learn, to understand and to share the NWP’s Analytic Writing Continuum. This tool is part of a larger assessment system that each summer is used to study the effectiveness of NWP’s teachers on their students’ writing.
All the NWP Scoring Conferences I have attended are a highlight for me just like the 1999 Summer Institute I attended. What a geek I must be to look forward to being in a room from 8:30 am until 4:00 pm for 3 days, scoring student writing from across the nation. Really! Sitting in a hotel conference room, sometimes without windows, during my “free” summer months, shuffling scored and unscored papers is truly a highlight every summer for me. And this year, I get to attend two of these NWP Scoring Conferences! Why do I enjoy reading more student writing after a school year of grading the writing of my 130 students? Because I learn. I learn what makes a piece of writing better than another. I also learn from the other NWP teachers at the conference because we don’t just sit quietly at our tables scoring; we have meal and snack breaks where we talk teacher-talk. Then we go out for dinner and continue our teacher-talk. Not done yet, we go back to the hotel for more talk time. My husband, as with most spouses of teachers, will attest that teachers live their life talking about “school.” What I truly enjoy about my NWP colleagues is that we don’t have “bitch” sessions, we have positive conversations centered around our work. We always are looking for the hidden gems in our work and our students’ work to help us improve. Put me in any room full of NWP teachers and I will learn how to be a more effective teacher.
The NWP’s Scoring Conferences is just one opportunity where I am in a room which satisfies my craving to constantly improve. What I know for certain is that unlike many other professional development options, the National Writing Project is much more than improving writing. It is about a community of positive teacher leaders always aspiring to advance their own learning, their students’ learning, and the entire educational system. It certainly is more than “just about writing.”
Because of my connection, I continually learn new strategies for reaching my eighth grade students and helping them become literate individuals. I teach the hard parts and, with writing, it’s all hard. Writing is the most complex task we ask our brains to complete. I know when my student leave writing well, they are thinking well too. They can look critically at their own words and the words of others. In our classroom, our brains sweat, including mine.
My real reason for applying was financial: graduate credits for free. Married, living on a new teacher salary and having a young child helped me make the time to complete the application process.
Learning to look for the positives, includes looking at the positives of all our students and colleagues. We may not agree with others or the current situation but we can find the positive