It's rare that an elementary class ends the year with the same roster of students that walked through the door in September. So, several weeks ago it wasn't a surprise when we had to wish a friend farewell. He wasn't going far - just moving closer to his mother's job. But the kids knew they would probably never see him again. They all sat down and wrote to a prompt about what made their friend special. They used pictures, words, sentences, markers. The pages soon filled with rainbows and stick figures holding hands. We assembled the writing into a keepsake book to give to our friend. Most of it was pretty common first grade stuff, until one boy wrote a line that we read over and over. My co-teacher posted it on the board. Before I found NWP, I might have corrected this writing to make it adhere to my adult standards. But I didn't. I wrote it on a strip of paper and hung it near my desk - the same desk where I sat in the dark and cried when I learned that NWP's funding had been cut. I still read it every morning when I come in to work. He took all the weathered phrases about being true to yourself and recast them as a child's poetic wisdom. Near the end of his letter, leaving his friend with something to remember, he wrote: "Keep your heart in yourself."
These are trying times for teachers. For those of us who have been lucky to find a community as vibrant as our local writing project site, things have gotten a bit tougher lately. The uncertainty surrounding NWP's continued funding has proven to me that we must have a vocabulary for just what it is that a writing project site does. What is our work? How do we talk about it? And why is it important? We can start these conversations by examining our core - by keeping our hearts in ourselves.
We write. Attend any NWP-connected event and you'll find teachers writing. Sometimes there's a prompt to spark or frame our thinking for the day. The prompt usually gets us to think about our teaching or the work of our site, though sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes this writing is read aloud, and sometimes it isn't. And a lot of the time, this writing goes nowhere. But it matters - to us and our students. We believe that writing is foundational to student learning. We know that maintaining any sort of credibility as writing teachers demands that we write. What matters less is the production of text and more the invisible lines of connection and inquiry that develop in our minds. Something happens when we write. And something better happens when we all write together in a not-so-silent room of keyboard clicks and scratching pens. We have to keep writing. Always.
We inquire. We raise and pursue our own questions about writing, literacy, and technology. We start with our own teaching experience and go from there. We might stand on the shoulders of other "expert" thinkers, but over time we realize the true experts are our NWP colleagues. We'll read books, articles, blogs, and other pieces written from far away. But we reserve the right to hold any scholar's work up as an object of inquiry and not the final, revered say on a given topic. We know that theory and practice must be in constant dialogue and that it's ok to say "Well, this is how that might look in our classroom."
We learn from each other. Teachers teaching teachers. That's one of my favorite NWP taglines. This feels strange at first, especially if you're used to cramming into a hotel conference room to hear the latest expert opine on all the foolproof ways to fix our students. These experts have their place and certainly make a lot of money, but ideas in a local context never unfold as presented in neat, sequential, animated clicks during the workshop Power Point. An elementary teacher might use a turn of phrase that helps a high school teacher see a lesson as if for the first time. Two teachers might realize that they teach at different levels or in different disciplines, but struggle to address the same critical issues of writing instruction. We solve problems together to improve student learning. Teachers need time and space to do this. It looks simple. It's not.
We go public with practice. We know that isolation dulls our teaching senses. We break from the confinement and politics of our own schools to seek out other teachers from across the region, state, and nation. We share our lessons and best thinking. We partner with other sites to see what's going on over here and over there. We play around with ideas in context, hold on to the ones that meet our needs, and reject the ones that don't. Either way, nobody minds if you take one of their ideas for a spin. We provide in-service, present at conferences, and write articles to say that teacher knowledge is real, valuable, and worthy of placement at the center of any conversation around the improvement of teaching and learning. We understand that people who spend all day among schoolchildren know a thing or two about them. This is the root of true reform.
This is who we are and what we value. And I've certainly left some gaps that others can fill in. Each year, our federal government puts forth its values in the form of a budget. Based on current dollar amounts, one might say we value assessment and measurement a whole lot more than teaching and learning. But it doesn't have to be that way. There's still time to do the right thing. We write. We inquire. We learn from each other. We go public with practice. We'll hold on to these things. Because when everything that's familiar is cast into doubt, you have no choice but to keep your heart in yourself.