We had our leadership meeting for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project the other day. This is the first time we have gathered together as a team since we learned that federal funding for the National Writing Project, which provided crucial financial and logistical support for us, has been eliminated by Congress and President Obama.
The mood was somber and reflective, but it wasn’t a funeral procession. We still have a lot of hope and we still have a lot of faith in NWP leaders to find a path forward for the organization that means so much to us. And we know the power of the network is with us, and not in budget line item.
As WMWP Director Anne Herringon noted, “A corp of us remember pre-NWP funding (before the group of WMWP founders hitched their wagon to NWP). At the least, we’d still be a loose confederacy of teachers. There won’t be nothing.”
Past WMWP Director Bruce Penniman noted that there may yet be ways to stay connected to funding in the federal government, but maybe not primarily with the Department of Education. Other departments, such as NOAH and the Department of Agriculture, have educational components who may want to partner up with a proven organization, like NWP.
“We can re-invent ourselves, if we have to,” Anne concluded, and then asked that we dedicate most of our April meeting to deeper discussions about the way forward in the face of uncertain federal funds.
Then, I heard a piece on the radio today about NPR, which is embroiled in its own difficulties and faces loss of federal funding. The piece showcased folks seeing this as an opportunity to try new things, to re-focus efforts on local communities, to push further into the web-based listener audience. Even NPR reporters see possibilities that weren’t there before.
And of course, I am still thinking of Bud Hunt’s blog post about needing to take a breath and look at what we have in the NWP. It’s a challenge, but it’s not the end of the world. We still have us.
So, if change is afoot, what kind of change might we envision for our WMWP site? How can we try to see the glass as half full? I’ll put out a few ideas and I want to note very strongly that this is only me — one person — thinking things through, and not the WMWP leadership.
- Since I came on board, we have seen our site’s direct engagement with students dwindle. This is mostly because of stipulations on how NWP/federal funds can be used. It can support professional development and teacher worker, but not student programs. I wonder if we can now re-double our efforts in helping meet the needs of student writers, directly. I feel as if student writing programs is an area that needs more attention, particularly in our urban and rural districts.
- The reality is that our university, The University of Massachusetts Amherst, is very generous with its support of our WMWP, even in tough times. It provides release time for our leader (Anne, right now; Bruce, before that; Charlie Moran, before that) and office space and other intangibles that even I don’t quite understand. But that support is part of a matching funding agreement. Will UMass still support us without NWP funds? Given its own financial problems, I doubt it, a least in the long-term. Which means we might need to forge new partnerships with other community organizations. This won’t be easy and it is something Anne has been working on for years. I wonder if our cache as a place for teachers and writers and technologies might open the door for something at another space of higher learning? I’d hate to lose the UMass connection. But it might happen.
- We need to redouble our efforts on grant programs. Anne and other do a lot of this right now — they work hard at this — and the fact is that we will need to cast a much wider net for grant opportunities, and begin to revamp some of our expertise to fit the needs of funding agencies. We can do this.
- There has been tremendous work in creating inroads with our state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. As we talked about in our meeting, the state’s shift to a Common Core Curriculum (already underway) opens up an opportunity for our WMWP folks, some of whom are already doing deep work (thanks to NWP and its connections to the Gates Foundation). I think we can position ourselves as a leader for school districts wondering how to help teachers re-envision their curriculum in light of Common Core. I see this as a real positive direction (oh, and my wife is part of our WMWP team working on it, so I have a vested interest).
- Will the loss of NWP bring forth new energy to our WMWP? Will this turn of events with federal funding be a rallying cry for local folks? Our energy ebbs and flows. We’d like more flow, and less ebb. Perhaps folks who take WMWP for granted will suddenly remember why they connected with us in the first place, and reconnect on the journey ahead.
- Will the shift mean more online presence work for our site? It may have to. Which means that our work on redesigning our website better get in high gear soon (the delay is mostly me, sorry to say). If funding limits what we can do in physical space, perhaps we need to become more acute in virtual space. We’re dipping our toes into online classes and offerings. We may need to make a full push ahead in this direction to leverage our expertise across a wider spectrum.
Yes, I am uncertain and worrisome about it all. But it does no good to harp on all the reasons why change is bad. We also need to remember what we tell our students: the only thing certain is that things will change.
Peace (in the glass),