The Half-Full NWP/WMWP Glass: We Still Have Us

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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),

Why the National Writing Project Matters

The National Writing Project has lost its federal support. Money to support the NWP, of which I am an active and vocal member and advocate, was on the chopping block during recent budget cuts. (See NWP Executive Director Sharon Washington’s response). It’s still too soon to say what the direct impact will be of losing that support, and what our local organizations (like my Western Massachusetts Writing Project) will look like in the near future. It’s been difficult to even digest the news, to be honest.

But we won’t go quietly.

Today and into this weekend, many of us with online voices are joining together for a Blog4NWP event (spearheaded by Chad Sansing, of Virginia) in which are using our spaces to lobby our representatives and our friends to push for reconsideration of the NWP’s importance in supporting teachers and their students.

As Chad writes:

On March 2nd, 2001, President Obama signed a spending bill to keep the federal government operating during budget season. The bill cut federal funding to the NWP as part of a Congressional effort to eliminate earmarks – federal funds legislated to support certain programs like the NWP. While pork-barrel projects are, perhaps, easy political targets for elected officials looking to make names for themselves as no-nonsense fiscal conservatives, the NWP is not a pork-barrel project and it makes no sense to eliminate funding to the NWP, a program with a proven track record in raising student achievement that provides teachers and students with authentic opportunities for communication, inquiry, and problem-solving – opportunities to practice those deservedly ballyhooed skills our students need to be college-, community-, and life-ready.

Here, I’ve tried to come up with a list of Reasons To Support NWP:

  • It’s Effective. No other professional development organization that I have come across has been more powerful than the model that is at the heart of the National Writing Project: teachers teaching teachers. The experts in the network are teachers themselves, sharing their best practices and pushing each other to continually move forward with instructional ideas and innovations. The organization began with a small group of teachers in Berkeley, talking about writing, to become something larger. But it’s heart is the same: What I know, I pass on to you, and what you know, you pass on to me, and what we both don’t know, we learn together.
  • It’s Far-Reaching. Whether it’s how to help rural teachers and their students in isolated areas, or urban teachers and their students in city centers, or considering how writing is changing in this Digital Age with multi-modal composition, or working to celebrate and support English Language Learners, or considering the possibilities of curriculum change like the Common Core or simply creating networks of teachers who come together to write as writers on regular basis, the National Writing Project is woven into the threads of the educational tapestry. It is about the major trends facing education and it is always moving in a direction that signals thoughtful, reflective work.
  • It’s About Students. Whenever I am in a room with NWP folks, the talk almost always turns to our students. It seems to be a common lens — this question of, how will this help MY students? You may think, well, of course. You’re teachers. But I have also been in lots of rooms with non-NWP teachers at non-NWP events, and the tone and tenor of the conversations are often different than at NWP spaces. The role of the student is never more front and center than it is when NWP teachers are talking about the struggles and successes of a young writer.
  • It’s About the Doing. The hallmark of a dull professional development session is the talking head at the front of the packed hall, disconnected from the folks there. I’ve been in that hall, all too often. Take a look at the audience, and they are most likely trying to check their cell phone or mobile device. In NWP sessions, the participants are almost engaged in activities, inquiries and construction of shared knowledge. The hands-on work of teachers actually and actively writing, sharing, reflecting, or constructing something new, or some twist on the old, is built into the foundational philosophy of NWP’s mission. You should always expect to be writing when you come into a NWP-led session.
  • It’s about Leadership Opportunities. One of the things I have always marveled at with the larger NWP network is how acute folks are at identifying leadership in its teacher cadre, and then, bestowing responsibility on them. I am quite certain that the NWP teachers who take on projects and other initiatives are also teachers who are doing the same in their own schools, now that they understand how to tap into that passion for change and learning. Leadership in NWP is not necessarily a title that you wear on your shirt. Leadership in the NWP means seeing a direction ahead, getting resources to support your vision and then finding similar-minded folks to come along with you.
  • It’s About Connections. I can’t even begin to name the incredibly talented folks whom I have worked with over the years on NWP endeavors. Bonnie, in Hudson Valley, and I are partners in many projects. I am forever indebted to thinking partners like Troy Hicks, Paul Oh, Christina Cantrill, Andrea Zellner, Bud Hunt and many others. I’d be hard-pressed to find a more willing audience for feedback and even more hard-pressed to find folks who are willing to share themselves and their work so often. The NWP is my professional network. It is not the only one, but it is the most powerful. And in the end, I think it my students who benefit from the influence of my NWP friends. I’d like to think, too, that I am not alone in this sentiment.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there.

I’ll leave you with information from Chad about Blog4NWP Day. He asks that we, “Please support the NWP by sharing your experiences with the project, its institutes, its teacher consultants, and the resources it freely provides for all teachers. As you post,  send the links to Chad via Twitter (@chadsansing, by @ or DM), or email your link to him. He will collect and publish the links at his blog:  If you tweet about NWP, please include @EdPressSec, @Ed_Outreach, @nwpsiteleaders, and @whitehouse in your tweet. Let’s use the hashtag #blog4NWP. If you post before or after this weekend’s window, please let me know and/or use the hashtag to make sure I pick up your article for inclusion on the #blog4NWP archive post. Please also consider sending your writing as an email to your local and state representatives in federal government.

Peace (in the NWP),


PS — Here is an ongoing collection of posts during the #Blog4NWP effort (Chad is keeping the full list at his blog):

#blog4nwp Posts

Kate Willaredtsave the NWP

Mary Tedrow – Mourning in America

Joseph Kahne – Congress Decides Literacy is a Bridge to Nowhere

Delaine ZodyDo you teach writing?

Susan R. Adams – How a Teacher Becomes a Writer

Leslie Morton – I started thinking numbers…

Ellen SheltonWhy the National Writing Project Matters

Jeromy Winter#blog4nwp

Kristin H. TurnerThe Best Gift I Gave Myself – NWP

Bryan Crandall – In Support of the National Writing Project

Pam MoranI Write for Savannah

Chad SansingA student voice in games-based learning

Britton Gildersleeve#blog4nwp

Paul OhWriting is Thinking

Lisa @teachingfriendsWhy We Need to Save the National Writing Project

Chad SansingTo President Obama

Kathee GodfreeThe Value of the National Writing Project

Got Gaming? I’m in! But What about the Girls?

A looming deadline about whether or not to offer up a summer enrichment camp around Game Design and Development came and went, and yes, I decided to put my cards on the table and offer up the class this coming July. I really appreciated folks who helped me think this through a bit (I’ll need more help later on, friend, so don’t go anywhere) and for those who offered up kind messages of support for jumping into something new for me. (You can see my thinking from the other day around my ideas for a camp built around gaming).

Here is my camp description:

Introductory Game Development and Design

This session will look at gaming from the perspectives of both the player and the developer, as students will have ample time to both play and create their own games in cooperative working teams. We’ll also be considering the history of video game development and we may have a guest or two from the video game industry to talk and work with participants. Starting with board games and then moving into video games, students will design, develop and then publish their own original ideas. We will be using free software for development of simple video games that can be extended into more complex games for more advanced gamers.

Now that I know I am doing it, I am excited about the possibilities here.

The thing that makes this camp work for me is that these are middle school kids (grades five through eight) and that age group is so interesting because they are open to possibilities, not afraid to be “explorers” and yet they can be silly, too. (trust me). It’s also a select group. The kids in this program will want to be gaming, or else they would not have signed up.

I do wonder about this: will I get only boys? I hope not. The last few Webcomic Camps that I have done, there has been a solid mix of girls, and that has made a huge difference in the dynamics and creativity of the classes. From a teaching perspective, I want to reach the girls as much as the boys with the game course. I know that girls are often left on the sidelines of conversations around games and technology, even though some of my most talented and insightful and tech-savvy students are girls, not boys. This kind of camp might pry open the door a bit.

Now that I think of it, I wonder if there were any language tweaks I could have done on the course description that would better appeal to girls? Too late now, though.

If you didn’t hear this engaging radio story from National Public Radio, it is worth checking out. The reporter — a high school girl — talks about girls not getting the respect they deserve for being gamers. The piece is called “Why Do Girl Gamers Get So Little Respect?” by Jessica Cernadas.

I wonder if I can find any local female game designers to come in and talk about their work with the kids? Hmmmm. Time to network a bit …

Peace (in the pieces on the board),

To Game or not to Game, that is my question

For the past few summers, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has made a concerted push to offer youth writing programs in the summer. I have been involved with a partnership with a local vocational high school that offers summer enrichment programs for middle school students. I’ve been part of teams that have offered programs in stop-motion movie making, webcomics, digital storytelling and more.

Here’s what I am mulling over, and I need to do it fairly soon (like, in the next few days, when advertising for the summer already gets underway): Do I offer a course around Game Development and Design? Before I say “yes,” I am trying to figure out, “Can you pull this off, mister?”

The text to a speech about gaming that I found online is something I keep coming back to as a sort of guide in my thinking around using gaming for education. The Ten Commandments of Game Development Education by Ernest Adams is wonderfully frank and helpful, and even though it is aimed for the university level, I see a lot of advice here that I should follow, including allowing for failure, keep “play” at the center of the work, show the history of the field of work, and encourage collaborative teamwork.

I have a feeling such a class would be of interest to a lot of kids (don’t you?) and so I am brainstorming here a bit about what I would do with them over the course of the 12 hours spread out over four days. My aim would be to make the program fun and interesting (it is summer, after all) while still engaging them as learners around concepts of design, play, creation and technology. And I want them to “create,” not just play.

Here’s an outline of my thinking:

  • Some of the first day would be centered around non-tech gaming and development of a game as a collaborative process. I would use what we did at the National Writing Project session around gaming, where we worked in small groups with some unknown materials to develop a game, with rules, that we could teach others.
  • We’d look at some familiar board games, and then use this book that I found that comes up with different ways to play familiar games (such as, a new way to play Monopoly, etc.) This would lead into a discussion around design: how does a game invite a player and what elements work for play? I might toss some card games into the mix, too.
  • I’d love to do something about the history of Video Games (there must be a good resource somewhere) and bring them to one of those sites that allow you to play the old 8-bit games like Pacman, Pong, Astroids, etc.,. so they can experience where video games came from and how far they have come in a few decades.
  • We’d then move into looking at and playing some online games, as we mull over, once again, design elements. What animation, choices for the player, artwork, etc., makes a game effective? I bet we could compile a pretty good list of recommended games from the kids.
  • I’d show them Scratch, with an emphasis first on animation and programming, and then, shift gears into using Scratch to develop a simple game. (I know this can be done with the MIT freeware, but I haven’t yet done it.)
  • At this point, I would work on the concept of “story” — of the underpinnings of a good game, and how character and plot can guide the game developer along (and also, note that this is a point of argument in the gaming world — that not all games need “story” to be successful and sometimes “story” ruins a good game, right?).
  • Here’s where I might have them use Gamemaker8 (which I have been experimenting with) to develop a Maze Game, and for those advanced students, turn them loose for something larger. I imagine this will be the point where the differentiated instruction will come into play, and where students with background knowledge can become leaders with me of the session. (And to be honest, I am looking for platform that is a bit easier to use. Any ideas?)
  • I want to look more for other game development software that we could use. I know there are some for developing games for mobile devices and for the Xbox. And I seem to recall a gaming platform that students can use to learn about making games. I’d have to dig around my notes for that one (does it cost money?)
  • I might as well have a time when kids can bring in their Xbox or Wii and let them play, right? I’d have to structure what we are looking at while they play.
  • I’d develop a website for their games to be published and shared. They would not be creating in a vacuum. And they would be testers and sources of feedback for each other, too. This could be interesting — how do we adapt the Peer Writing Response for Peer Gaming Response?
  • I’d even dig up a video documentary or two about game design. There was a good one about Donkey Kong, if I remember correctly. (note to self: appropriate for kids?)
  • I know at least one person who had a career on working in the video game industry that I bet I could bring in to talk about his work. There must be others out there, too. I always try to bring in guests who have experience who can talk to the kids and answer questions that fall outside my own field of expertise.

So, what do you think? Is it viable? Do you have resources that could help me along the way?

Peace (in the brainstorming),

Working on a Workshop Proposal: Tech Across Content Areas

Two members of our Western Massachusetts Writing Project Technology Team and I are working on a collaborative proposal for a technology conference that is coming to a nearby city in the spring. We’re sort of scrambling because the deadline looms for proposals (it’s my fault, thinking I had a conflict and now realizing that I don’t).

The conference is called The First Annual Technology Conference and Exhibition, with keynote speaker Alan November (worth the admission right there, I think).  The conference seems  a little bit too commercial/vendor heavy (if the website is any indication) to me, but we’ll see how it goes. The conference is sponsored by a group with educational ties (Technology in Education Partnership), and I have been asked by two different folks (one is the head tech person at our school district and the other is part of the New Literacies Initiative) to consider submitting proposals.

Our idea is around the topic of Technology in the Content Areas, as Tom has done work around creating digital portfolios for his math students, Tina has done digital storytelling with her journalism students, and I have done digital science picture books with my students. While our focus is on technology across the curriculum, I am hoping we spend a fair amount of time around assessment and alignment with standards, as our state is moving quickly into the Common Core, which I think opens more doors for media and technology use in content-area classrooms.

What’s nice is that the three of us did most of this work for the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site, so our work can be accessed during the workshop (they promise free wireless for participants) as a way to begin our conversations.

We need to get our proposal in in a few days, and then we’ll see what happens. I like being part of a team making a pitch for a workshop, and the three of us work well together (we’ve done technology summer camps before).

Peace (in the proposal),

Eavesdropping on the WMWP

wmwp small2If you were in our Western Massachusetts Writing Project Leadership Team Meeting yesterday, here is some of what you would have heard:

  • The prototype for the new WMWP website is up and now we are starting to gather folks to begin the shift of content from the old site to the new site, with the hope of launching the new website in early spring (only a few months behind schedule);
  • Applications are now available for next year’s Invitational Summer Institute, the four-week centerpiece of work within the Writing Project that is packed with inquiry, collaboration, exploration and writing. Plus, more writing.
  • We’re in the midst of some leadership turnover, as one of our co-director’s three-year term is expiring and another co-director needs to step down due to a family situation (ie, another baby). That co-director also is the editor of our twice-yearly WMWP Newsletter, so we need an editor, too. This brought up a long conversation again about the roles of our co-directors (in areas of inservice, continuity and youth/family outreach.)
  • We wondered (again) about the development an e-news newsletter, which would be more regular and “brand” WMWP. It might also replace the barrage of emails from WMWP office that sometimes comes in. We decided to table this until the website is up and running.
  • We examined the feedback from the participants of our October Best Practices event and talked about changes that could happen to make the event better for everyone (participants, presenters, organizers), and mulled over some “themes” for next year.
  • Our “theme” for this year is “Language Diversity” and the readings for an upcoming WMWP Meeting (we use readings for writing into the day and to spark discussions) will be culled from the NWP Digital Is site. Two members of the team will spend some time finding resources that fit the theme of  “language diversity.”
  • We wrote our way into the meeting and most of us chose the concept of Common Core Standards, which our state has adopted, and continued discussions of how WMWP might best help teachers begin to make the shift into Common Core via Professional Development opportunities. We have some folks working on Common Core curriculum right now, and we offer classes around expository writing and content-area writing that fits under that umbrella. Now, we need to leverage that expertise.

I guess we covered a lot more than I thought, now that I write it down as a reflective post.

Peace (in the WMWP),

A New Logo for Western Mass Writing Project

The Western Massachusetts Writing Project
We’re moving (slowly) towards a redesign of our website for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. We hope to be done before the end of the calendar year, and one of the projects that our site director took on was redesigning and updating our WMWP logo. For a long time, it was a gray-scale feather pen that seemed very antiquated.

So, this summer, we used a graphic consultant to come up with new designs and a few weeks, at our annual Best Practices event, we introduced the new logo to folks, who seemed to really like it. (One of the WMWP Leadership Team — it wasn’t me, honest — noted that we moved from a feather to an ink pen and maybe the next phase might be a computer mouse).

The logo and website design is part of an overall push for more inquiry into our site’s mission and how we can best put ourselves out there as a resource for teachers in the Pioneer Valley. Two years ago, we adopted a mission statement that is guiding us in all of our work:

The mission of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project, is to create a professional community where teachers and other educators feel welcomed to come together to deepen individual and collective experiences as writers and our understanding of teaching and learning in order to challenge and transform our practice. Our aim is to improve learning in our schools — urban, rural and suburban.

Professional development provided by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project values reflection and inquiry and is built on teacher knowledge, expertise, and leadership.

Central to our mission is the development of programs and opportunities that are accessible and relevant to teachers, students, and their families from diverse backgrounds, paying attention to issues of race, gender, language, class and culture and how these are linked to teaching and learning.

Peace (in the writing project work),

On Language and Power: a WMWP Keynote Address

Dr. Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero gave a powerful keynote address to the Western Massachusetts Writing Project on Saturday on the topic of language, power, and teaching to all students, particularly those whose second language is English. Wilma is the 2010 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and a fearless and tireless advocate for English Language Learner students. She is also a longtime leader in the National Writing Project’s ELL Network.

Here, Wilma advocated for recognizing the authenticity of the cultural values and languages that students bring to the classroom, and use those understands as the underpinning for learning. Wilma urges all of us to open our eyes to possibilities, and even shares a few anecdotes of her own stumbles in the classroom (including a funny exchange in which she wanted her students to talk about what makes a good “speaker” but one of her students assumed she meant music speakers, not human speakers.)

Peace (in the sharing),

Some Words about the Writing Project

One of my mentors in the early years of teaching and in the National Writing Project, Bruce Penniman, received the 2010 Pat Hunter Award at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project event this weekend. To say that Bruce nurtured WMWP during his tenure as site director would be a vast understatement. And although retired from teaching, Bruce continues to be a force in education to be reckoned with. (See his book, Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support and Success, which was published last year)

Bruce instills leadership in those he works with by instilling trust of ideas and the confidence that the person can get things done. Although I did not know Patricia Hunter, who helped found the WMWP, she apparently had the same qualities.

Peace (in the sharing),

The Glogster Session at WMWP

glogster website
(Go to my Glogster Website Resource)

Yesterday morning, as part of our annual Best Practices event with Western Massachusetts Writing Project, I presented a session on using in the classroom. I had about 25 people in the session and guess what? The technology worked! They all had computers to work on, the site was not blocked by the University, and they had plenty of time to play around with creating a project and reflecting on the use of Glogster in their classroom.


The things that I emphasized in the workshop were:

  • Teaching the elements of design principles
  • Copyright issues
  • Using multimedia for composition
  • The difference between regular Glogster and
  • Technology being a learning tool for all curriculum areas
  • The importance of writing before technology (ie, planning, drafting, revising)
  • Advertising on websites and some strategies for avoiding it

Then, I set them up with accounts in my Glogster account, and let them have about 50 minutes (more than half the session) in playtime, which they all greatly appreciated. You can talk and talk about Glogster, but this is one tool that you have to experience to really begin to understand it.

As the Exit Slip, I had them use Wallwisher to leave a note on how they might envision using Glogster in their classroom:

Peace (in the sharing),