Meeting Up in St. Louis … and Making the Path Forward

Elyse at NWP

She made the best of the situation. No surprise there. National Writing Project Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl worked the large crowd of hundreds of NWP educators and leaders at our annual meeting yesterday here in St. Louis, Missouri, by keeping to the script of a traditional Plenary Address — a celebration of the work and spirit of the 180 writing projects sites across the country.

Just as we have done every other year (see annual report).

We heard stories from the stage about the impact of the writing project. We were mesmerized by stories of three outstanding educators who took part in the Holocaust Educator Network, and then returned to their schools to engage their students in powerful discussions of social justice and equity. One of those teachers dazzled the audience with a spoken poem addressed to a parent concerned about the teaching social justice in schools.

All this came as inspiration and celebration, even as Eidman-Aadahl  acknowledged that the federal SEED funds that have supported the work of the writing project has disappeared, and the NWP itself is shrinking. The main office is dwindling in staff, whom we gave a rousing standing round of applause for, to show our collective appreciation for the work they have done and do behind the scenes on many projects.

NWP won’t be disappearing, but it will be smaller than it probably ever was since it was first founded on the campus of Berkley in the 1970s, and began to spread out, thanks to the energy and vision of founder Jim Gray. Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project site is nearly 25 years old.

WMWP Cohort at NWP Annual Meeting

“We are not closing shop, by any means,” Eidman-Aadahl told us. “We’ll still be here. You’ll still be here.”

What happens next is not exactly known, but it follows the trajectory of the wave of Republicanism in this country: cut the top level of everything (even if it causes disruption and chaos) and let the local community determine what survives and what doesn’t. (I don’t agree with that political rhetoric but it’s hard to ignore that’s what’s happening.)

“The future of your (writing project) site is in your hands. The future of our network is in your hands,” Eidman-Aadahl said, and I thought of the guiding philosophy of “teachers teaching teachers” as what might continue to guide us forward. “Walk towards your purpose. We will get through.”

And then she left us with a challenge. The National Writing Project is celebrating its 44th year this year. She wants us to be around to celebrate its 50th year in six years from now (maybe, this writer says to himself, a new president and administration will realize the impact of NWP on the quality of education in this country. Hmmm.)

So, she said, what about a “50 for 50” campaign of some sort. Local sites can determine what that might mean. Maybe it’s 50 new leaders at the site in six years. Maybe 50 new writing resources developed. Maybe 50 classrooms reached. Maybe 50 testimonials to the reach of the writing project.

50 for 50 … we can do this.

Peace (in St. Louis),
Kevin

The Last National Writing Project Annual Meeting Hurrah?

NWP Presentation Materials

It’s not easy to write the title of this post nor its contents, even while staying positive in spirit and tone.

Tonight, after a day of teaching, my wife and I head to St. Louis, Missouri, for what may well become the last Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project. The federal education department shut off the last bit of support for NWP’s work with teachers/professional development. While NWP will surely survive in a diminished form with other partnerships and initiatives, the lack of support by the Trump Administration (which had already started to diminish in the Obama Administration, too) will pose difficulties for many of the NWP sites around the country, I am sure.

The writing, so to speak, has been on the wall for years, even with the documented success of the writing project’s impact on classrooms and schools (see this report). A recent newsletter update from NWP indicates this kind of event may now fade away in its current form, which is the coming together of NWP educators to learn together, to share together, to connect together. I think I may have only missed one or two Annual Meetings since I started teaching more than 16 years ago. I suspect it is expensive to host these gatherings, and when looking at the bottom line, it makes sense that this would be something to cut (or merged into NCTE as a strand, perhaps?)

At a recent leadership retreat for our Western Massachusetts Writing Project, this topic of reduced and loss of NWP funding was front and center as we talked and set forth plans for the coming year. We know we can’t expect some rich benefactor to step in (but, heck, we’re open and ready for it to happen), so our site work around professional development and offerings for teachers will have to find some balance of bringing in funds for that work to pay for other projects. The fate of our core Summer Institute is OK for the immediate future, but unsteady in the years ahead.

In St. Louis this week, I am part of a presentation with the National Park Service that looks at how we can use National Parks and Historic Sites for engagement of teachers and students. Our work here with the Springfield Armory site has been fruitful for teachers and young people, particularly during our summer camp program. That project, which I facilitate, is funded through the Mass Humanities organization, for which we are thankful, and for which we know might be model of partnership support going forward. Still, small NWP grants have helped pave the way for this work in the years past.

So, yes, we will celebrate the National Writing Project at a the St. Louis gathering of the Tribe that has always energized us (and not far away, the National Council of Teachers of English meeting will be starting its meeting, too … another Tribe), and we’ll worry about the future of NWP, too. I consider the National Writing Project and the Western Massachusetts Writing Project my professional “home” and the prospect of such uncertainty is unsettling. It also makes me wonder which charter school, private venture, religious school is getting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ attention instead of the NWP.

Peace (in Missouri),
Kevin

WMWP: Teachers Teaching Teachers

WMWP Best Practices 2017 from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project held its annual fall conference yesterday — Best Practices in the Teaching of Writing — with many workshops from teachers, for teachers, and a powerful keynote address by Sydney Chaffee, a Massachusetts teacher who is the National Teacher of the Year.

The conference really embodies the notion of “teachers teaching teachers” and workshops ranged from writing in the content areas, technology-infused writing concepts, student journaling, and more.

The video is a little teaser of some of the writing, learning, sharing going on all throughout the day at the University of Massachusetts.

Peace (learning it),
Kevin

Sharing History/Writing/Social Justice Connections

WMWP Best Practices

Tomorrow is the Western Massachusetts Writing Project‘s annual Best Practices in the Teaching of Writing conference, and I am joining some of my colleagues in presenting a workshop around how we developed professional development and then ran a youth summer camp at the Springfield Armory historical site. The project was funded by the Mass Humanities organization (thank you!) along with the National Writing Project (thank you!).

I led/am leading the WMWP end of things — facilitating all of the professional development and guiding the development of the summer program for middle school students. The teachers — two of whom are co-presenting with us — are from a social justice magnet school in Springfield, our main urban center. The Springfield Armory is an often-forgotten piece of local history. The project connects the school to the Armory (and continues into the school year … we just had another meeting this week, planning out activities.)

In our presentation at the WMWP conference, we aim to share strategies for engaging students in writing with primary sources and historical perspectives (and we aim to get folks writing as well). The Minds Made for Stories title, which is what we called our project, refers to Thomas Newkirk’s book of the same name, in which he argues that everything is story.

Another objective here, along with sharing our story, is to give our Springfield teachers a chance to be in the spotlight and to present in a conference setting, in front of other educators. They seem a little nervous, but we’re all here to help them.

As a bonus, we have the National Teacher of the Year — Sydney Chaffee — as our keynote speaker for lunch, and the title of her talk is “Composing Change: Equity and Civic Engagement Across Content Areas.” That should be interesting.

Peace (in busy times),
Kevin

Newspaper/Podcast: Sparking A Love of Independent Reading

Gazette Chalk Talk

A column that I wrote for our local newspaper through an ongoing monthly publishing partnership via the Western Massachusetts Writing Project to feature WMWP teacher-writers ran yesterday morning. In it, I explored how the book Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst has me wondering what else I can do to get my sixth graders deeper into independent reading. The stats they provide, and my own classroom observations, indicate a decline in “books in hand” and I find that alarming. I decided to do a podcast version of the piece.

Peace (listening in),
Kevin

Network Fade: The End of the iAnthology

ianthology

After eight years, we finally pulled the plug on something known as the iAnthology Network. Hosted on Ning, it was created for National Writing Project teachers to connect, to write, to share in a closed space. We had weekly writing prompts, photo prompts, book groups and more. We were not part of the official NWP umbrella. More of an unofficial space.

In recent years, participation in the site dropped and became a trickle and my Western Massachusetts Writing Project and our sister site, Hudson Valley Writing Project, decided not to fund the Ning anymore. The National Writing Project funded the launch and supported the iAnthology for the first few years with small grants. The whole structure and original design of the iAnthology was based on something that was known as the eAnthology, which was a summer writing space for teachers going through their Summer Institutes.

My friend, Bonnie Kaplan, and I worked closely together to launch the iAnthology  — I remember us both thinking, will anyone sign up? — and we guided it through the years, working to give more ownership to members (we had a large list of folks who volunteered to host writing prompts every week).

When it was active, it was wonderful.

But it was time.

Most social networks eventually fade as part of the natural arc of participation over time. With us, Facebook and Twitter and other social spaces began to fill in where there was once a gap.

Still, we celebrate that 800-plus teachers with National Writing Project affiliation were able to find a writing home for a bit that kept them connected. If you were part of the iAnthology, thank you. I hope we stay connected and that you keep writing your heart out.

This infographic captures some of the iAnthology:

Remembering iAnthology-network

Peace (lingers),
Kevin

If I Were the App Designer for the Museum …

Design App for Armory

At our summer camp project at the Springfield Armory, as our middle school students were working on a variety of projects, so were us teachers. I had already shared out my Rosie the Riveter 2.0 project. One of the Armory rangers had mentioned that another ranger is in the midst of planning out an app for the museum. I decided I would try to imagine what might be in a Virtual Reality  app for the Springfield Armory, which is a National Historic Site for its role in our country’s history.

The ranger asked me to leave the drawing behind, in case it offers up ideas for thinking about the museum in the future as they begin to mull over ways to make the museum more interactive. So, who knows? My ideas might someday become reality. Or not. My favorite, and the kids’ favorite too, is the virtual roller coaster set within the gears of the innovative machinery of the Armory.

It was fun to think in terms of Virtual Reality.

Peace (make it real),
Kevin

Stitching Together a Quilt of Student Voices

Minds Made for Stories: Quilt

On the last day of our Minds Made for Stories summer camp for middle school students — a partnership between Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory, Duggan Middle Academy, Veterans Education Project and Mass Humanities — students worked to finish up historical research projects, including the Home Poem project that was worked on each day of the week.

Minds Made for Stories Quilt Piece

I set up a podcasting station and each student (and a few of us teachers) read stanzas or lines from the Home Poem, which sought to connect students to their heritage and culture and family through sensory imagery and memory. Each day, we guided students into stanzas. None had ever done podcasting or recording of their voices before, so it was a new experience.

We used the “quilt metaphor” quite a bit during the week — it was part of the information about the kind of work women might have been doing at home before they went into the workforce during WW2. We’ve created pieces for an actual quilt that will hang in the Duggan School in the fall, as a visual connection between the social justice school and the Springfield Armory. We created daily video quilts, of work and play being done all week.

The Home Poem Quilt Video Project is stitched together by layering student voice underneath images and videos of the quilt project, and the two themes — the visual connection to culture and memory and the poetic writing about home — came together quite nicely.

Peace (here at home and far beyond),
Kevin

Re-Imagining Rosie for Today

Today is the last day of a summer camp project I am facilitating, which is connecting inner-city middle school students with the Springfield Armory, a National Park Historic Site. (The project is funded and supported by our Western Massachusetts Writing Project, Mass Humanities, The National Writing Project, the Springfield Armory, Veterans Education Project and the Springfield City Schools … it’s a complicated endeavor, to say the least).

The middle schoolers (who come from a Social Justice-themed school) are now hard at work on a research project, in which they have taken on the “persona” of someone from the Armory’s past (our focus has been women and immigration), and represent what they know through a multi-genre effort. One piece is writing, and another is more art-related.

To show students what we are thinking when it comes to multi-genre, another teacher and I both created some texts. She wrote, and performed, an amazing rap song (she used to work for Flocabulary, I found out) about women in the workforce during World War 2. Meanwhile, I decided to use what we learned about Rosie the Riveter in a presentation by a historic re-enactor to create two different projects about Rosie.

My premise was, what would a Rosie icon look like today?

First, I wrote a Poem for Two Voices, and had students come up and read it with me. In the poem, the two voices were Rosie 1.0 (the original icon) and a Rosie 2.0 (a modern day icon).

Rosie Poem for Two Voices preview

Second, I created a comic strip in which woman are auditioning for the job of Rosie 2.0, and what happened when a strong, active woman gets the part. (OK, so I didn’t reference the Trump administration, but I imagined them being the voices off in the wings).

Rosie Comic1

Rose Comic2

I am excited to see and hear what students are making today. We’re seeing board games, comics, rap songs, journals, stories, poems and more. It’s been fun and interesting, and educational (Shhhh. Don’t tell the kids. It’s summer camp, remember.)

Peace (listen to Rosie),
Kevin

Jowel’s Journey: How Story Transforms Understanding

Jowel 3

I’ve mentioned before that I am facilitating a project with some middle school teachers in our largest urban school district (Springfield, MA) through a complex partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory and the Veterans Education Project. We’ve been doing a series of professional development days, with a focus on the historic primary source archives of the Armory, and offering a free summer camp experience at the Armory for urban middle school students. The project — which we call Minds Made for Stories, in reference to the book of the same name by Thomas Newkirk — is funded by Mass Humanities and the National Writing Project.

There are a lot of strands to our work, from writing to history, and yesterday, one of those strands — how oral history can enhance understanding of the world — came to life as a visitor to our PD session presented and talked about his childhood in Africa, during war, and his eventual journey to the United States, where he now works to help other immigrants navigate the culture.

Jowel Iranzi’s story is powerful, as he narrates how strife and violence in his native Congo (then, Zaire) led his family to flee, first to Rwanda, and then Burundi and then to Tanzania, living in refugee camps and dealing with the tragic loss of his father and separation from his younger brother and mother. He talks of adversity, of perseverance, of education, of the realization that he cannot look back and blame others for his life situation, but has to look forward and forge a new life out of the ashes of his old one.

Jowel Talk

We’ll be having Jowel come in to present to students at our camp — which has a social justice theme and is focused on immigration and the Springfield Armory. Our intention is that his personal story, through oral history, will bring to the surface how one struggles and perseveres, and the difficulty of being a refugee and immigrant in the United States can be.

We’re reminded again of the power of story. My sketch-noting of his talk is proof of how complicated a life can be. By listening to his narrative, we all came to better understand Jowel, and in doing so, the larger world, too.

Peace (across the globe),
Kevin