The Importance of A Writing Community: Reflections from the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute 2016, Part 1

Image via Peter Anderson

Image via Peter Anderson

Emily Chambers is a former WAC GRA and is studying for her M.A. in Teaching Writing and Literature. Her main interests are faculty development and curriculum resources. Prior to coming to GMU, she taught sixth grade English in Culpeper County, VA; now she teaches composition at GMU. She can be reached at echambe5@masonlive.gmu.edu.

For four weeks this summer, 18 teacher writers met in a crowded conference room, with a beautiful view of treetops, and natural sunlight filling the room through a wall-length window. Three tables were pushed together to form a “U” shape, and the tabletops were crowded with journals, laptops, pens, and coffee cups. Each day, the teacher writers discussed their teaching practice and wrote page after page. With chairs pushed close together, they shared insights, inspiration, and struggles with each other. In the morning, the room filled with the smell of breakfast and coffee brewing, the tea kettle just about to boil nearby. The teacher writers’ voices reverberated and resounded through the halls outside the room.

This is the scene for the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute (NVWP ISI), 2016. The NVWP is one site of the National Writing Project, a national network of teacher-leaders seeking to improve writing and learning for all students. The NWP operates on several core principles, among them that those who teach writing are writers themselves, that teachers have teaching expertise to share with other teachers of writing, and that teachers should write with students. These principles guide and direct the Summer Institute, placing an emphasis on teachers teaching one another and on teachers developing as writers. Moreover, the institute’s director Sarah Baker recognizes the importance of creating a community in which this learning and writing can flourish.

That community of learner-teacher-writers is the main benefit of the NVWP: participants in the ISI gain access to an incredibly rich network of like-minded teachers, both in their summer institute, in the broader NVWP, and in the still broader NWP. This community inspires, encourages, and provides resources for our teaching and writing. The NVWP forges long-lasting relationships, and many former ISI participants return to give demonstration lessons at the ISI. Many participants call their ISI experience “life changing,” in large part because of the relationships they form while there.

Within this incredible community, teachers write, and write, and write some more. This is the second benefit of the NVWP: teachers are given time and space to write. Many participants testify to writing more than ever before and even being surprised by the writing they are able to produce. Even though some participants had previously experienced writing groups, the ISI community offers something new and different through a community of like-minded teacher-writers. That same community of writers is available at George Mason through weekly write-ins for faculty and graduate students, or through independently formed writing groups and writing retreats. Writing is, after all, social, and our writing grows when shared with others.

In fact, seeing themselves as writers was a new and difficult identity for some teachers to adopt. Participants repeated to one another, “I am a writer,” enforcing the idea that they practice the writing they teach. The benefits and experience of the NVWP ISI caused me to wonder: what great benefits would we reap if all teachers of writing saw themselves as writers? Then, seeing ourselves as writers, how will we be changed by spending time writing with students? What more can we accomplish as we look to one another as fellow experts?

This is part 1 in a series of reflections by Emily on her time with the NVWP ISI this summer. Read part 2 here, featuring resources from the NVWP ISI 2016.

To get involved in the NVWP, visit http://nvwp.org. Plan to attend the Language and Learning Conference in March. For more resources on the NVWP ISI 2016, visit the three co-directors’ blogs: Peter AndersonJen Orr, and Michelle Haseltine.  Or visit fellow-participant Katlyn Howes Bennett’s blog here.

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