What Matters When It Matters
My entree into the National Writing Project was set in a blast freezer of a classroom located on the second floor of the Speech and Theater building at Lehman College in the Bronx. It was there a cross section of my fellow New York City teachers of all grades and disciplines huddled together for wisdom and warmth, our bent heads occasionally and eerily mimicking the shuffling survival circle of Empire penguins. Despite the very real risk of hypothermia, I found myself never wanting to leave. So I haven’t. I had found a safe haven from the bureaucratic crushing of spirit, curiosity and creativity in classrooms, particularly areas of urban and rural poverty that has led to no increase in knowledge and growth for anyone but the investors of for-profit educational consultancies. This is the state of mind and health in which I and my peers were existing professionally when serendipity and a nearby dive bar led me to the NYCWP.
A wily English team at my friend’s school held a fundraiser to by books for their school at a popular watering hole. Over a beer and book talk, I got to know the most extraordinary teacher I had yet met and found myself allowing my excitement and passion to rise beyond the firewall protection building up around my heart. She said crazy things like, “teachers are the best teachers of teachers” (Whaaaaaaat???) and “students need to write in low stakes ways everyday” and encouraged me to apply for a fellowship to the Summer Institute that saved my teacher soul and showed me I was no longer alone. I spend that summer month learning, reading, writing, talking, presenting and also, of course, eating. And I never left.
The opportunity arose to work with Assignments Matter 2.0, to support the increasingly under-barrage and stressed out teachers in a safe space in the work of creating lessons that engage and challenge. Soon after joining, I was sent to St.Louis to meet our team. In the dank and dim of the semi-subterranean Marriott meeting room, I met the five other women who taught me that just when I thought community couldn’t get better, it does. The powerful, creative minds, kind hearts, killer wit, fierce senses of social justice and total lack of BS eventually created a bond that will live on longer than this or any retreat.
Initially My NYC partners and I struggled to take the one day of information and make it work in a city of 5 boroughs and 950 school districts, especially almost 4 months into the school year, a point when all PD for the year had been settled by October. Our 1 hour a month commitment rapidly shifted into 10-15 hours, some conversations held while engaging in alternate side parking combat. What broke us through was the very act we were offering. Itt was a PLC of educators working together. It was in the sultry heat of Savannah that my NYC team really sat for the first time and shared with our brilliant partners from Red Mountain Writing Project and found out that even with their successes, they had faced some of the same struggles. By sharing thinking, solutions and resources, our team adopted and adapted their model and created a variety of ways to meet the needs of our teachers and the TLs that we hoped to recruit in the small window of committable time that opens for a New York City school year. The stress and frustration we had been feeling melted away as we backward planned the how and where and soon had a workable model that could offer many teachers the opportunities to create and provide engaging, cognitively challenging and specific lessons through the work done with their peers. Through the community of learning in Savannah and our monthly calls, our team worked with Red Mountain and the leadership team to celebrate successes and share challenges. The community of support and sharing of wisdom I and my fellow NYC liaisons had hoped to spread across one large city was actually two, very different yet deeply connected cities. Because of this connection and because it was educators always seeking the solutions to support the needs of educators and their students, by the end of our second year NYCWP had brought together teachers from hugely disparate schools and all disciplines own engaging, rigorous and community driven model that supported and celebrated their work. Work that made assignments that mattered to their students. They shared over and over their excitement and the empowerment of working together in a positive, safe manner to do the important work of creating the lessons that challenge the minds and spark the curiosity of our young people.
On a personal note, what made this 2 year assignment matter was the PLC in which I was so blessed to find myself. I will forever cherish the five wise, wonderful, witty women whose passion challenged me to always be more reflective, more creative and more engaging in the creation of work for both the NYCWP and my classroom. These women are brilliant thinking partners, givers of hugs and always, always made one another laugh, even, and especially, when our faces grow Munchian. It was our PLC that made the assignment that mattered so much work in the end. Our brains, our passion and our comittment. Oh, and, of course, the food.