Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Support of the National Writing Project

I just got an e-mail from the Greater Kansas City Writing Project (a National Writing Project, or NWP, affiliate) calling for all Teacher Consultants to blog in support of the NWP. 

I am ashamed to admit that I immediately deleted it.

I no longer live in Kansas City, and since moving away, have not been active in the NWP.  It's not for lack of trying; I attended some NWP events in the Seattle area but unfortunately did not find the same community I left in KC.  Discouraged by that experience, I only investigated half-heartedly once we moved to Memphis.  I'm still on the GKCWP list-serv and enviously read about all the workshops and book studies; in fact that is how I got the request for blog posts.  However, I didn't give posting much thought; the NWP is more of a memory for me rather than an active part of my teaching life.  Or so I thought.

Even though I had every intention of getting caught up with blogging this weekend, I didn't think a blog about the vacations I take with my husband was the right forum for this type of message.  Truth be told, I didn't think I was worthy of writing in support of an organization I've been neglecting.  But then I had an epiphany.  If teachers, writers, writing teachers, and/or teaching writers don't speak up and speak out about this incredible organization, then the NWP will become a memory for us all.

The NWP is one of many programs that has lost its federal funding in the name of budget cuts.  I agree that spending has gotten out of control and that a government that expects its citizens to live within their means should practice what they preach...but not at the expense of programs that benefit its most precious resource:  children.  (How about ending tax cuts for the rich?  Just a suggestion...)  I'm sure it's quite difficult to determine which organizations and programs deserve funding and which don't (a job I'm glad I don't have), which is why teachers across the country are speaking and writing in defense of the NWP:  to ensure it's not just a name on a sheet of paper that's easy to cross out.

I first became involved with the NWP during my rookie year of teaching.  A good friend of mine and I were invited to a writing retreat by a beloved former teacher was facilitating because there were a couple of spots available.  Thus began our initiation.  I had always enjoyed writing and was naturally drawn into teaching English, but had never considered myself a writer.  That mindset began to change when I started to learn about the NWP and its philosophies.  To simplify, writing can--and should be--taught, teachers of writing should be writers themselves, and teachers are the best teachers of other teachers.

That summer, my good friend I participated in "Writing Camp," also known as the Summer Institute.  It was, hands-down, the most valuable professional development I have had...and most likely ever will have.  Don't get me wrong; it was extremely intense and at times very stressful, but also extremely empowering and enlightening.  For four weeks, I spent six hours a day, five days a week surrounded by an eclectic group of teachers who shared a desire to improve our crafts of teaching, writing, and teaching writing.  It's hard to describe to anyone who hasn't experienced it, but the lessons, strategies, and conversations I shared with my colleagues changed my teaching life.

Until I started pondering what to write for this post, I had forgotten that on some level.  The NWP and its core beliefs have shaped my personal teaching philosophy in a more meaningful way.  I have a powerful network of teachers and solid research behind every curricular decision I make in the classroom.  This philosophy is why my students write every single day, why I want them to recognize how powerful writing can be, and why I detest the suffocating emphasis on standardized testing in my current position.

So even though I'm not an active participant in a local NWP affiliate, I will forever be a part of its network of Teacher Consultants.  The core beliefs of the NWP will continue to influence my teaching wherever I go.  May federal funding be restored so that other teachers and students have the same opportunity.

For more information on the NWP, please check out

(And if you made it this far, you might as well go ahead and tell your local Congress member what I just said...although I would summarize if I were you.)   

Reverse Migration

Most people travel south to sunny, tropical climates for Spring Break.  We are not most people.  In fact, we traveled north to New England.  Luckily we missed the mid-March snow that the area received last week and were treated to decent weather.  Always on our quest to visit all 50 states, we wanted to take advantage of the fact that a high school/college friend is spending the year in Providence, Rhode Island.  We also were able to visit friends who recently moved to Boston, and since we were in the neighborhood, drove through Connecticut just for kicks.

Even though it was Spring Break, I worked hard to get items crossed off an ever-growing to do list so that I could relax when we were on vacation.  (In fact, writing on this blog was one of the items that just didn't get done.)  Of course, some of those pressing tasks included going shopping and getting caught up on our Netflix queue, but that's beside the point.

I will say up front that the best part of the trip was spending time with dear friends...and that's not just because we don't exactly have friends here in Memphis.  Actually, that was a common theme over the long weekend; since everyone we visited is a recent transplant to where they are living, we discussed the difficulty in making new friends, particularly when we all know that we will be moving again in the near future.

But we didn't just sit around the whole time discussing our friendless woes.  We started the trip in Boston...on St. Patrick's Day.  This was not intentional; just a "lucky" schedule.  Actually, we didn't go overboard in our celebrating, although our first destination was the Sam Adams brewery tour. 

Can you tell it was St. Patrick's Day?
Jon and I included Boston on our whirlwind couch-surfing trip a couple of summers ago, so we didn't feel the need to hit up all of the historical sites on this visit.  We instead enjoyed the beautiful spring weather as we leisurely walked around town.  Sure, we found a bar or two...including Cheers, the bar where nobody knows your name because they're all tourists.

We managed to visit during Restaurant Week so we were enjoyed a delicious 3-course meal at a price regular people could afford before checking out some pretty impressive views of the city from the Prudential Center.  We closed out the night by playing card games, such wild and crazy people we are.

We took a detour on our way to Providence the following day by going in the exact opposite direction.  We spent a couple of hours wandering around supposedly witch-infested Salem, Massachusetts.  Since I taught The Crucible a few years back, I found the memorial to those hanged--and pressed--during the infamous Salem Witch Trials to be especially significant. 

We attempted to keep the literary tour going by visiting Thoreau's beloved Walden Pond, but despite our best efforts, we weren't able to find it...darn tiny map from the car rental place.

We continued driving in the opposite direction so that we could say we went to Connecticut.  In order to count a state on our list, it is imperative that we do something significant.  Our significant event in Connecticut was walking around the bay (unless you count stopping at a gas station to use the bathroom).

Hi, we're in...Connecticut
By that time, it was time to meet my friend in Providence.  She did her homework; after a brief driving tour, she took us to a local brewery.  The next morning we went for a run along the Providence Harbor before essentially touring the state.  Along the way, we learned a lot about Rhode Island and its residents...and why we rarely see Rhode Island license plates anywhere else.  It's because they never leave.  According to our guide, even a 15-minute drive is too far.

We found ourselves in Newport for lunch and were treated to some incredible ocean views and unbelievable mansions.  This coastal town definitely depends on the tourism industry with its picturesque downtown shopping district.  We were most interested in seeing the inside of The White Horse, the country's oldest tavern (circa 1673).

We checked out the Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown (we learned that many New England cities have the same names) and had fresh seafood with an ocean view in Narragansett.  Jon kept repeating the name, implying its difficulty to pronounce.  He seemed to have forgotten about Puyallup, Sequim, and Steilacoom in his home state of Washington.

Near the Beavertail Lighthouse (it was windy, okay)

Narrangansett Bay
Like all good trips, it ended too quickly and made us want to go on vacation again.  It should come as no surprise that we are already planning several upcoming adventures.

Rallying with Some Teachers

I'm not political.  Never have been.  A self-proclaimed "Independent," I refuse to vote along party lines.  And then I refuse to reveal whom I've voted for.  But this current teacher-bashing trend has gotten me all riled up.  The media needs someone to blame for our country's education woes and who better than teachers?  I will not pretend there aren't bad teachers out there, but it's only fair that everyone take their fair share of responsibility:  teachers, administrators, parents, AND students. 

Under the guise of "education reform"--which I will not argue is sorely needed in some places--numerous state governments have started calling for measures that are against teachers.  Honestly, these proposed laws have little to do with education at all; they are vengeful union-busting proposals.  Historically, teacher unions (and unions in general) tend to support more liberal (ie, Democratic) candidates, so once more conservative (ie, Republican) politicians seized control in the recent mid-term elections, it spelled trouble for the unions.  Call me crazy, but alienating and angering a sizable number of voters does not sound like a very good way to remain in office.

I have been a member of the National Education Association and its state affiliates since I began teaching.  Admittedly, I haven't been an active member, but a member I have nonetheless been.  For me, it's an act of security--job insurance, if you will.  When Jon worked as a painter, he was a proud union member as well.  I'm not going to turn this post into pro-union propaganda because I'm certainly no expert, but I do want to point out that despite my union membership, I have been laid-off twice and am nowhere near tenure due to the fact that I have taught in three different states.

I'm operating under the assumption that most people know about what's been happening in Wisconsin when it comes to teachers and unions.  What may not be known is that several other states, including Missouri and Tennessee are attempting to pass similar bills.  To borrow from the lexicon of my students, the legislators "done lost their minds."

In a stroke of luck, a teachers' rally was scheduled at the state Capitol the same weekend we were visiting Nashville for our anniversary (see previous post).  I think it was a sign.  While I really don't have a strong connection to Tennessee, for me, this rally was for teachers all across the country.  Despite the rain, the crowd was electric; it was an extremely empowering experience, which strengthened my commitment to the teaching profession. 

There were some very rousing speakers who gave impassioned speeches about the work teachers do and the reasons why we do it.  And yes, there was talk about the importance of unions.  The state representative from Memphis, Joe Towns, said this about collective bargaining:

"Collective bargaining gave us the weekend. Collective bargaining gave us safety laws in the workplace. Collective bargaining [put an end] to working children like they were grown people."

Sometimes we forget how good we have it, huh?  I certainly appreciate my weekends, don't you?  But more than any single issue, I think it's the disrespect for teachers--and for working people in general--that hurts most of all.

Honky-Tonk Anniversary

Without even trying, I managed to stay within the city limits of Memphis for two whole months.  Good job, Memphis, for keeping me busy and keeping my finances insulated from the rising gas prices.  But when the end of February rolled around, it was time to get out of town.  We did go to a University of Tennessee women's basketball game in Mississippi, but that was only for one day, so the next weekend we packed up for a "holiday" (say in a British accent) in Nashville.  (Side note:  The Lady Vols #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament was well-deserved; they were like a machine.)   

What many people don't realize (we certainly didn't until we moved here) is that Tennessee is an extremely long state.  Memphis is located in the extreme southwest corner, while the state capital (Nashville) is over three hours away; it's another three-plus hours to the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee.  That said, Nashville makes a nice weekend destination.

I had been to Nashville once before, but since we were only in town for approximately 36 hours (for a wedding), we didn't get to really explore.  We got into town late and so after checking into our Union Station hotel (thanks, military discount), we went straight to dinner to celebrate our 3rd "Second Anniversary" on March 4th.  While Jon is accountable for remembering ALL of our anniversaries, this is the main one commemorating our wedding in Bamberg.  

Our anniversary tiramisu tasted as good as it looked

We met up with a good friend the following morning for pancakes at a local hang-out.  It has quite the reputation; despite the constant rain, the line stretched out the door and around the corner.  Since this friend is originally from the Seattle area, it was only fitting that we reunited under those conditions.

Our next destination was the Parthenon.  Since Nashville is the "Athens of the South," they constructed a replica of the Greek landmark.  It was impressive...even if we didn't get the Nashville-Athens connection.

Athena, goddess of war

Our weekend trip coincided with a Teacher Rally at the Capitol, but that will be discussed in a subsequent post.  The perfect place to relax after any kind of political action is, of course, a brewery, so we dried off and warmed up at Yazoo Brewery.  However did Jon manage to find it?!?

They use only the finest ingredients

After a much-needed nap (we were on vacation after all), we connected with our friend again for a night out on Broadway, home of the Nashville honky-tonks.  We started at a BBQ joint--only slightly ironic since we were traveling from Memphis--and then hit up a couple of honky-tonks for drinks and live music.

The next morning we went to Ryman Auditorium, the "Mother Church of Country Music" and original home of the Grand Ole Opry.  I won't pretend to know a lot about country music, but I was very impressed with the history.  Apparently the acoustics of the theater, with its wooden pews, are incredible; I hope we get to go to a show there before we leave Tennessee.

First, and surprisingly only, auto-photo of the trip

On our way out of town, we "snuck" into the Opryland, Hotel.  It was quite the place; if we had stayed there, it's doubtful we would have needed to leave (which I think is their point).  I'm glad we stayed closer to downtown, though.  I'm getting spoiled by living so close to restaurants and entertainment.  I know we didn't cover everything Nashville has to offer, but it was a nice taste.  I'm sure we'll have another opportunity to check it out.