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An (Unofficial) History of the Philadelphia Writing Project: There is No Single Story
A reflection on 25 years of PhilWP by Dr. Susan Lytle
The Philadelphia Writing Project began even before our official application was accepted by the National Writing Project. The proposal, written by Susan Lytle and Philadelphia teachers including Rhoda Kanevsky and Judy Buchanan, specified an exclusively urban initiative, one that would focus all of its efforts on the School District of Philadelphia and on the school-university partnership with the Graduate School of Education at UPenn. The very first Invitational Summer Institute was sponsored in 1986 by the Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching Humanities in Schools (PATHS) and the Philadelphia Renaissance in Science and Mathematics (PRISM). It followed upon PATHS’ effort to provide professional development (then called turn-around training) in a number of districts with university faculty and others (for example, Allie Mulvihill, who co-led our first institute) working in various regions to support leadership among principals and teachers related to the teaching of writing.
What made the PhilWP Invitational Summer Institute unique from its inception was its emphasis on literacy (including writing and reading as critical social and cultural practices, in school and out) and inquiry as a stance for teachers, a framework for professional development, and an orientation toward inquiry-based pedagogy for K12 schools. At the suggestion of Rhoda Kanevsky, when the NWP proposal was written we discussed offering the opportunity for teacher-consultants to do cross-visitation in classrooms throughout the district during the school year. The first institute participants designed the process and PATHS provided the funding for seven substitutes dedicated to PhilWP and available to support the cross-visitation program. Founding Director, Susan Lytle and teacher consultant Bob Fecho wrote about this early work in an award-winning article called, "Meeting Strangers in Familiar Places." The opportunity to visit other teachers during the school day and to work together on aspects of the teaching of writing was an energizing and eye-opening experience for all involved in the project.
In addition to conceiving the project as exploring literacy learning across the professional life span, emphasizing inquiry for teaching and professional development, and initiating the program of cross-visitation, from the inception of the project, the Graduate School of Education at UPenn provided funding each year to support a PhilWP Scholar, a teacher from the School District who pursues full-time graduate study while providing critical leadership to the writing project. In 1986 PhilWP had the remarkable good fortune of Judy Buchanan’s enrollment in the doctoral program in Reading/Writing/Literacy at GSE where she became the first PhilWP Scholar and went on to become a founding Project Director. Since that time, there have been 22 PhilWP Scholars, whose contributions to the academic community at Penn, to the leadership of PhilWP, and to the literacy lives of children and adults, locally and nationally, have influenced the work of the project in countless ways.
There have been three Teachers on Special Assignment from the SDP who have served as Project Directors, including Judy Buchanan (1987-1996), now Deputy Director of the National Writing Project, Marci Resnick (1996-2001) and Vanesssa Brown (2001-2010). Both Marci and Vanessa also went on to provide leadership for the NWP. In Marci’s memory, there is a yearly cycle of The Marci Resnick Teacher Fund awards to four teachers for special projects which bring learning and excitement to children in the spirit of Marci’s own history as an outstanding elementary teacher and Project Director. Teri Hines has served ably as a part-time managing director of PhilWP from 2010. Faculty Directors of PhilWP have included Susan Lytle (1986-2004), Kathy Schultz (2004-2010) and Diane Waff (2010-present), who served for many years on the NWP Task Force. Since January 2001, Miriam Harris has been the administrator and office manager of the project, and in this capacity, has played a key role in virtually every aspect of project communications, leadership and organization.
In addition to the core writing project Invitational Summer Institutes, workshops and seminars for Philadelphia teachers, and continuity programs, PhilWP has invented and fostered the development of countless programs and events for teachers, administrators, youth and children in Philadelphia. Early interest in the possibilities for teacher research as a way for teachers to generate knowledge of practice and as agency for educational change has led to Practitioner Inquiry Day at the Ethnography in Education Forum where since 1986 Philadelphia teachers and other educators from across the country and internationally have shared their studies of educational practice. Many PhilWP teachers have presented there and subsequently published their research in a range of venues over the years. PhilWP has provided professional development for PennGSE’s TFA teachers in the Summer Bridge Program initiated by Dr. Dina Portnoy, former PhilWP Scholar. Since the 1990’s PhilWP has designed inquiry communities for teachers, principals, students and parents, funded by a wide range of local and national foundations, investigating such topics as teacher collaboration for literacy learning across the curriculum in urban comprehensive high schools; literacy and gender equity; diversity and desegregation; race, culture, language and learning; literacy and learner-centered pedagogies; adult literacy alternative assessment; teachers, parents and students’ perspectives on school reform; literacy learning and teaching in non-credit adult basic education and non-credit college courses; literacy learning with core standards; inquiry-based approaches to leadership of professional development; participatory approaches to evaluating systemic reform; blending sports and academics; teacher leadership in urban high schools; building small learning communities in large schools; cultural diversity among teachers and students, working in out-of-school time programs, and literacy leadership for school principals etc.
In addition, PhilWP has sponsored an annual Celebration of Writing and Literacy, a Writer’s Support Group, Literature Circles, Youth Writing Camps, many NWP Annual Meeting presentations, an active Techlit Online Discussion Forum and TC created web page, youth and family workshops, specially tailored professional development for many elementary, middle and secondary schools, and the Project is now providing leadership in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and offering a Struggles and Strategies continuity program for Philadelphia teachers who are challenged to provide excellent literacy teaching in these times of public school fiscal challenges and constant district leadership change. TC’s Teri Hines, Bruce Bowers and Vanessa Brown who have led PhilWP’s Leadership Inquiry Seminar authored a comprehensive publication about the design of that seminar for the NWP that was distributed nationally to the more than 200 writing projects across the country.
Across the board, support from the National Writing Project in the form of mini-grants, federal funding, the establishment of national inquiry groups (e.g. the Urban Sites Network, Project Outreach, The Teacher Inquiry Communities Network) and wise advice from the NWP leadership has supported us in pursuing these initiatives. The Graduate School of Education administration and especially faculty and students in the Language in Education Group and the Teaching, Learning and Curriculum program have made PhilWP’s home institution an important site of intellectual and interpersonal growth and challenge.
In April 2007, PhilWP moved from PennGSE to beautiful new offices and meeting rooms at 4201 Spruce Street, Building 2007. The Writing Project has also moved on to a “new generation” of PhilWP teachers while participants in the first decade, including retired teachers, continue to play an active role. Over time, we added teachers in charter schools as they became a significant part of Philadelphia school reform. We have also benefitted greatly from the participation of Teach For America teachers who have taken leadership roles in technology, professional development, and special events. Over time, we have kept our original commitment to serving urban districts and urban schoolchildren at the center of our work, while broadening the scope of the schools and teachers the Project supports.
As I write this I am conscious of all I have left out of this account, and of “the dangers of a single story” (thanks to Chimamanda Adichie) to represent the complex and dedicated work of so many people. There are more than 700 teachers who have participated in the annual Summer Institute and have thus become part of the project over these years, and many thousands who have benefitted from the PhilWP TCs teaching professional development workshops and courses in schools and districts, and multiples of thousands of children and youth whose life chances have been improved by having caring, thoughtful, and dedicated teachers invite them into the powerful worlds of writing, reading and literacy. In addition to the PhilWP teachers who provide teacher leadership from the classroom, many others have become principals, directors, and central office leaders. Yet there is, as we all know, much work to be done. Hopefully this celebration of 25 years will lend strength to this effort and to NWP nationally, and we will have much to be proud of and thankful for in the years to come.
The following educators participated in the very first institute: Essie Abrahams-Goldberg, Doris Adams-Kahley, Diane Amadio, Bill Bachrach, Marilyn Boston, Jackie Brinkley, Deirdre Farmbry, Bob Fecho, Harvey Firestone, Suzan Friedrich, Sandy Goldstein, Rayna Goldfarb, Edie Hartos, Diane Antonelli Herr, Alice Hoffman, Adrienne Jacoby, Peggy Johnson, Betta Kolansky, Marilyn Kraft, Joyce Krasner, Bernard Miller-Hymowitz, Zahida Mohammed, Barry Molowitz, Nancy Morgan, Michael Monteiro, Barbara Bennon Orlan, Marsha Pincus, Donna Sharp, Mary Silverstein, Eugene Smith, Judith Sussholtz, and Liz Woods. Susan Lytle, Allie Mulvihill, Audrey Badger, and Pat Johnson served on the staff.
Since 1986, PhilWP has selected a teacher consultant to serve full-time as the PhilWP Scholar at the Graduate School of Education. Supported by a fellowship provided in part by the Dean of the Graduate School of Education, the Scholar spends two semesters on leave from the School District of Philadelphia to take graduate level courses through the Reading, Writing, and Literacy Program in the Language in Education Division or the Foundations and Practices of Education Division. During this time the Scholar provides leadership to the site in a number of creative ways. Five former PhilWP Scholars have completed their doctoral programs and continue to work in schools and universities across the country.