RI Writing Project: Providing a lifeline for teachers

If you walk into any high school during the first few days of a school year, you’ll probably encounter some form of professional development. Often, it’s representative of the newest, flashiest thing in education, and the program only gets fancier once you upgrade to the premium version.

The Rhode Island Writing Project’s (RIWP) professional development trainings and workshops are nothing like that. Instead, educators write and learn literacy strategies by doing them, all while reflecting on their own teaching. Leading the workshops are other teachers, sharing some of the best work they do in their classrooms. Aimée Ryan, an English teacher who serves on the executive board of RIWP, says the best professional development should get someone “moving, thinking and dreaming: it should be hands-on, you should be thinking critically, and you should leave envisioning how you can adapt it for your classroom.”

So what are these professional development experiences at RIWP like? If you participate in the Summer Institute, you’re in a three-week intensive program at Rhode Island College, learning about neoliberalism and social justice, while writing reflectively about yourself and your profession. Brittany Richer Ahnrud, who was a participant in the summer workshop in 2014 and has since facilitated the Summer Institute, describes it as giving participants the space to “make yourself important, and make your stories important.” If you attend the Open Air Institute, a three-day program in the summer, you explore Rhode Island through educational field trips to everything from rivers to parks to farms, exploring the state and learning the history of RI. These trips are led by teachers who previously participated in RIWP workshops. Teachers who have completed the Summer Institute are encouraged to take on leadership roles and present at the annual conference, teach in the young writers summer camp and even lead professional development at their own schools.

And while the professional development is important, another valuable aspect of RIWP’s programming is connecting with other teachers who share similar values. Aimée Ryan describes this community as “a lifeline for teachers.” Jason Ryan, who is also on the executive board, says that he appreciates that RIWP’s network and organization empowers teachers by developing leadership: “It doesn’t see one teacher as more valuable than any other — it values new teachers and veteran teachers. For the first time, I was empowered, like someone cared about what I had to say.” Brittany Richer Ahnrud, a co-director at RIWP, describes attending an RIWP conference as an undergraduate as inspiring: “Seeing young people leading the conference is inspiring, and you start to see yourself in that role.”

It’s easy to get lost in the saturated professional development market. Teachers need to find the right fit by aligning themselves with people who share a similar ideological approach to education. Aimée Ryan describes it as “finding your people,” and says that RIWP is all about building community. “We’re teachers who believe in kids,” she says, “and we provide each other with lifelines. If I didn’t know that Writing Project existed, I worry that I would have just thought, ‘Is this it?’”

For updates about events and upcoming programming, follow RIWP on Twitter and Facebook @theRIWP and facebook.com/riwritingproject. For more information about RIWP, visit RIWP.org

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