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PhilWP celebrating 25 years as a powerful teacher network

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP) is celebrating its 25th anniversary of teachers teaching teachers.

The mantra of “teachers as the best teachers of teachers” represents the power of PhilWP, a local site of the National Writing Project.

For its silver anniversary, PhilWP is commemorating its impact on literacy and writing as a critical tool for learning in all Philadelphia schools. Through the PhilWP network, education reform is not about top-down mandates or rigid accountability measures but represents teachers working together in professional and collegial communities.

The PhilWP teacher network consists of over 700 teacher-consultants and impacts thousands of classrooms and schools across all grades and disciplines. Programs include summer institutes, summer practicum schools, seminars, workshops, programs for teachers of English language learners, continuing education courses, study groups, teacher research communities, and social action forums.

When I joined PhilWP over 10 years ago, I was a struggling novice teacher. Through this professional community I learned to embrace my struggles and celebrate my passion for integrating arts and media literacy. I developed a knack for being more reflective about my teaching. I became teacher-researcher in my own classroom and began thinking about ways to better engage my students.

A lot has changed since the year 2000, the year of my summer institute. NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, there has been an increase in scripted programs, and draconian teacher accountability measures have led to more focus and time spent teaching to the test.

In the midst of all the education reform in Philadelphia, PhilWP’s teacher network has remained vital for educators seeking to find ways to work within the constraints of NCLB – seeking strategies for creative compliance.

Kathleen Millville, a Spanish and English teacher at Constitution High School, and a more recently minted 2009 PhilWP teacher consultant, indicated that teacher networks are one of the main reasons she has been able to grow as an educator. She participated in a Swarthmore Summer Urban Teacher Leadership Program. She notes that “My students – in their brilliance or frustration or defiance or apathy – constantly demand that I become a better teacher.”

Her experience mirrors my own. Prior to joining PhilWP, she felt isolated and stuck. Her testimony on the power of teacher networks is not atypical of many PhilWP teacher-consultants:

"I knew I needed to move forward, but I didn’t have a direction; I didn’t have many good models or much confidence that I could find my way. In connecting with colleagues through PhilWP and through Philadelphia Young Playwrights, I found both. The teachers in these networks were models for me; by sharing their own journeys in teaching, they helped me to map out pathways and possibilities for moving forward in mine. And because they valued my journey in teaching, I began to value it myself. I started seeing my work as part of a constant process of learning and revising, and I started seeing myself as an active participant, instead of a hapless victim, in that process."

Dina Portnoy, director of alumni programs for the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, was a PhilWP teacher consultant in 1986. A staunch believer in teacher networks, Portnoy indicates that PhilWP is the single most important thing that kept her in the classroom and improved her teaching practices. She validates the work of PhilWP by stating “the power of teacher networks remains the thing that gives me hope in this difficult time for education in general and urban education in particular.”

She further notes that while other mainstream reformers seem to be committed to "quick fixes," educational slogans, teacher-bashing and narrow intellectual expectations for students in the service of higher test scores, PhilWP and the National Writing Project value teacher knowledge and teaching students in respectful ways.

On Saturday, October 22, educators, authors, and community leaders will gather to celebrate the work of Philadelphia Writing Project teacher consultants with daytime workshops, discussions, and performances, followed by an evening gala dinner. Congressman Chaka Fattah will be honored for his support of PhilWP, along with founding directors Judy Buchanan and Susan Lytle.

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, director of national programs and site development for the National Writing Project, will deliver the keynote address. The festivities will include a jazz ensemble, tributes, and readings by teachers who represent the 25-year history of the Philadelphia Writing Project.

The gala will be held at the Inn At Penn, 3600 Sansom Street. Tickets can be purchased in advance here.

You can also click on the PhilWP 25th anniversary banner on the Notebook’s blog to learn more.