National Writing Project

State Networks at Work: Mississippi Sites Hold Annual Visioning Retreat

By: Sherry Swain
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 3
Date: May-June 2002

Summary: The annual Visioning Retreat offers Mississippi writing project teachers and leaders a chance to develop and implement goals that respond to the needs of their schools and districts.


Like a river intent on deepening its course and expanding its boundaries, members of the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute (MWTI), a state network of writing project sites, converge each year for a Visioning Retreat. In January 2002, about 90 of us flowed into a small hotel on a cold Friday evening and worked until Sunday noon on specific tasks to strengthen our individual sites and state network.

Originally, the Visioning Retreat served as a strategic planning event. We listed strengths of our state network writing projects and compared those strengths to the needs of schools and districts in our state. We envisioned our state network "house" and added rooms to include parent programs, administrator programs, collaboration with arts organizations, and influence on state standards and curriculum frameworks. We formed small task groups, each taking on one of our new rooms, envisioning a plan for the expanding work and creating a timeline for constructing the new rooms. We finished with a grand "to do" list including individuals and committees that were to continue the planned work. That was six years ago.

The second retreat found us updating the "to do" list, checking our progress, and forming task groups to actually accomplish a chunk of the work at the retreat. Right away, we saw that our goals were more likely to be accomplished if we allowed time during the retreat itself for task groups to begin the details of their work. Thereafter, our retreats have included some initial and concluding whole-group sessions, but we have devoted the bulk of our time to the work of these task groups.

As director of MWTI, I had the good fortune to visit with each task group for a couple of hours during the weekend and share in the diverse work that each group is pursuing. I found the scoring group discussing a preponderance of evidence for a score point of 2 rather than 3 on one paper and charting commentary to justify a score for each anchor paper. Tricia Bridges, teacher-consultant with the South Mississippi Writing Project, led this lively group as they honed their scoring expertise. Next door, Linda Allsup and Gina Guess of the MSU Writing/Thinking Project led the prompt-writing group as they designed an informative prompt and checklist for our writing improvement initiative and compared it to the state writing rubric.

The tasks of another two groups were based on grants to serve Delta schools. A new collaboration of teacher-consultants and directors from three Delta states—Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi—worked on a six-day professional development series to be offered to 11 middle schools through a grant from the Foundation for the Mid-South. Gerry Sultan and Sandra Thompson from the Delta Area Writing Project led this group. In another room, teachers from the Delta 5 consortium, funded by the Walton Foundation and the Rural School and Community Trust, sought response to their place-based curriculum plans from a team consisting of three teacher-consultants: Kaye Sullivan and Wendy Shenefelt of the Jackson State Writing Project and Suzanne Thompson, teacher in residence for MWTI.

Our Academy for Educational Development (AED) research team from the Mississippi State University project—one of the five state teams involved in the national, three-year evaluation of the National Writing Project—shared ideas for their ongoing work for the study and planned a fourth year of work beyond the scope of the AED study. Led by Kay Collins, this group envisioned their role in MWTI's continued commitment to improve the teaching of writing throughout the state.

Upstairs, the evaluation and observation team led by Cathy Stewart, director of the University of Mississippi Writing Project, and Linda Irby, coordinator of writing across the curriculum for MWTI, designed an instrument to assess classroom implementation of the best practices modeled in writing project staff development. The group was deliberate in designing an instrument that could be used not only in conjunction with student writing assessment scores from the state test, but also as a measure of implementation for any of our staff development programs.

Kim Patterson, director of the MSU Writing/Thinking Project, led the partnerships group, consisting of six school teams, to design multiyear plans for school and writing project partnerships. We began this group three years ago after intensive work helping individual schools to write federal grants for partnerships. That experience led us to explore the power of a weekend experience in which school teams of teachers and administrators meet with teacher-leaders from local sites to design partnerships. Beginning with strengths and needs of the individual schools, Kim leads the teams through strategic planning in which they consider the various audiences of the school, barriers to success, plans and timelines, and, finally, possibilities for external funding. The partnership focus has proven so successful that we have expanded the group each year.

Months prior to the retreat, directors from all the Mississippi projects submitted names of teacher-consultants to be invited to join the various task groups. They also invited leadership teams from schools with which they might form new partnerships. MWTI paid for rooms and lodging for several teacher-consultants from each site and for two members of each school leadership team. Individual projects and schools paid for any additional people they invited. To this master list, we added names of foundation representatives, state department of education staff, and all members of the state House and Senate Education Committees.

Senator Alice Harden and Jean Cox, staff person for our lieutenant governor, joined us for dinner on Friday, with the senator giving us an update on the status of our funding as well as other education agenda items before the legislature. Lieutenant Governor Amy Tuck spoke to the group on Saturday, thanking them for "burning the candle of enlightenment at both ends" to educate Mississippi's children. Even though few legislators actually attend the retreat, the invitations remind them that we exist and that we are hard at work. We know that we are fortunate to have the visible support of Sen. Harden and Lt. Gov. Tuck—and their visits gave us a chance to thank them in person for their support.

In recent years, we've opened the Visioning Retreat to guests from other NWP state networks. In addition to sharing hospitality and Southern cuisine with our visitors, we reap the benefits of their expertise and hard work. Diane Scollay, state network director for Missouri attended the 2002 retreat, joining the partnerships group and working with a school team from Madison to plan a new partnership with the Delta Area Writing Project. Richard Louth and Mary Beth Crovetta from the Louisiana state network contributed to the work of the Foundation for the Mid-South task group, with Mary Beth becoming a presenter for two of the Louisiana middle schools served by the grant.

Before saying our goodbyes on Sunday, seven task groups had shared the results of their weekend work—which included timelines and plans for continued work throughout the year. The goodbye itself was prolonged, all of us in a circle, arms around each other, listening to the new NWP CD release, Rural Voices Radio II, laughing and crying, and being grateful for the opportunity to work together for the students and teachers in our state.

Writing projects in Mississippi, and everywhere, are like rivers—we flow into every accessible space, making our marks on local and state education agendas, like flood levels carved into pilings. Our state network Visioning Retreat is one of the ways we make our mark.

About the Author Sherry Swain is director of the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute state network and national chair of NWP state networks.

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