Writing Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 1

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

A different person is the ethnographer for each day. This person is responsible for chronicling the day’s events in any format they choose. As a three-year veteran of the Writing Project, I’m tasked as the ethnographer. Mine is as follows:

Day 1 Ethnography: Summer is Here

Our Fearless Leader (referred to from this point forward as O.F.L.) lets me take the lead for the first ISI ethnography. I know from previous experiences that the first ethnography tends to set the stage for the ethnographies to follow. It typically takes a solid week for most of us to feel comfortable enough to create an ethnography in our own vision. This, of course, makes perfect sense. Purposefully ambiguous expectations, institutional pressures to conform, and the hegemony of the model text make mimicry an understandable solution.

So I’m going to make this inaugural ethnography somewhat short and to the point. I encourage you all to write the ethnography however you want. Personally I’m not really pushing myself. First-person non-fiction narration is where I feel most comfortable.

I survey the room. The future teacher consultants seem split 50/50 on the use of digital vs. analog writing implements. The presence of so many pens might also have something to do with the first day’s spotty Wi-Fi. Michelle, a notebook fiend, might also be unwittingly inspiring some of us to ditch the district-provided laptop in favor of colorful pens.

We’re sitting and writing. This is an abridged version of our morning pages routine, a daily chunk of time devoted to nothing but sitting and writing. I wonder what everyone is writing. I would imagine equal parts diary/journal stream of consciousness narration, checklists and schedules, and clandestine email checking. I notice that many of us are also scribbling away on sticky notes for the ice breaker. OFL’s equally fearless daughter created a neat ice-breaker activity, so many of us are penning our six word memoirs, pet peeves, sin foods, and etc. to place on large pieces of chart paper.

You can already draw a few conclusions about everyone’s personality based on how they chose to complete the sticky note icebreaker. Some place their sticky notes in nice and neat Jeffersonian grids while others prefer a scattershot approach. Some use drawings while others create elaborate mini-essays.

Jokes are made. Mostly of the semi-corny variety best suited for first encounters. I do my usual routine of saying non-sequiturs and mumbling sarcastic comments under my breath. The atmosphere seems pretty typical for this type of function. Light jitters. Appropriately subdued and managed levels of libidinal energy. But like the first day of school, everyone is definitely on their best behavior. I’m looking forward to learning more about everyone’s personality in the upcoming weeks. Ron makes some jokes that exhibit a decent sense of humor possibly sympatico to mine. He also drew a neat looking cartoon spider for his ice breaker.

Lauren Jensen comes in around 9:40. A Writing Project alum/mainstay, Lauren will be running us through the first demo lesson of the Institute. She gets us writing with a question about teaching non-fiction writing. There’s nothing I can say about her that hasn’t already been said by way more accomplished people. She’s hyper-literate, driven, organized, and frighteningly knowledgeable. Lauren comes prepared with a vast array of instructional materials for us. Her lesson is an enjoyable combination of air-tight sequencing with off-the-cuff moments of improvisational commentary. I’m not going to type out much more about it, but if you’re interested I recommend checking out my blog. The time is now a little past noon, and we’re starting to get peckish.

We eat lunch. Nothing too noteworthy to say about it.

Michelle Hasseltine begins our first afternoon session by preaching on the power of social media. I cannot cosign enough. Tweet at authors. Connect with teachers. Engage in conversations. Almost everything good that’s happened to me professionally has come in some way from my interactions with others on social media. Michelle is a force of nature. Great teachers have presence, the seemingly preternatural ability to attract attention in a room. Michelle has this in spades. All eyes are glued to her as she walks us through the blogging process for the Summer Institute. She makes a passionate appeal for everyone in the room to wiggle at least a big toe toe in the waters of social media.

Next O.F.L. provides us with a guided tour through the syllabus with special emphasis on the summative portfolio. Everyone will be writing blog posts, completing statements of inquiry, writing various reflections, and etc. We’ll be in writing groups, reading canonical texts, and more. 

That’s it. No linguistic or textual pyrotechnics, no formal experimentation, just a straight-forward, chronological narration of the first day. You heard Lauren Jensen tell the room that the Writing Project was the most powerful professional development experience of her life. I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed by nearly everyone who has experienced the ISI. Personal growth often occurs in fits and starts. It’s my hope that what happens during the next four weeks will reverberate through you for years to come.

After morning pages Lauren Jensen comes in around 9:40. A Writing Project alum/mainstay, Lauren will be running us through the first demo lesson of the institute. This 3-week lesson cycle involves using profiles in the writing classroom (She gave a version of this during last year’s ISI, as well). She gets us writing with a question about teaching non-fiction writing. Lauren begins by asking us to write down our initial response to the question: What do you think of teaching non-fiction writing to your students? My answers will always be in red.

I love it! Non-fiction writing is perhaps my favorite topic/genre to teach. I’m immensely interested in personal stories, self-expression, and any kind of writing that draws its main inspiration from the stuff of lived experience. Similar statements could be made about all writing, for sure. But personal essay writing is just so wonderful to read, write, and teach.

When it comes to more traditional school-based non-fiction writing like research papers, I’m neither excited nor underwhelmed. I haven’t done a lot of research writing in the past simply because I haven’t spent a lot of time looking into how to do it well. I’ll probably look to remedy this omission in the upcoming school year. I’ve read a few nice essays examining the benefits/pitfalls of classroom research writing and I feel more comfortable wading into those waters.

We share our answers out. Some of us approach non-fiction writing with trepidation while others say they enjoy the structures of fact-based compositions. It’s clear that teachers and students alike hold strong opinions about this. The beginning of successfully teaching non-fiction is unpacking what we mean by the genre. She takes us through quotes from past students who all speak to the point that teachers have pretty much ruined non-fiction for most kids. They find it boring, pointless, and requiring way more editing and revision than it’s worth.

She next points out the disconnect between what many of us have our students read (literature) with what we then ask them to write (5 paragraph essays). So she wants to introduce more “real world” writing, composition that’s rooted in authentic audience, genre, and process. That’s where non-fiction profiles come into play.

She begins by tying her portfolio unit into whatever her students are studying at the time. Portfolios are malleable. They can fit into most units because interesting people come from all walks of life and are found in most texts. Portfolios are also found in a wide array of periodicals such as Rolling Stone, In Style, and the New Yorker. As a result, this unit, although quite complex in nature, allows for differentiation, incorporates pop culture, and pushes students into some pretty complex levels of thought.

She introduces us to the genre with a spirited reading of Susan Orlean’s Show Dog. It’s awesome. We then discuss what we noticed about the genre. It’s creative, it uses facts, it’s funny, there’s an element of narrative, it’s non-fiction, it requires research, etc. It’s a wonderful blend of methods and styles. Above all else there’s a sense of intimacy. Intimacy between both the author and subject and the author and reader. Here’s her process.

Writing a Profile: The Process
1. Profile genre study: What do you notice? Immerse yourself in the genre. Read a lot of them. Talk about them, etc. This is a basic component to most inquiry models.
2. Find interview subject and write a letter of invitation: family, friends, family friends, friends of family. They have to learn how to go out into the community and ask people. Plenty of opportunities here to make bridges with the community.
3. Write contextualization essay: 3-4 paragraphs. Requires each student to do some research and acquire important background knowledge about the interviewee and their topic.
4. Practice with recording equipment: pretty self-explanatory. Never assume that students are familiar with technology. Always teach.
5. Conduct mock interviews / craft interview questions: Practice interviewing people who give 1-2 word answers. Go through a few common archetypes. Problem solve in the moment and try to foresee problems.
6. Transcribe interview and select quality quotes: they transcribe the best part(s). It shouldn’t go beyond two pages.
7. Craft lessons: (based on student work and student requests, like how to select quality quotes) This is a great way to help students practice skills within the context of their draft
8. Draft and revise:
9. Write thank you notes to interviewees: actual notes on actual stationary – the thank you note is a valuable genre!
10. Compile portfolio and class publication / public reading with distinguished guests

You see how the process is multi-layered. It leans on the community. It builds and values empathy. It requires research, reading, and writing. We partner up and go through a genre study using some mentor texts Lauren provides us. The portfolios lend themselves to skillful inferences on the part of the reader. They’re rich in description (about the subject, the setting, the events, etc). Parenthetical asides. These portfolios are masterclasses in studying tone, mood, and writer’s voice. How to select important information from a sea of writing. They’re a great way to start talking about writer’s craft.



The last step of the process is to write out our questions and then interview each other. At the ISI we introduce each other using the information gained from these portfolios. Like a drop of soap in greasy water we immediately scatter to the corners of the floor to find some peace and quiet in order to interview each other. After that we spend the final pre-lunch minutes debriefing about the lesson cycle. While having someone as powerful and polished as Lauren present first can increase the intimidation among participants, kicking off the Summer Institute with such an effective demonstration lesson sets the tone for the rest of our time together.

A few of us share out what we’ve written on our profiles before the ink is even dry. A few of us sandbag our reading with “This isn’t that good…,” a common mea-culpa among growing writers. A few of us who have done this before know how to handle it; we shout out “shut up and read the crap!” We’ll no doubt repeat this mantra multiple times throughout the Summer Institute. By the final week anyone silly enough to begin with such a self-deprecating aside will find themselves on the receiving end of a rowdy vocal chorus. Shut up and read the crap.


  1. Arvinder

    Prior to reading this ethnographic account, I would have sworn that a chronological narrative style is the epitome of monotony! Peter, your creative, linear narrative has led to a shift in my fossilized understandings of linear structure! Great reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeffrey Anderson

    This post, which I read this morning, makes it sound like you’re going to write one of these a day. Yikes: too much work in this heat.

    Despite all on your plate, I’m forwarding a link to a fiction piece in this week’s *New Yorker*. It’s short, as these things go. It’s also astonishingly brilliant in the use of language. Reading it may take about 20 min. Enjoy:


    On Mon, Jul 11, 2016 at 3:11 PM, Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes wrote:

    > Peter Anderson posted: “Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s > 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration > lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. > Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Pro” >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: How Do I Write? Exploring Your Writing Process – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 2 | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  4. Shari Daniels

    Wow! I so appreciate our time and effort to document the happenings at the Writing Project, Peter! Your voice and personality come out in your writing and I found myself giggling frequently, as well as getting excited over some of the ideas you wrote about. I think I am going to need to print this out for reference and application purposes and I’m greatly hoping you are going to continue to write about the project!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Resources and Reflections from the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute 2016, Part 2 | The Writing Campus

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