I’ve been obsessed with a book for that past fifteen months or so, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Seriously, this is my favorite book, and it’s actually about a mushroom, the matsutake mushroom, which does indeed thrive in capitalist ruin. It grows well on the east slopes of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon in mature lodgepole pine forests. Mature lodgepole pine forests exist there for two reasons: the original ponderosa pines have been clear cut (“capitalist ruin”), and the successive lodgepole pines, which are highly flammable and would normally burn to make way for ponderosa, are protected by fire suppression. Matsutakes, as with most fungi, improve the soil by processing biological materials into accessible nutrients. Mature lodgepoles provide an especially good home to matsutakes.
I’ve been reading and rereading this book as my colleagues and I have shifted from an Investing in Innovation (i3) Validation grant (the first College-Ready Writers Program grant, now called College, Career, and Community Writers Program) to an i3 Scale-Up grant. The work in the i3 Validation grant altered the ways that I see public education. We worked in schools that didn’t have enough money for teachers, schools whose curriculum was so dominated by testing that there was no room for teaching, schools in communities with few economic opportunities for students. In many, if not most, cases, the schools had abandoned attention to writing instruction because it was not in the textbooks, the pacing plan or on the slate of high-stakes tests, textbooks and test that were developed elsewhere by for-profit companies and used, regardless of local relevances in schools throughout the country.
When Tsing writes about the productive relationship, the entanglement, between the lodgepole pine and the matsutake mushroom, she stresses that the entanglement is made possible by human disturbance and ruin. And it’s a particular kind of disturbance that results from what she calls “precision-nested scaling,” where a product or technique is moved from one place to another without concern for context.
Does this scream metaphor? Tsing does not go there, but I can’t help but think that we are the mushroom. We work in environments where scaled reform efforts have erased writing instruction, teacher agency, and student creativity. We work in nutrient-poor schools and communities. In these “disturbed” environments, NWP finds a way to forge productive, mutually beneficial relationships that change and enrich the culture.
My go-to article to explain the work of the National Writing Project is “The National Writing Project: Scaling Up and Scaling Down,” Joseph P. McDonald, Judy Buchanan, and Richard Sterling’s brilliant and accessible article about the design of the National Writing Project. I share this chapter with new directors, people who express interest in NWP, and anyone who wants to think deeply about our work. It’s been in my mind lately because of NWP’s new Investing in Innovation Scale-Up grant. “Scaling Up and Scaling Down” subtly critiques scale-up models that work like franchises, where a single practice or idea is simply replicated across contexts and people. The following key passage in the chapter explains the problem:
At the heart of educational reform, we believe, is the challenge of encouraging practitioners, at all levels, to face the risk of undergoing real change. It is a challenge that does not go away when the reform is scaled up. Fullan (1999) puts it well in saying that large-scale reform involves “the development of local capacity thousands of times over” (p. 66). For this reason, scaling up reform involves preparation for risk-taking thousands of times over….To persuade these individuals, reformers must be prepared to provide opportunities and support. They may also need to displace some of their own beliefs and habits. For example, they may be forced to recognize that reform is ultimately personal, rather than merely technical, and that its usual targets—namely teachers—must also be regarded as its ultimate agents.
I like especially the sentence, “They may also need to displace some of their own beliefs and habits.” This is a radical departure from traditional ideas of scaling up, which are projects that act upon the target (usually teachers) of reform, without necessarily affecting the reformer. Scaling down recognizes the teacher as the agent, not simply the recipient, of reform projects. Many brilliant ideas are obvious only after someone articulates them, so even though this idea is second-nature to NWP, I’ve been grateful that the ideas here have been articulated so thoughtfully. NWP teacher-leaders take risks and reap the fruit of, if not a fragrant mushroom, students who are savvy about the world, thoughtful about their role in it, and have the composing resources to take part in it.