It's the final day of the institute for participant presentations. Patrick is reading from Bird by Bird. Everyone is here--all 20 participants as well as two guests: Mariana Figueroa and her colleague Vivian, both from Christopher ES. Mara begins by reading her multi-genre scribe notes entitled "Notes that put the 'No' in Notes." All the participants follow along as Mara reads, smiling at the in jokes and laughing at what Mara has written and at her wholly animated manner of reading. As she reads "it is the waning of our companion days that make us sad," there is a quietness that settles over the group.
Sandy, who began the institute as an "elective non-writer," reads her scribe notes from memory. She reads "Upon climbing the staircase, we hear the happy sounds of talking in a classroom where people enjoy learning and all the grades are A's. There is no homework. Salivary glands moisten and we are fed rich fruittata, fruit, and pastry. All the food given to us has no calories and we can eat as much as we like. There are no negative consequences. It is a happy place: the table and this room comprise my happy place." Elective non-writer?
After a mandatory break for grazing at the snack table, Nicola begins her presentation on "Strengthening the Trait of Ideas." She comments on how another attendee's comment to her in the parking garage after our session yesterday was especially thoughtful. She's asked us to read Bradbury's "The Long Rain" for homework, and although we frown on such 'added evening assignments' in the summer institute, since they interfere with participants' writing time, it appears from the discussion that follows that almost everyone in the group has completed this one. Nicola was not able to begin her own attendance at the institute until week #2, since she was conducting a field trip to Montreal with her 8th graders during week #1. I can't help but feel that the group's conscientiousness about doing this homework assignment is a form of thank you to Nicola for her contributions to the group--a way of making her feel more welcome.
Karen and I brainstorm on the two topics Nicola has provided: "What does the planet [Venus] look like," and "According to the earthlings, what are some of the things we know about the Venusians?" Karen remarks on how carefully Nicola has set us up for this 'pair-share' by gathering our collective thoughts on the overhead before we begin this brainstorming activity.
Nicola then has us gather together in groups of four, asking us to get out of our chairs in order to do so. "How would the Venusians behave towards their earthling invaders," she asks. "I'd like you to act out your sense of these encounters in the from of a group charade." In our group, Karen notes how strongly she's reminded by the Bradbury story of Grendel rising out of the lake and attacking the 'earthlings' who lie asleep in the Mead Hall. This gives our group the perfect metaphor for our group charade. As I mime the Venusian in attack mode, smelling out his victim, Mariana mimes my earthling victim, and Karen and Vivian mime the arching roof of the Sun Dome. Lots of laughter as the five different groups act out their Venusian-earthling encounters. "I never allow my eighth graders to sit in their seats for long," Nicola explains. "We always have a lot of fun in my classes."
"So what do Venusians look like?" Nicola next asks the group, once again using the overhead to gather our collective thoughts on this quite intriguing subject.
"When my former brother-in-law was attending Union Theological Seminary a number of years ago, he had a professor he claimed looked just like God, only smaller," I observe. "So I think the Venusians look just like me, only bigger."
"I'll let that pass," says Nicola, continuing her instruction. "Think of all the senses," she tells us while giving out sheets of drawing paper. "Think of how the Venusians smell, how they eat, how they wreck the havoc they do on the earthling's Sun Dome. Draw and label at least 10 attributes of your Venusian." It's amazing how well Nicola's 8th grade teacher voice works with all of us. Everyone's busily drawing and labeling their Venusian, just as if we were in Nicola's 8th grade class. I turn from these notes to my own drawing, anxious to finish before Nicola rings her bell to signal the end of this activity.
Having completed my exceptionally clunky drawing, conscientiously labeling all 10 of the attributes of my Venusian, Nicola asks volunteers to 'share out.' Children's-book-author-illustrator-by-night/first-grade-teacher by day Leah is the first to share. "My Venusian has several tentacles which also serve as his feet: two of his tentacle-feet have Scottish ghillies on them," she explains as she holds up her drawing. "But he also has shoes for moving fast, a Stewart Dress Plaid tie to trick us into thinking he's professional, many arms for multi-tasking, a laptop that he uses as an earthling tracking device, an 'attack bell' for calling us to attention, special vision goggles, super water-resistant hair, and he's 20 feet tall!" Lots of laughter as Leah holds up her strikingly professional drawing and explains the attributes of this unusual vision of a Venusian.
Because Nicola gave a short workshop just yesterday to the participants in our open summer program on vocabulary, and because I asked if she might give a short precis or this workshop today, she spends the final 30 minutes of her allotted 90 minute time slot introducing us to the "vocabulary games" she uses with her 7th-8th graders in her French classes. True to form, the participants launch into playing Nicola's "Fact Review/M&M Game," her "Vocabulary Square Race" and her 'Solitaire Flashcards" without skipping a beat. After we write our evaluations--appreciations really-- of Nicola's back-to-back workshops, a number of participants cluster around Nicola, thanking her and asking her to augment the brief descriptions she provided of her vocabulary games.
Next up, Grant, a participant who is just beginning a second career as a composition instructor at the college level, has us debrief and synthesize what we've learned over the past four weeks. We start by getting in grade level groups and writing down the one teaching practice we want to 'take with us' from the summer as we head back to our school year classrooms, writing these ideas on sheets of easel paper with sticky backs.
We them perform a 'carousel' activity, moving from one easel sheet to the next, providing comments, queries and augmentations on what each of the other groups has written on their particular sheet. When we return to our initial places in the classroom, Grant gives us our instructions.
"Discuss your different 'must do' teaching ideas with others in your group," he tells us. "Then, on a clean sheet of easel paper, come up with a way of representing your particular 'must do' teaching practice with a visual symbol. Finally, after discussing your different visual symbols with one another, come up with a central visual symbol that represents what your three or four different 'teaching strategy symbols' have in common."
After the initial required period of confusion, questions, and puzzled looks, each of the groups bends to the task Grant has set for us. Twenty or so minutes later, six visual posters are on display on the chalkboard: a game maze, a flower, a closed fist, a heart, a 'safe box,' and a multi-feathered poultry animal mark the central visual symbols on each these posters. When Grant asks what unifies these posters, Karen responds "We're all committed to multi-modal instruction and we should start our own k-college charter school together!"
John speaks of institute participants' "collective refusal to accept the constraints we face in our schools today,'' while Sandy talks about the poster activity itself as an example of the power of supported learning in a safe environment. "This is the sort of activity we just could not have completed, either individually or collectively, at the beginning of the institute." she muses. "It's yet another example of why this model of learning--working together on activities that are various, challenging, and fun--is such an important aspect of what we've learned this summer."
"Aren't we all artists of instruction?" Marie asks.
"We have to be," Nicola concludes.