Saturday, July 08, 2006

why can't a school be more like the writing project?

Well this is my first atempt at a true blog entry so I'm a little uncerain who I'm addressing and how to go about talking to this somewhat inchoate audience. So I guess I'll sort of talk to myself and see if anyone ends up listening.

It always surprises me how much I look forward to returning to each session of the writing project's invitational summer institute. The groups of teachers who are attracted to this sort of opportunity (a four and 1/2 week workshop-based program focusing on participants' practices in the teaching of writing in the mornings and on the participants' own writing in the afternoons) seem to have a ready sympathy with one another, and to 'gel' surprisingly quickly. I think most experience what I experience--the longer the institute goes on the more we look forward to one another's company.

Now of course in most cases public elementary and secondary schools aren't like that. You come to school and you do your job. You enjoy some of your classses (if you're teaching at the secondary level) and you don't enjoy others. If your lucky you have a few rather close friends among the other teachers at your school, but in fact you rarely talk about your teaching with even these quite close friends.

The writing project summer institute is exactly the opposite. We start by talking bout teaching, both our own and that of others, and it's this talk that leads to the more personal, relationship building talk that quite frequently builds lasting friendships among isi (invitational summer institute) participants.

Sure we're a highly self-selected group. There are only so many teachers, after all, that would voluntarily choose to 'talk shop' for four and 1/2 weeks of their summer would-be vacations. And the configuation of teachers, representing those teaching at a variety of gade levels from kindergaten to college, is similarly unique in most teachers' experience. These two factors contribute a lot to the excitement of the summer institute, the eagerness with which participants look forward the getting together each day, sharing in each other's company and learning from one another.

But having co-directed this sort of extended summer institute for just about 21 consecutive summers at this point, I think it's time for me to step back and see if there aren't some "lessons learned" from these summers that could be usefully applied to the life most teachers live during the school year. A good friend once told me "the summer institute is an oasis in what is otherwise the desert of my school year teaching life." I don't think it has to be that way. In my next blog I'll begin to articulate some of the things we do, often quite simple things, that could reasonably be replicated in a school setting during the regular academic year.


Laura said...

Lessons Learned. Or is it Memories Remembered? There are many ingredients in the ISI that I connect with the best of my school experience: creativity, conversations with colleagues, room to experiment, community with a purpose, trust that best practices are better than teaching to the test, using what you love to spark the teaching, patient understanding of process, mutual respect, support from supervisor.
What I wonder is why it isn't a continuous experience? I'm writing a piece that ponders why I don't teach in that spark all of the time. Perhaps humans cannot stand being extraordinary long enough for it to become habit.

Donna Emerson said...

I look forward to the practical tips. Some of the success of ISI is certainly due to your avuncular presence.

jonathan said...

Hi Laura,

It's the acuity I see and experience in your photos that I admire. I'm really looking forward to viewing your photo montage of "ISI 06, the first three weeks" tomorrow morning!

grant said...

I intuit that a common denominator among ISI participants is that they are all either secretly or openly dying to write and to be read.
The professional motivations are far less potent. I say this because the energy in the room gets very thick and intense when creativity is going on--and returns to a more ordinary level when the work of learning new teaching processes resumes. There is of course a double "payoff" in attending the ISI, but at its secret core it is foremost an assembly of artists, all more or less closeted.

Andrea said...

Though I feel quite removed from ISI and teaching in general at the moment, I am SO GLAD you've decided to do this. It is connections/musings/conversations such as these that keep the teaching spark lit for me while I am out of the classroom.

Don Rothman said...

In the 27 years that I participated in the Central California Writing Project (UCSC) summer institutes, I particularly valued the way people tuned their ears to each other's speaking and reading voices. Knowing the quality of attention that shaped these institutes continues to set my teaching expectations.