Tuesday, July 11, 2006

the writing component of the summer institute

Given that the summer institute tends to attract participants who are at roughly the same level of confidence in themselves as teachers, but all over the map in their confidence or lack of confidence in themselves as writers, it's surprising that the institute places such a strong emphasis on participants' own writing. Doesn't this emphasis tend to create the same sort of division, distrust and dismay that I was complaining about in my last blog entry?

The answer is that far from increasing the distance between more and less confident, more and less able writers among the participants, the "afternoon writing group" component of the summer institute is consistently cited by past participants, at least in my experience, as the most memorable and important part of the program.

It certainly was for me, when I became a "full participant" in the summer program in the mid-90's, preparing and giving a 75 minute workshop demonstration during one of the morning sessions and writing and responding the writing of my writing group buddies in the afternoon.

Certainly the size of these afternoon groups -- generally from four to six participants -- helps to establish the unique feeling of almost visceral connection that so often evolves among the members of these groups. Their relative intimacy is heightened, of course, by the daily contrast that participants have of moving from the large group in the morning to the small group in the afternoon. I remember that on some days towards the end of my mid-90's institute experience I was actually irritated at the "slowness" of the morning session. I wanting it to be over as quickly as possible so that I could read the latest version of my "Floating" piece to the others in my small response group, and listen to where they had traveled in their own pieces.

Grant has introduced the radical idea that in fact the participants in a summer institute, or at least in this particular 2006 summer institute, are all closet artists more or less masquerading as teachers (see Grant's comment) and I must admit that he has some interesting observations and reflections to support this bold claim. As more of a dyed-in-the-wool-and-proud-of-it pedagogue than Grant, I'd make a more modest claim. I think the writing component of the summer institute helps us discover the artist we all long to be: that elevated being we occasionally catch glimpses of, or perhaps hear whispers from, as we respond to prompts, listen to other's writing, and experience the magic unfolding of pieces of writing we can hardly believe our modest selves were capable of ushering into being.


grant said...

I think the writing component of the ISI is its most potent draw (see my response to your piece "Why can't school be more like the summer Institute?." I often get the feeling that participants are not really looking so much for new teaching practices as they are hungry to express themselves and be noticed. As the scribe notes have been read I have realized that for so many crack writers to be assembled in one room is not likely to have occured by a random sampling of teacher population. These are, to the last person, artists, and have found their way here more for the sake of their art than of their profession--not that many realize this or would say it consciously. I could be wrong, but I cheerfully advance the theory anyway.

Nicola said...

The small group is very comfortable, less threatening and extraordinarily supportive. I don't think it matters how much better or worse someone is in that group. I don't think anyone actually thinks about it in those terms anyway.
Furthermore, it occurs to me that there is no such thing as a writer that is better then others. I think that some of us excel in certain styles, while others do well in another writing arena/style.

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