Thursday, July 19, 2007

chicken soup for the professional delelopment soul

Now that you've all completed this summer's ISI, it may surprise and perhaps startle you to recall how difficult and challenging it was to persuade all of you -- twenty K-college teachers of writing -- to give up four and one half weeks of your hard-earned summer vacation to participate in this highly memorable and deeply inspiriting summer program. This difficulty in recruiting participants is true no matter what university or college a Writing Project site calls "home," or how consequential and long term its reputation as a Writing Project site. Having been the primary recruiter of new participants to the ISI's of the San Jose Area Writing Project over the past 18 years, I believe I know why.

Somewhat surprisingly, I trace my understanding of why K-college teachers need to be persuaded to participate in programs like the one you've just completed back to my mother: to behaviors in her that I both observed and to some degree inherited. She had what today would be called a "depressive personality," more usefully referred to as a "bi-polar disorder." More usefully because the visual image of bi-polarity does such a good job of conveying the most puzzling and vexing aspect of this mental condition: when you are living in one of its "polarities," say the exuberant or sunny hemisphere, you simply cannot imagine, or even recall in any concrete sense, what it feels like to inhabit the dark or depressive hemisphere. And similarly, when you're groping around in the dark, trying to remember what made you feel so buoyant yesterday and made getting up in the morning something other than a struggle, you simply cannot believe that a sunny "polarity" exists, much less that you were actually living there but "moments" ago. In its extreme form, such bi-polarity can be described, as I'm sure most of you are aware, as clinical schizophrenia: the inability of one "hemisphere" to recognize the other as part of itself.

While I would not wish this frustrating mental condition on anyone, it does have its advantages in helping me understand and to some degree anticipate the recruiting challenge I refer to above. It helps because it reminds me that, as teachers, we have all learned to cultivate what are essentially schizophrenic-like personalities. We are one sort of learner when we are in our own classrooms; we are generally an entirely different sort of learner when we are attending a professional development program. To expand a bit on this "classroom personality," it's one where we feel we have some control over the conditions and climate for learning that we create. This ability to create attractive learning conditions within the four walls of our classrooms, of course, is what brought many of us into the profession of teaching in the first place. However pessimistic our take on the possibility of rational and compassionate action in the "outside" world, we could create within our own classrooms an alternate reality of sorts, a sunny place. That's why teachers tend to find stories like Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" so deeply disturbing. Here is a teacher who had the responsibility to ensure that at least a short glimpse of the sunshine be afforded all her children, and yet she failed the one child--Margot--who needed this glimpse of sunshine the most.

In the latter--that hemisphere or state of mind I'm choosing to call the dark side of our schizophrenic-like teaching selves--we generally revert to being skeptics at best or grudging and dispirited followers of the wills of others at worst. We expect that the primary purpose of professional development programs will be tell us what to do, what "mandated curriculum" to implement, by those who claim to know more than we do about our kids, about what they need to learn, and how to reach and teach them most effectively. My favorite example of teachers in this skeptical "professional development" frame of mind comes from Among Schoolchildren--Tracy Kidder's account of the year he spent as a "big fifth grader" in the classroom of a teacher of that grade level in South Holyoke, Massachusetts. Attending an after-school "professional development program" on the textbook series the district had just adopted, he observed the commercial salesman for the series trying his best to extol its virtues to the K-6 teachers at the school. Midway through the workshop, the teacher in front of him turned to his partner, whispering rather audibly, "Yeah, right. And it also dices and slices."

The reason that the two hundred or so summer institutes of what is now the National Writing Project are generally not programs that can be ridiculed and dismissed as "dicing and slicing" in this fashion is both useful to know and somewhat surprising. When the Writing Project's founder, Jim Gray, was asked to conduct a summer seminar on the teaching of writing for high school teachers, he was asked to hold this professional development program on the UC Davis campus, using National Defense Education Act ("post-sputnik") funding for this enterprise. The federal government's expectation was that he would come up with a reasonably credible "slicer and dicer." He was the author of a short NCTE pamphlet on paragraph writing, after all, and employed by the School of Education at UC Berkeley as a university supervisor of prospective high school English teachers. Shouldn’t he be able to tell the eager applicants to his summer program what practices to follow, what theories to learn, in order to improve their students' writing abilities?

Very likely he could have done just this, but he chose not to. "You are all bright teachers," he wrote to them. "Collectively we know a good deal more about the teaching of writing than any of us, including me, know individually." So he urged them to come to the UC Davis campus that summer bringing a lesson they believed had made a difference to their students' abilities as writers. The content of their summer seminar, he told them, would be the teaching of these lessons to one another, followed by whole group discussions of what made these lessons effective. This was how the basic format of the morning sessions of the writing project's summer institutes began. The afternoon sessions evolved quite naturally when many of these same teachers became eager to try out, on their own writing, some of the practices they'd been introduced to in the morning. To quote from the title of Jim Gray's book on the birth and growth of the writing project, this quite unconventional professional development program began out of a desire to place "teachers at the center."

So keeping in mind this highly unusual and surprising history to the Writing Project, what can we say about our shared experience in this summer's Invitational Summer Institute? More particularly, borrowing a leaf from the conclusion of Ari Taub's workshop on developing more consequential curricula for our students, what practical and manageable lessons might we draw from this shared experience? And how might we apply these lessons not only to our classrooms but also to the professional development programs organized by the schools and districts in which we work? In considering this question during debriefing sessions following the third and fourth weeks of our program, Pam and I thought that one useful approach would be to deconstruct the summer institute itself, making its procedures and practices as transparent, and accessible to all of you, as possible. Just as we asked you all to reflect on both of our workshop demonstrations during the first week, asking yourself what helped make these workshops effective for you as professional development experiences, we would now like to lay bare what we consider to be the essential "inner workings" of the ISI. Here goes:

The first thing we wanted to do was to make sure that every participant in our professional development program felt recognized and respected as soon as he or she walked in the door. In the ISI this summer we began to create this climate of respect on our first day by asking participants to bring in an object, a piece of 'realia,' that indicated something significant about them. Our introductions to one another via these objects turned out to be insightful and at times startling. We learned about Juan's reverence for his mother as a cotton picker in Texas, about Becky's commitment to looking out for her own health, about Anne's being thankful for the sight she has rather then being embarrassed about the glasses she must now wear, about Mine's conversations in English with her Garfield stuffed animal, the one friend she had after recently moving from Ankara, Turkey to the San Jose area.

Beyond that, we asked you to bring in a prompt for your initial writing experience that we knew would be accessible to everyone: a family photograph. By asking you to share these photographs among yourselves in your afternoon writing groups (hereafter AWGs) prior to writing about them, we anticipated that everyone would not only have plenty to write about, but that the participants in the afternoon writing groups would begin to get to know each other. And that's the reason, of course, for using the AWGs to handle the majority of the "housekeeping" details that keep the institute well fed and functioning smoothly. By asking each of the AWGs to contribute directly to the "running" of the summer institute, bringing morning snacks and supplies and end-of-week potluck picnics, the members of the afternoon writing groups not only get to know one another in a variety of different ways, but also begin to see themselves as important and consequential parts of the institute as a whole.

This sense of the value and importance of each person's contribution to the group is directly related to the focus we place on the emergence of each participant's "voice" as a writer. This is the component of the Writing Project as a professional development program that sets it most distinctly apart from other "subject matter programs" and that gives it its greatest strength. That is, while we gradually involve participants in institute-running responsibilities that convince each person of his or her unique importance to the functioning of the program as a whole, AWGs are involved in precisely that same enterprise regarding each participant's unique and individual "voice" as a writer. For the past several summers we've enlisted the help of four former institute participants--one for each group--so that each of the AWGs can move as swiftly and effectively as possible to that quite magical moment when each member of the group not only contributes to but becomes almost viscerally embodied in the sound and the substance of the writing of each of its members. We do this in part because we believe that a writing teacher must be a practitioner of his or her craft just as surely as a violin or Scottish Country Dance instructor must be. Just as importantly, however, we focus on the development of each participant's writing because we believe that an authentic writing voice is an indispensable part of realizing the collective authority we possess as a "teacher-centered" professional development program.

Over the years, we've learned to respect and heighten the role that Scribe Notes play in the development of the individual voices of institute participants, along with their gradually increasing sense of their contribution to the group's collective authority. After having the two forms of Scribe Notes--one from notes and one from memory--modeled by the co-directors, the Scribe Notes themselves become the primary means for each participant to move from the more private writing space of the AWGs to the more public space of the institute as a whole. The responsibility of each institute participant to write one set of Scribe Notes from notes and one set from memory, and for reading his or her particular set of notes aloud to the group as a whole on their assigned morning, serves as a concrete and daily affirmation of two essential truths. This practice affirms that each of us has his or her own unique voice and way of transcribing or recalling events, and that this rich array of perspectives contributes enormously to our sense of the importance and consequence of the journey we are collectively embarked upon as we move from week to week to our final day.

Alongside the development of this belief in our individual and collective value as teachers who practice what we preach, whose voices are not only worth hearing but often highly entertaining, we focus simultaneously on the development of each participant's unique, and uniquely important, professional voice. The primary method we use to achieve this goal, of course, is to ask each participant to prepare and present a 90-minute workshop demonstration for the group as whole, generally starting after we've had several former participants model these workshops in the first two weeks of the summer institute. We added a new feature to this component of the institute this summer: a self-conscious emphasis on debriefing the elements of an effective workshop after Pam and I gave our "model workshops" on Thursday and Friday of our first week. It was especially important that we held ourselves up for critical analysis and collective scrutiny in this way, since we expected that everyone in the institute had something worthy to say, and we wanted to help each participant say it as effectively as possible. Since everyone knew that they were going to have their own "90 minutes in the sun," it was crucial to make sure that the process of planning and giving an effective workshop was clear and transparent. This would be similar to making sure that your students are given plenty of opportunities to practice and reflect on what constitutes effective performance before you evaluate them in a classroom setting. Because there is an even greater desire among summer institute participants than among students in a regular classroom to be successful in their workshop demonstrations, it was especially important to make sure everyone was set up for success.

As we were conducting these morning debriefing sessions after our workshops, we were simultaneously beginning our afternoon coaching sessions with each of our participants. Our objective here was similar to the fostering of personal voices that were promoted by the realia introductions, the writing and reading of scribe notes, the readings from Bird by Bird that began each day's session, and of course the writing and responding that were taking place in the afternoon writing groups. Our coaching sessions were devoted to listening for that teacher's voice that was both passionate and professional. Once we thought we detected this voice, our job was to reflect it back to the participant in a distilled form, filtering out the static, so that the person we were coaching could begin to hear himself or herself at a more essential and fundamental level. This part of the summer institute is always the most demanding for us, since it involves helping participants gain the confidence to amplify their own voice, rather than planning a workshop that "we," as co-directors, would like to "hear" them give. That's why it's both so hard and so necessary. While it's understandable that "good students" want to "please" their "teachers," what you need to do as a summer institute co-director is listen for the distinctive and essential voice of each teacher, the "honest" voice of the person behind the teaching, the voice that's so often buried or suppressed by state and district mandates or curriculum "guides."

But it isn't simply a matter of having your professional voice heard as a teacher that's important. It's just as important to have sympathetic but rigorous coaches help you structure the organization and delivery of this voice -- that is, your workshop demonstration -- so that it comes across as both "loud" and "persuasive." I'll use two coaching sessions with participants from this summer, to whom I'll ascribe fictional names and topics, as examples. Barbara started with a workshop idea based on the way she taught her primary students the "water cycle." By working with her, seeing the possibilities for an engaging jigsaw exercise based on teaching this particular content, we came up with a more compelling way for Barbara's "voice" to be heard. Similarly with Sharon: what started as a portfolio-keeping workshop that relied too heavily on a walk-through of the writing process became a workshop devoted to helping participants with their own portfolios. "What you want to provide participants with is a strong and compelling portfolio-keeping experience," we argued. "Until institute participants are led to experience portfolio-keeping as an engaging and compelling activity, they will not be motivated to figure out ways to provide this experience for their students."

For all our focus on the development of confident and persuasive professional voices among institute participants, however, the core of the institute emerges in its final days: participants own writing and their reflections on themselves as writers. By insisting that five pages of "finished" writing be submitted to an institute anthology just prior to the end of the institute, and that five to fifteen "portfolio pieces" be selected and described in an annotated table of contents on the next to final day of the institute, the writing project summer institute requires participants to walk the walk of practicing what we preach. But it's more than simply "going public" with one's writing and reflecting on one's sense of self as a writer that's at stake here. What participants' individual writing portfolios and end-of-institute anthology pieces declare most importantly is that we all have both professional and personal voices, that these voices have grown and matured during the summer institute with a lot of help from some very good friends, and that these voices will not be silenced. As we hear from the "one-pager" reflections that preface each portfolio on the second to last day of the institute, and as we listen in wonder, and not infrequently in tears, to the pieces of writing that have emerged from the supportive environment of the afternoon writing groups, what we experience is an almost magical transformation. A group that began four and one-half weeks ago as a collection of quite ordinary-seeming K-college teachers of writing has become something quite extraordinary: a chorus of twenty two voices, distinct yet interdependent, proclaiming both their marked individuality and their achievement of a collective voice and collective vision. This voice and vision give new life, I would suggest, to the promise and possibility of authentic and memorable professional development programs.

And to honor Ari's challenge of making such a transformation both manageable and practical, here are five things that each of us can do, this coming academic year, to change the way professional development is understood and practiced at our school site or district office:

• Before school begins, ask your principal or department head if you can begin your first faculty meeting with introductions of one another through personally meaningful realia
• At the beginning of the school year, show your colleagues your anthology and portfolio pieces; describe the institute experiences that led to these "documents'; explain their influences on how you plan to go about teaching writing in the coming year
• Initiate a faculty forum on writing by bringing drinks and snacks for colleagues interested in discussing this topic; begin by discussing what you learned from your ISI professional book; suggest forming a book club to meet regularly, with snack responsibilities rotating around the group, to discuss this book or related professional books
• Form a writing group with three or four teachers, selecting topics for writing in as open-ended a manner as possible; midway through the year, discuss what you are learning about writing and what implications this learning might have for your teaching of writing
• Discuss your practices in the teaching of writing with a teacher who teaches at a different grade level or subject area; figure out where you are similar and different in your practices and why; discuss your conclusions with your fellow teachers during lunch

Hope that's sufficient to munch on and mull over. Pam and I wish you the very best for an engaging, invigorating and perhaps even a transformational year with your departmental, school and district colleagues.

1 comment:

Doris said...

You write very well.