The Summer Institute energizes. This fact alone catches many of the fellows completely off guard (called fellows because of the 6 hour tuition fellowship those who participate in the SI for credit receive; there are always more of these than pure stipend-seekers, so we call them all fellows, until the SI ends, at which point they all become teacher-consultants, or TC’s). All of a summer’s participants have just finished a school year, are drained from it, and are no doubt made jealous by their colleagues’ immediate and vivid Facebook posts showing them at the pool or the beach or on the deck or in the woods, anywhere but in a classroom. Also, their districts have already scheduled all their PD for them, which means the SI won’t offer that carrot either. So they begin the summer thinking they’re sacrificing something, maybe even that they’re martyrs. But it takes even the most resistant only about two days to realize that the SI is no sacrifice at all. The SI offers freedom to think, to experiment and take risks, to learn in new ways and see themselves in new ways, to feel the overwhelming helplessness of being alone on a highwire but with a clear safety net of colleagues, committed facilitators, the massive and connected NWP network, and a deepening knowledge of best practice instruction under them. The helplessness disappears quickly, and is replaced by limitless energy.
The SI empowers. We begin, even before the summer, by looking together at student work – products – the fellows bring to interviews and introductory meetings. Together we start talking immediately about process. It’s process that dominates our conversation throughout the summer. Process transfers: the good work a first grade teacher is doing can be recycled in a middle school math class and a high school English class, and the SI gives that math teacher and English teacher opportunity to reflect on their own and each other’s plans and share their thinking. Because of this focused work, SI fellows leave the SI better prepared than ever to enter their classrooms the next year – their students benefit. Because of this collaborative work, SI fellows leave the SI better prepared than ever to lead in their schools the next year – their colleagues benefit, their administrators benefit.
The SI emphasizes what really matters. The Demonstration sits at the foundation of the SI experience. Every fellow teaches a portion of one SI day, building on the teaching and learning process that happens in their classrooms they introduced when they interviewed. The Demonstrations work best when they invite participants to be active, when they get the rest of us writing and thinking. Many of the best have us moving, mentally if not physically, in a lot of different directions, writing for a variety of purposes, collaborating to generate or develop or publish ideas. Best practice instruction informs Demonstrations, because best practice is transferable, able to be recycled regardless of content area or grade level. Every summer, some of the fellows are shocked to see how the good things they’ve been doing intuitively can be planned for intentionally and then effectively communicated – demonstrated – to their colleagues. This is consistent with the writing project vision: teachers teaching teachers. As attractive as that sounds, all of the current research tells us that what really matters is student learning. During the SI, teachers learn. Because of the learning that happens there, students throughout the region will learn.
The SI exercises muscles too-little used. The SI stretches us. We use writing exercises instead of prompts, believing that students, just like us, will respond better over the long term to the development that comes from being asked to stretch and then stretching to grow in new ways than to the prodding and poking that comes from the product orientation that is a prompt. We end every day by reflecting on what we’ve done that day, what we’ve learned, how we can use our new knowledge. Some fellows create spaces in their composition notebooks, or on their websites, devoted to “ideas for next year.” Reflecting allows us to own our knowledge, to put it in terms we can work with, to commit to it. It’s not a natural act, though. The rest of life goes so fast that we don’t have the time – or don’t take the time – to meditate on what matters most. The SI builds that time in; there’s no hiding from it. And just like with any exercise, we’re better off for it.
This marked the fifth year I’ve been involved with the Summer Institute at EKU. Every year I’ve become more excited about returning to the classroom in the fall, eager to try new approaches, more confident in my plans for ways students will learn and work students will do. Every year I grow more invested in the teacher consultants the Writing Project supports. I’m so ready to visit their classrooms, to brag on them to their colleagues and mine, to steal – I mean, recycle – more ideas, to be introduced to potential applicants for next summer. Is that you? If it is, I’m already thinking about the work you’ll do. Building that boy-proof fence gives me lots of time for thinking, you know.