SI in the Valley – Week 3

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We are running out of time.  This experience that seemed like it might go on forever will end next week.  We’re not ready.  The community that has sprung out of our passion for teaching and learning feels too necessary to not continue. Really, what will we do without each other? I know I will be a better teacher because of my time with these amazing women.  I know they feel the same way.

This week we traveled to George Mason University to meet another Summer Institute group and share a presentation on revision.  Mark Farrington, writer extraordinaire, returned to the NVWP this summer to lend a hand (hurray!) and taught us how to revise our own writing.  Time spent with other teachers and writers cemented the value of this summer work for all of us.

Later in the week, Mallory taught us how to build voice by using actual shoes! (How clever is that?) Julie walked us through many strategies to help our struggling writers (boys) build fluency and confidence.  Meghann taught us how to step out of our students’ way and let them write to a real audience and create real books through NANOWRIMO . We participated in a Socratic Circle with Jennifer’s guidance and it worked! We were abuzz with possibilities by the end of the morning.

Transformative experiences can be hard to articulate.  This is a problem.  The professional development experience at the Writing Project is not like any other. Our teachers tell us repeatedly, year after year, summer after summer, that it is the most powerful professional experience of their lives.  Even though it’s difficult to describe, we need to find a way to do it.  We have explain to administrators and superintendents and politicians that what we are doing here matters. Ultimately, of course, the beneficiaries are our students. They will return to classrooms where their teachers are on fire about the year ahead. Don’t you want your child to have that teacher?

The Fellows worked hard this week preparing for the Slice of the Summer Institute; a chance to share their experience with some important stakeholders such as principals, superintendents, and department heads as well as teachers they know who they want to entice into participation next summer. It was exciting to listen to them planning and collaborating, trying so very hard to bring their excitement for the SI to  life for people who were not in the room with us.  I know they will do it brilliantly because that’s just who they are.

How lucky your child will be to have these teachers in the fall.

Summer Institute in the Valley – Week 2

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Sometimes we need to be in a room with other people who love what they do, too.

This week we shared a Writing Marathon day with two other National Writing Project sites. Over 40 teachers  met in the morning on the pedestrian mall in the historic part of our city.  After some brief introductions, the distribution of maps and visitor guides, and the formations of smaller groups, the writers ventured forth.  They visited the independent book store, the library, the Civil War museum, and as they meandered, they wrote. Some wrote phrases, others returned to work already in their journals, and more wrote new pieces as inspiration struck. Many groups ate lunch together and extended their discussion of writing and teaching, finding common ground across grade levels and disciplines. The day culminated with a readaround at our local high school.  As the writing spirit moved them, writers would stand and share their newly created or freshly revised pieces.   A sonnet and found poems delighted us. A narrative about the kindness of strangers and a passionate spoken word poem about teaching children in poverty moved us to grab tissues. We laughed a lot, too, feeling the special camaraderie that comes with people who understand how important our work is and how crucial it is that we keep ourselves up to the task.

We also heard two wonderful presentations this week about how to help teenagers understand poetry and how to help all our young writers remember to play with words.  These teachers, one from fourth grade and one from AP English 12, showed how much we have to learn from one another.  Both gifted educators, they revised and tweaked and worried over their presentations, wanting so much for it to be just right, and for each of the audience members to get useful information that we could adapt to our own teaching situations.  They succeeded brilliantly.  Their humor and humanity shone through. Such lucky children to have these wonderful teachers.

Writing groups met twice over the week and we are growing in trust and honesty, trying to help each other make our writing better but still supporting the writer as we do.  It’s a delicate balance but as we struggle with it, we are learning how to do the same thing with our students; how to be careful and truthful, how to focus on the writing but still understand the emotions behind it, how to ask questions that might lead to insights, how to gauge the writer’s strengths and build on them, how to illuminate places where the writer to reader connection is broken.  This is complicated work, make no mistake.

The fellows (teachers) are hard at work planning a ‘Slice of the Summer Institute’ for the last week.  Administrators, principals, and other decision makers are invited to come and witness the hard work of the fellows over the summer. The fellows are focused on making these powerful ‘higher-ups’ see the magic that happens every summer in SI’s across the country.  Teachers teaching teachers, growing a community from the ground up in a few short weeks, a community that will make a difference in kids’ lives for years to come.

Sometimes we need to be in a room with other people who love what they do, too.

2014 Summer Institute in the Valley – Week 1

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Teachers taking time out of an already shortened summer to learn how to get better at teaching. Sounds like it should be a headline, doesn’t it? Every year thousands of teachers from all levels, content areas, and backgrounds come together in the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute.  Sites across the country seek nominations of worthy applicants, hold interviews, and select the very best of our profession to become Fellows for the summer. Last week was the beginning for our group and what a week it was.

We start off every day by writing for half an hour.  What a gift to be able to sit and write unencumbered by lesson plans, small children, or buzzing cell phones.  Our start coincided with the writing camp for teachers started by Kate Messner called Teachers Write so some of us use that as our starting point. As I look around the room I see some writing furiously, anxious to get the words down before they are lost.  Others are gazing, thinking, wondering.  All are quiet, gathering thoughts and words.

Each of the Fellows must give a presentation of a lesson that worked for them that might be adapted for other teachers to use.  They are very nervous in front of their peers, though all are exemplary teachers. It’s different with kids they’ll tell you and these teachers want so much to be good, to have the others gains some knowledge or skills from their sharing. So far, they’ve been wonderful. We’ve learned about creating visual journals, making online magazines (e-zines), and using mentor texts to extend our students’ writing. Each presentation has added to our tool kit for the fall. We are getting ready.

Some afternoons we meet in Writing Groups so we know what it feels like to share our work with others and receive feedback.  Gradually, we learn to trust each other and to be honest yet kind.  Our goal is to make the writing better.  Through our discussions, we do. We are learning to write about what matters, to write about the thing we need to write about, to write the stories only we can tell.  We laugh, we cry, we learn what community feels like.  It feels really, really good.  We want our kids to feel this, too.  We want to learn how to make this happen in our classrooms.

We read articles about reading and writing and discuss them like grownups.  We agree, we disagree, and through our discussions, we determine what kind of teachers we are and what kind of teachers we want to become.  We love teaching, every one of us.  We are willing and ready to do the work it takes to become the kind of teachers our students deserve.

It’s an honor to be part of this process.  That sounds like a headline, too.