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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Five Lessons From The Greater Madison Writing Project Summer Institute

I spent the month of July taking part in the Greater Madison Writing Project's summer institute. I know that the interactions with my 14 fellow participants and the three site facilitators is only the start of GMWP's influence on my life, my career, and my abilities as a teacher.

While the topics explored ranged widely there were five ideas that wove through every conversation, workshop, and sharing session. These are insights that became clearer every day because we were living them; my experience in that month of the institute proved these things to me.

3330 Atwood Ave., Madison Wisconsin is where Olbrich Botanical Gardens is located and where the GMWP holds its summer institute.

Collaborative inquiry around individual interests trumps top down initiatives.
Why would anyone want to spend a month of their summer in professional development? There are the obvious reasons of working toward a degree, getting trained to use some new system, or earning credit for license renewal. While GMWP does provide six credits, this is not why I was so eager to be involved. I was intrigued by the prospect of being encouraged to explore any aspect of writing instruction I desired. I had never had this experience in my undergraduate work nor in my teaching experience. Sure, I had experience with teaching technology related professional development and my district had held a "literacy camp" that was lightly attended. This summer institute was different.

I wasn't expected to be an expert in my topic. I wasn't expected to be able to answer all the questions. That was the point. The work I had to put in before leading my teachers workshop (inquiry session) was to develop a question and research an answer to the point where I could share my initial findings with the group. In each session we further explored the topic. This model allowed me to bring my passion and interest in a topic into a room of education professionals and share what insights I had while also benefiting from all of their perspectives and experience. How cool is that? And more important, how different from what usually passes for "professional development?"

My question was about incorporating the work of Daniel Pink in To Sell Is Human into my professional practice. One of the points Pink makes is that leaders need to recognize the necessity of problem identification. We cannot solve a problem until we really know what it is. This self directed inquiry approach followed by group collaboration allowed each of us to identify a real problem we faced in our classrooms.

How could any of the "professional development" presenters I've been subjected to over the years know what our problems are? I learned in this institute that there are administrators out there willing to allow teachers to pursue inquiry based professional development; we need more of this. Let us work to identify and solve our own problems. However well meaning, outsiders never know us, the problems we deal with, or what we've already tried; their ability to help us is minimal at best.

We teach who we are.
I will get to the corollary ("The students learn who they are") below, but it will help to talk about teachers first. Another teacher in the GMWP summer institute included in her workshop an explanation of the importance of learning styles and how we as teachers need to be aware of how our students might need information in a way that is different from the way we prefer it. This is an important idea to keep in mind, but I believe that we can only stretch ourselves so much before we break. I am reminded of the often quoted advice that Polonius gives Laertes: "To thine own self be true." We do our students a much greater service if we help them develop strategies to cope with learning conditions outside of what is optimal for them. This is one of the ways that students learn who they are.

We have a duty to be aware of our impact on student identity. Students learn who they are at least in part during the experiences they have in our schools. I guess WKCE scores, ACT test results, exam grades, report card grades, etc. have their place. I used to think of them as a necessary evil; lately, however, I've begun to just think of them as just evil.

While I could tell you a handful of stories about students who have gone on to accomplish much more than their ACT score would have indicated they were capable of, I am too troubled by the countless number of students who let a test score, grade report, or some other externally applied label become part of their identities to simply focus on the positives. Since these "necessary" evils aren't going away anytime soon, we need to be very clear what a test result means and what a grade means when we communicate this information to students.

I was excellent at school from my very first days of kindergarten. I always tested above grade level and this fueled my ego and became part of my identity. This carried me through high school, and I graduated with honors and a lot of cords and sashes. College was a shock. I quickly realized that my writing skills were lacking compared to my counterparts. Out of necessity, I learned more about writing in my first year of college than I had since my family first taught me how to form letters before I entered kindergarten. I also realized quickly that I had not read many of the texts I was expected to have already read.

Test scores lie because they tell only a very small part of an individual's story. Our students deserve to know that.

As much as possible, give direction not directions.
The facilitators of the summer institute explained early on the principle of direction not directions. As a student I want the ten steps to check off and the specific requirements to meet. So, this direction not directions thing drove me crazy at first. It took me some time to figure out that this really represented the most respect for my status as a professional I had ever experienced.

In addition to the respect it showed, this approach encouraged creative and varied responses from me and my fellow institute participants.  The difference between “student” and “learner” was explored In another workshop session . Direction encouraged us to be learners while directions would have forced us to be students.

I need to make it clear to the learners in my classroom that it is their path to walk and therefore I cannot tell them exactly how to get to the destination. I need to help and guide while allowing them to discover their own strengths and supporting them in their weaknesses. And who knows what unexpected, creative work will come from this approach.

Go for a walk, write a poem, take a yoga class, dance your heart out, or sing a song; live a balanced life.
Teaching is part of who I am. I spend a large amount of time engaged in my professional practice, reflecting on that practice, and refining my approach. But teaching is not the entirety of who I am.

I am also a writer and photographer. It is important that I attend to my relationships with family and friends. I enjoy art museums, gardens, and movies. I am teaching myself to play the ukulele. And so much more.

The more true I am to my needs, do the things I enjoy, and maintain the healthy relationships in my life the better I am at my work. My experience in the GMWP summer institute crystallized a feeling I've had over the last year into a thought: if I work at my own writing, I will be a better teacher of writing and a better human being.

Teachers ARE at the center...act accordingly!
Part of the required reading for the GMWP summer institute was Teachers at the Center by James Gray. In this book, Gray tells the story of the founding of the National Writing Project. As the title suggests, his central philosophy is that teachers are the source for real development and change in education. It is the experiences and passions of teachers that combine in beautiful ways to make an impact on learners.

Gray's revolutionary approach was to put teachers in charge of their own professional development and to give them a space and time in which to share their work with colleagues. I discussed my own experience with this approach above. I've had numerous colleagues sing the praises of Kelly Gallagher and the professional development he provides, and one of the reasons they respect his suggests more than others is because he is still in the classroom. This approach works.

So, when will we accept this truth as a society? Why are there no teachers included in local school board discussions? Why are teachers shut out of the halls of power when decisions about education are being made? I will praise the Wisconsin DPI and the federal Department of Education because they are seeking out teacher voices. But if corporations can have direct contact with policy makers in crafting laws related to their areas of expertise, why aren't teachers involved directly in crafting legislation related to education?

All of these issues are complex. It certainly doesn't make them less complex to involve more people. It does, however, mean that the policy work being done would have a better chance of having a real impact.  There is no other profession in recent history that has been as heavily debated and regulated by outsiders and yet so underrepresented by practitioners.