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Reflecting on the Summer Institute: Round Two

When Bill Tucker (@EMWPBill), the director of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, sent out an all call to teacher consultants about revisiting the EMWP this summer, my heart jumped for the opportunity. Having gone through the Summer Institute just last year, I knew it would be a three-week opportunity to learn from others, catch up with friends, and actually dedicate time to write. It's this kind of professional development that's structured enough to provide routine and flexible enough to allow the pursuit of my own passions and interests that I can't get enough of.

As an individual, the institute fed my passions. For three weeks, I could talk reading and writing with some of the best teachers in Michigan. We swapped book recommendations, learned about each others' lives, and established a support network that, like the last school year, I know I will call upon when times get tough. I learned last year that teachers affiliated with the National Writing Project just get it. They face similar types of difficulties, dedicate their lives to improving their practice, and engage in honest inquiry. They also aren't afraid to reach out to other teachers and let them know about their struggles. It's a beautifully compassionate network that truly believes in supporting each other, which is unlike the "gotcha mindset" pushed by the educational deformers.

And to me, that's part of the best thing about the National Writing Project and its affiliated sites: the teachers you meet all share common beliefs and struggles about the teaching of writing. Writing should be modeled, can be taught, and our students are capable of doing the difficult work we expect them to do. Hands down, the best teachers of teachers are teachers. I don't want a book that's written by someone who idealized poverty; coerced students into mindless, repetitive robots; or who is funded by a foundation that purports to be doing it for the children. I love being surrounded by teachers that are here for both themselves and their students. They have a natural curiosity and aren't afraid to ask tough, reflective questions--something that is even harder to do in the era of the mythical bad teacher. They embody the rhyme I learned in elementary school about comparatives and superlatives: Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better best. These teachers won't rest, but they are also realistic. They are grounded in experience and research. They don't waste time dreaming of things that will never happen, like 100% proficiency on a standardized assessment. They do, however, believe in learning from others and constant improvement, and there is no better model for lifelong learning than being a lifelong learner.

Sometimes I struggle with understanding that my voice can be appreciated by a group of veteran teachers. I think I have the least amount of experience in the group as a teacher entering his third year, but these teachers welcomed me. They listened. They shared. It's these types of honest conversations that I yearn for in my department. Although I do recognize that it's easier said than done, the NWP shifts the question from "How I can be the very best?" to "How can I help everyone be better?" Teaching isn't about a competition; it's about learning and conversation. It's about resource sharing. It's about the real work of teaching: asking question after question until you find a method, resource, or approach that works for your context. It isn't about being the best. It's about building the reflective capacity to know when you have to seek help and change what you're doing.

I also had the pleasure of working closely with a teacher from the district in which I serve on the board of education. So far, she has dedicated her entire career to that district, and her passion and commitment to her career and students are infectious. I watched as her stack of texts grew over the weeks of the institute. We shared our favorite authors and expressed some of the same interests. One concern that I'm still grappling with after last year's institute is motivating my male readers and writers. She is tackling the same concern but with a younger set of students. She's here on her own accord, giving up three precious weeks with her boys at home. And it's all because she is dedicated to her practice. Even after a decade or more of teaching, she is still that committed to teaching and learning. I only hope I continue to engage in inquiry after having taught for so long.

Like Karen Chichester (@KChichester), a dear friend and technology guru, pointed out during the institute, we all feel like everyone else in the room is better than we are. But presenting to the other fellows isn't like that. I know they'll be both complimentary and critical, which is something I need as a teacher. You don't get any better if you do the same thing over and over again. You need a coach that points you in the right direction.  And in preparation for my demonstration, I learned that I need to slow things down in my classroom. I really value the writing process, but I don't always make time for every element when working with student writers. This is something I will remember in the fall as I strike a balance between reading and writing. I will most definitely adopt Aimee Buckner's call for practice in Nonfiction Notebooks, a book I read during my participation in the institute. What I appreciate most about the professional development book groups is that the books are applicable to my classroom and I could engage in timely conversation with other teachers about how to make these strategies work. I can't count the times to turned to Jeff Wilhelm's So, What's the Story?, my book of choice last summer, when helping students write better narratives.

I'm leaving the institute feeling more prepared for this coming school year. I know many teachers who view summer as a timer to relax, but the EMWP provides a space for revitalization and sustenance. It's the electrolytes I need after the marathon that a school year can be.


  1. This blog was inspiring! I wish I could have attended the same institute. I have to settle for your twitter PLN.

  2. I'm SO happy you decided to come back! You have so much to offer students and educators Kevin. Don't ever doubt that your voice matters. Your passion is infectious.

  3. It is an absolute pleasure to read your writing. Kevin, you are such an eloquent writer!


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