National Writing Project

Finding Answers to the Summer Institute

By: Susan Bennett
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 5, No. 1
Date: January-February 2000

Summary: NWP directors, co-directors, and teacher-consultants representing at least 40 states and three countries uncovered scores of solutions to "frequently asked questions" in Denver at the NWP Annual Meeting.

 

If the adage is true that "The answers can be found in the questions," then over one hundred National Writing Project directors, co-directors and teacher consultants representing at least 40 states and three countries uncovered scores of solutions to "frequently asked questions" in Denver at the NWP Annual Meeting.

On November 18, almost 200 of us met to contemplate ways to invigorate our summer invitational institutes. Representatives from both new and mature sites gathered for a half-day workshop. Eager to promote conversation and collaboration, Richard Louth from Louisiana, Peter Golden from Massachusetts and I, from California, divided into three discussion groups to focus on a particular segment of invitational institutes. My topic was Demonstrations and the various issues related to that aspect of our work.

Remarkably, when people speak the same language, 120 of us can actually develop a dialogue in three hours. After two 60-person "rotations" of 90 minutes, each of us in these two groups had generated a question for discussion and by the end of our session, we had not only a remarkable sense of those issues and problems we have in common, but also some answers to take back to our individual sites. After writing down each of the questions, I grouped them into three general categories. Here are some of the questions we raised and answers we found in our collective querying.

A. Demonstrations

  1. How does a writing project honor a teacher's individuality and still maintain a certain standard/quality of demonstration?
  2. What makes a good demonstration? How can we ensure quality?
  3. What is the difference between a demonstration, a workshop and a presentation? Does it matter what we call it?
  4. How broadly can we define "demonstration?" Is a 90-minute teacher demonstration essential for every invitational institute participant? Are there other options?
  5. How do we help TCs formulate ideas for a demonstration without "making TCs students?"
  6. What is the optimal time frame for a demonstration and are there appropriate structural variations?
  7. Is it legitimate to defer TC demonstrations to a later point in the invitational institute or even to a time during the school year as part of follow-up requirements?

  8. How do we provide for a diversity of demonstration topics to meet a variety of needs among school districts and teachers?
  9. How do we get both presenters and participants to see lessons beyond particular demonstrations? How do we get them to "dig deeper," make generalizations, recognize larger issues and greater significance?
  10. Is there a rubric or guidelines, or should there be a model available for the "classic" demonstration? Would a NWP video of an "archetypal" demonstration be appropriate?
  11. How can we connect TCs with topics the schools are interested in examining, but without leading TCs to topics in which they may not be experienced or proficient?
  12. How do we encourage demonstrations with "substance?" That is, how do we move teachers from best lesson thinking to best practice thinking without undermining their feelings of competence and professionalism?
  13. How do we encourage teacher reflection and teacher research after the demonstration?
  14. How do we instill the need to balance sound practice with serious and compelling research?
  15. How do we encourage not only practice-based workshops but also problem-solving demonstrations? Where does student work fit in?

B. Coaching, Scheduling and Providing Feedback

  1. Who is a coach? How does a TC become a coach? Where do coaches come from? How do we recruit coaches?
  2. How do we develop coaches?
  3. What is the definition of a "good coach?" Are there guidelines and/or requirements?
  4. How many coaches participate during an invitational institute? Are they there all summer or for specific times and functions?
  5. What do coaching sessions entail? How long do they last? How many people participate?
  6. When does coaching start? How do we maintain coaching after the invitational institute is formally over?
  7. How do we guarantee that TCs use coaching feedback to develop or revise their workshops?
  8. How do we give TCs useful feedback after their demonstrations?
  9. How do coaches balance their roles as peers and teacher leaders?
  10. How are pre-coaching and post-coaching the same or different?
  11. How do we accommodate year-round schools that wish to send teachers to invitational institutes and who subsequently want TCs to present to their schools? How can we recruit TCs and coaches from schools with idiosyncratic calendars?

C. People Problems

  1. What exactly is our collective mission?
  2. How do we recruit the best teachers showing the greatest potential for excellent demonstrations?
  3. What about new teachers?
  4. What about districts that want us to "remediate" weak teachers?
  5. How do we minimize anxiety for teachers who may have never presented in front of peers?
  6. How do we widen the pool of teaching areas, grade levels and geographical areas?
  7. How do we develop leaders?
  8. How do we keep TCs coming back and presenting for us?
  9. How do we prevent director and teacher leader burnout?
  10. How do we deal with the weird participant?
  11. What do we know about adult learners?
  12. How do we keep track of everyone, demonstration topics and newly developed TC interests over the years?
  13. How are new site and mature site issues the same or different?
  14. How do we convince teachers that examining their practice is not a disclosure of inadequacy?
  15. How do we best "showcase" our strongest presenters and find leadership roles suited to other TC strengths?

Answers!

Although we asked many more questions than we answered, several themes emerged as well as some suggestions for future problem solving. Many specific answers to questions were posited and we learned, above all else, how varied the solutions to problems can be and that one strength of the NWP model is its adaptability.

First, we heard over and again the value of asking questions rather than providing answers to TCs in the invitational institute. Whether addressing topics for demonstrations, examining practices or recommending changes, asking questions as colleagues successfully accomplishes many objectives. By asking leading questions, we provide information without sounding pedantic or hierarchical and protect a teacher's sense of worth.

Second, we accepted the advice to make our assumptions, expectations and promises explicit. By making clear what we have to offer teachers professionally and providing them with the time, space and opportunities to develop their leadership capabilities, we prove ourselves to be dependable, resourceful and trustworthy. We build teacher leadership, encourage self-reflection and heighten confidence by sponsoring open forums for teachers to talk about classroom problems, coordinating mini-conferences on special topics, maintaining lines of communication with administrators, supporting teachers in becoming ethnographers and organizing conferences to spotlight TCs.

Third, we talked about the power of modeling. By demonstrating our best practices, reflecting on our teaching, reading current research, asking questions about our work and accepting suggestions for revision not just for our writing but our teaching as well, we set positive examples. In other words, by "practicing what we preach" we accomplish more than words alone can and we remain colleagues. At my site, we model everything from demonstrations to coaching sessions, post demonstration critiques and response groups before we ask TCs to try any of them.

Lastly, we all recognized the value of National Writing Project support in allowing us to get together at least once a year for face-to-face interaction; we affirmed a need to address the topic of invitational institutes each year as we evolve from new to mature sites. We would like to encourage the NWP to set up an email/Internet discussion site for us to continue our questioning and answering on this topic during the rest of the year.

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