Thursday, August 20, 2009


This summer I taught a three week course, Writing Workshop for Teachers, as part of the Plymouth Writing Project. We do research as teachers of writing and present a teaching practice based on the research. In the afternoon, we write, respond to others writing, and explore ways to nurture ourselves and our students as writers. In the spirit of the National Writing Project and our Plymouth site, we all write and share together. It's a powerful model and it changes the way we teach - and write - and live.

For me this three weeks in July was simply the best teaching experience I have had over my 30-odd years in education. It's an amazing feeling and I find myself, a month later, still in awe. So, what was different?

We were a small, diverse group of educators. There were young people starting their careers with two or three years of teaching behind them. One woman was head of a university department in the Dominican Republic and she was responsible for improving instruction throughout her country. One woman was a long-time first grade teacher. I came to this group with years of special education testing, primary school teaching, and writing -- always writing. Part of our curriculum involved writing with the larger Summer Institute, students in the Writing Camps, and Pakistani educators attending a leadership seminar at PSU.

Over and over, I found our "small but mighty group" offered a Quality of Attention not possible in larger classrooms and bigger settings. We could go deeply into topics, follow tangents, and take time for reading + research. We talked and listened carefully and asked questions of one another. The ideas and opinions of the newest teachers were as valuable as the experiences of the veterans.

We built a place where it was safe to question, share and risk. No tests. No red pens. No dismissive put-downs. High standards supported by respect for the learner... and we're all learners in the end. One of us was able to share a personal writing piece. One of us changed the style of writing from reporting to storytelling. We wrote about our passions, our challenges, deep experiences and questions.

I learned a lot about myself as a teacher this summer. My teaching starts with the physical environment of the classroom. When I taught Kindergarten, I had centers for work + exploration. I brought in stuff for five-year-olds to taste and touch and mess with. I put posters at five-year-old eye level and watched to see who became interested. There were sticks chewed by beavers and puppets from different lands. Maps. Life-size footprints of elephants, giraffe, gorilla, babies.

I realized I do the same with adults -- put out books and photos, pictures and found objects. We had snacks and went outside on sunny days. We used writing prompts, questions, readings and teaching demonstrations. The physical environment feeds the intellectual environment and the lines blur, no matter the age. We're all in this learning-teaching-writing thing together.

As I think about my experiences this summer and over my years in education, I have a few things to say:

For the administrators, pundits, and policy-makers, I say: Trust your teachers. Encourage collaboration, not competition. Build opportunities where every teacher's voice is heard and valued. Be kind. Be fun. Be interested in what seems difficult or different.

For the current culture, I say: Testing is not teaching. Testing does not make us more human or thoughtful. Interaction does. Openness does. Understanding, listening, valuing, respecting another's experience does. This is the kind of learning that moves the world forward in positive and sustainable ways.

I know this because it happened to me this summer for three marvelous weeks in July. Deep teaching. Deep learning. Deep, compassionate listening and sharing. Writing deeply as a way of thinking and being.

My passion is right out there so everyone can see.

So, where are you in this passionate world?


Cherie/Miss Blessing said...

Reading this made me even more hopeful (if that's possible) about being a part of this summer's Institute. I'm going to read it one more time, and then I'll look forward to hearing news in a week or two.

gretchen said...

Cherie, I love it when a kindred heart reads my blog entries. Your message inspired me to reread what I had written so many months ago, and I too am full of hope and excitement for this summer's institute.

See you soon!