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Southern Maine WP Tests Alternative Model for the Invitational Summer Institute

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Mar 4, 2013
Posted by: cliftonj

Navigating funding constraints and teacher resistance to a 4-week long summer institute, SMWP created and tested an embedded institute that consisted of a brief summer institute focused on writing, a bridge component that was online, and an extended fall institute focused on teacher leadership development. 

SMWP’s short life already had seemed in peril after NWP’s $35,000 core funding grants were eliminated. Because our ISI was the only immediate means to fund our work, we simply had to fill the roster. When recruiting, we, like every other site in the country, heard a familiar response: “Oh, this sounds wonderful, but I just can’t give up four weeks.”  The list of reasons included childcare issues, previously scheduled vacations, summer jobs, and so on.  It became clear to the leadership team late in 2011 that we had to find another schedule or we might not populate ISI 2012.  Ours was a difficult question to tackle: how to alter the traditional model while retaining those key ISI elements that teachers most love?  After much study and discussion, we designed a new approach. Of course, revising the tried and true model was a scary proposition, but it seemed we faced an ultimatum: evolution or extinction. 

We opted to split the institute into two separate three-credit courses.  Between the two, Fellows would attend a full orientation day in the spring, seven days in the summer, and four full days during September and October, 2012. In addition, Fellows would engage in virtual work on NWP Connect to bridge summer and fall sessions.  Spreading out the institute served a purpose beyond accommodating the busy schedules of our clientele. Districts, we reasoned, would be more likely to reimburse teachers for six credits if the cost were split between two fiscal years. The first Invitational Summer and Fall Institute would make its debut in 2012.

Zeroing in on pieces of the ISI that the LT found most transformative in their own institutes, co-facilitators Rebecca Redlon and Seth Mitchell chose to give each of the two halves of the institute its own distinct flavor: the summer would be about the writing and teaching writing, and the fall’s focus would be teacher leadership.  

While already making changes, we decided to look at other issues we had been hoping to address.  In previous institutes, some Fellows had been so revitalized and empowered as writers that the heavy focus on the teaching demonstration had actually detracted from the ISI experience. How, we wondered, could we meet Fellows’ needs and still keep what is essential to the Writing Project? Ultimately, we decided to offer our Fellows three paths: developing a teaching demonstration, engaging in teacher action research, and writing to publish.  Each teacher would choose the path that felt most relevant and important.  Not wanting to lose the focus on sharing practice, one of the most  critical pieces of the ISI, we still required a presentation of each Fellow, regardless of path.

Key questions we considered as we engaged in the work:

● Could we still establish the camaraderie and community for which the ISI has always been famous? Would Fellows still get a sip of the infamous Writing Project kool-aid?

● Would Fellows get the same content we had always included in previous Institutes?

● How would Fellows respond to the “three paths” model?  Would each path be equally rigorous?

At the close of the 2012 institute, the facilitation team concluded that the answer to each of those questions is yes. During the summer session, our Fellows experienced a concentrated dose of our best content, our “ISI Greatest Hits”: participating in a writing marathon; sharing learning autobiographies; enjoying a visit and reading from Maine’s poet laureate, Wesley McNair; discussing a variety of texts on writing, teaching, and teaching writing; exploring digital writing practices; building and sharing writing portfolios; and, of course, living the writing process.  By the end of the seven days, co-directors and mentors witnessed that beautiful Writing Project phenomenon: teachers, both exhausted and exhilarated, sad to leave the supportive environment that challenged them to share and expand their practice.  This time, however, Fellows could look forward to reconnecting in early September.

An update on the successes of year 3 of the redesigned Summer Fall Institute--

As a response to tuition challenges and to increase the number of teachers able to participate in the ISI, Southern Maine WP offers an institute that begins in summer and extends into the fall. 

2014 was our third year splitting the institute between Summer and Fall.  The adapted schedule helps SMWP keep enrollment at workable numbers, typically averaging 16 Fellows per year.  Prior to our shift, we increasingly struggled to recruit teachers whose sending districts were unable to pay for six credits at once.  By dividing the course into two three-credit segments, we offer a means for schools to pay for each half in different fiscal years.  Though site sustainability was the primary motivation for this alteration to the traditional schedule, it also enabled us to hone in on something we had long discussed: the need for teachers to be able to apply Institute learning once they returned to classrooms and to have a network through which they could immediately reflect on process.  Our follow-up sessions in the fall have given us the opportunity to witness classroom transformation.

Read more about Southern Maine's 2015 Invitational Summer Institute.