Teacher Inquiry

Author: Tonya Perry

Summary: The first NWP Invitational Summer Institute in 1974 established a model professional development experience, the basic principles and elements of which have been sustained at local writing project sites over the decades since. But even the best program design invites constant evaluation and adaptation. Reflection is a hallmark of our work and attention to both new opportunities and the changing needs of teacher participants is a vital part of what makes NWP programs so successful. Noting three challenges that emerged over time in relation to their traditional ISI model; timing, teaching demonstrations, and sustaining TCs active engagement with the site beyond the institute, the Colorado State University Writing Project adapted their Invitational Institute’s program design to be responsive to both the challenges and opportunities they faced. This reflective piece is of particular interest to site leaders facing similar circumstances who are interested in following the theory of action and process that CSUWP followed in adapting and redesigning this core program.

Original Date of Publication: November 10, 2014


Colorado State Writing Project has thought carefully about its Summer Institute. Below is a detailed summary of their thinking, challenges, and actions that will be important to other sites that are considering re-thinking SI.

The first of these is our newly designed summer institute called Summer Institute+ (SI+). Although SI+ shares some common features with our former summer institute in that it includes summer programming and follow-up meetings, even these components have been altered to better serve the needs of local teachers. Our re-design was prompted by three challenges that had emerged over the past four years: 1) institute timing; 2) continued misunderstanding about the intent of the teaching demonstration; and 3) difficulties with sustaining site participation of the new and existing fellows.

Challenge #1—Institute Timing: Previously, the three-week summer institute began the first week in June after the spring semester concluded for most area schools, with two pre-institute meetings held in the spring. Pre-institute meetings provided an overview of CSUWP and a small taste of the primary elements of the summer institute (e.g., personal writing, writing groups, professional reading, teaching demonstrations). The three-week summer institute developed these elements to the full, and a considerable portion was devoted to (what we intended to be) inquiry-oriented teaching demonstrations. We offered one post-institute meeting in September where writing groups re-convened; the teachers shared examples of professional involvement activities and plans for the school year; and the new fellows interacted with existing CSUWP fellows in roundtables reflecting ongoing CSUWP programs in which the new fellows might wish to be involved.

Although this schedule is pretty common to NWP sites throughout the network, it had become problematic for us in recent years. First of all, as is the case with schools nationwide, teachers’ summers are shrinking, often because of programs related to standardized test preparation and lengthened school years implemented to increase students’ academic time in school. This reality has made many teachers reluctant to “give up” a three-week chunk of their vacation time to attend the summer institute. Secondly, a few years ago the Poudre School District in Fort Collins began holding what they also referred to as a “summer institute” during the first two weeks of the summer. Teachers were generously paid to attend this institute (about $25/hour) and received free graduate and professional development credit to do so. As you might imagine, this arrangement not only created name branding confusion for us, but it also drastically diminished our recruiting pool of area teachers because they could receive greater financial compensation for a much shorter period of time than the CSUWP summer institute. As well, it directly conflicted with the June period when our institute took place.

Challenge #2—Teaching Demonstrations: We have always communicated to new fellows that the teaching demonstrations (demos) they design and facilitate during the summer institutes differ markedly from traditional professional development offerings they may have attended at inservice meetings or professional conferences. Not only should CSUWP demos be intensely interactive and designed to prompt teacher reflection, but they should also be oriented toward inquiry (i.e., organized around a question or challenge in their teaching) rather than “showcasing” (i.e., focused on a “best practice” that they had already mastered). Toward this end, in our traditional 3-week summer model, we spent a good portion of our second pre-institute meeting in April on helping them construct a teacher research question based on student writing samples they had collected toward the end of the year. These samples were supposed to intrigue them for some reason, especially if they couldn’t pinpoint it. Our reasoning was that this student writing would not only prompt inquiry questions to guide teachers’ demo development, but could also be integrated into their demos as examples of student work.

Despite asking existing CSUWP teachers to share guest demos at pre-institute meetings, as well as our consistent instruction and coaching in inquiry-oriented design, new fellows’ demos consistently reflected best practice workshops or functioned almost like “labs,” where teachers would ask participants to be guinea pigs by trying out a new teaching strategy that might work with the presenter’s future students. Consequently, the questions that supposedly were guiding new fellows’ demo development frequently wound up being “fake” questions. They often designed best practice demos organized around strategies they had already mastered, perhaps because they felt uncomfortable being vulnerable in front of their peers. Lab-like demos occurred because teachers were no longer interested in the questions they had developed in the spring. Furthermore, in the first case, the student writing samples they included in their demos were most often exemplars. In the second case, the writing samples didn’t even exist because those they had brought to the April meeting were often irrelevant since they didn’t correlate with their new question, or because teachers were trying out a new strategy they hoped to use sometime later in the year. Regardless of the cause, only a handful of demos each summer correlated with our intent to help teachers develop an inquiry-oriented mindset toward their practice.

Challenge #3—Sustaining Site Participation: An important goal we have always strived for in CSUWP is that the summer institute would be just the beginning of a long relationship with CSUWP rather than a 3-week workshop for graduate credit. Toward this end, we integrated active CSUWP fellows in the institute by inviting them to participate in various aspects of the SI, in Friday FACs held at the end of each of the three weeks, and in the roundtables at the post-institute meeting in September. Also at the post-institute meeting, we asked new fellows to share a “leadership prospectus” that included plans for continued site participation. These strategies initially had promising effects. The new fellows enjoyed interacting with existing fellows during the summer and usually left the institute enthusiastic about continued participation in CSUWP. However, the September meeting often felt like a combination of a reunion and a final celebration of their summer institute participation rather than “the start of a beautiful relationship” with CSUWP. Furthermore, as the demands of the school year began to emerge, new fellows’ enthusiasm during the summer faded like a dim memory.

To address each of these challenges, we decided to develop a new model for the summer institute that would restore our recruiting pool, better support the development of a teacher inquiry mindset, and expand opportunities for site participation for both new and existing fellows. Here’s what we did:

  1. We changed the timing of the institute. As our rebranding indicates, “Summer Institute+” still includes an intensive summer institute, but we have reduced its length to two weeks and moved it to the end of the summer. This change has eliminated misunderstandings about the name and timing of Poudre School District’s professional development workshops in June. It also corresponds with that time in the summer when many teachers are gearing up for the coming school year anyway. Thus the summer component of SI+ provides a practical, formalized, compensated incentive for participation for a thought process teachers would be already be engaging in otherwise. The “plus” part of SI+ refers to four daylong meetings throughout the school year focused on new fellows’ development and sharing of inquiry-oriented “demo shots” based on their teacher research questions. As well, we are building in various methods of developing site capacity that will enable participation in authentic CSUWP work throughout the year.
  2. We overhauled the content and approach of the institute to reflect our overarching site values and practices. As an SI staff, we drilled down into our goal to support more inquiry-oriented demos and determined that though this was still a desired outcome, it reflected a greater impulse on our part to situate new fellows in what it means to be part of CSUWP. From Day 1 of SI+, we emphasized that NWP views teachers are agents of change in education and that CSUWP is a training ground and a support system to support such agency. Just as we had in previous summers, we explained that institute activities were designed to help them grow as a writers, teacher leaders, and teacher researchers, yet we made those connections more explicit by labeling them throughout the two weeks. Finally, we explained that SI+ was an induction process into the mindsets and practices our site values–namely, an orientation toward social justice, teacher inquiry, making and “connected learning.”
    We made very few changes to the writing activities we’ve used in prior summer institutes: we still began every day with writing, convened writing groups, held a writing marathon, and featured each teacher in the author’s chair. But the above revelations resulted in activities, such as unpacking the CSUWP mission statement and helping the teachers see themselves within it in concrete ways; reading and discussing provocative professional texts that explicitly address equity issues; familiarizing them with the expectations of the Common Core, yet problematizing implementation of standards; introducing teacher research methods and setting up yearlong teacher research groups that are facilitated by “thinking partners” (think teacher research mentors) from the SI staff; introducing design challenges by hacking the game Monopoly to uncover inequities in educational systems (see http://www.socialpsychology.org/action/2011winner.htm); and reading Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom and participating in a “Do Now” workshop. These are just a few of our revised activities during the two weeks of the summer.

    As described above, demo development has largely been shifted to the “plus” part of SI+, consisting of two daylong meetings in the fall and two in the spring. By the end of our two-week summer session, the new fellows had all developed rich and teacher research questions that foreground equity and access for all learners. As well, they had developed data collection plans for their primary research and had begun secondary research related to their questions. During teacher research groups in “plus” meetings, they are now analyzing the student work they are collecting throughout the school year and are developing “demo shots,” to be shared a few fellows at a time in meetings 2-4 (see attached pdf called “Intro to Demo Shots” for a description and key components). Because their teacher research questions and student samples are now relevant in the immediate context of their classrooms, we anticipate that demo shots are likely to invite more inquiry-driven explorations, rather than showcases of best practices.

  3. We are offering immediate opportunities for engagement with existing CSUWP teacher leaders and for leadership development. Our first big change in this regard was to offer a hybrid institute. In other words, we invited existing CSUWP fellows to apply to SI+, not as “returning fellows” with staff responsibilities, but as actual participants fulfilling institute requirements alongside the new fellows. This has had an enormously positive impact. The experienced fellows emerged as gentle leaders during the two-week SI and as fellow learners who engaged in and helped us reflect on the new SI+ design. Because the new model is sufficiently different from their previous SI experience, they have also deepened their commitment to the CSUWP mission, developed their teacher inquiry skills, and learned more about recent educational initiatives and innovations like the Common Core, making, and connected learning. As well, we are offering leadership opportunities at every “plus” meeting, the first being partial travel scholarships to attend the NWP annual meeting.

In sum, the success of newly designed model of SI+ so far is helping us make significant headway in meeting the challenges described above. We are eager to see how the model continues to unfold and look forward to the ways it will strengthen our site overall.


Related Resources

Original Source: National Writing Project, http://voicebox.nwp.org/modelatwork/discussion/co-colorado-state-university-writing-project-rethinksrenames-summer-institute-si

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