Author: Lucy Ware
Summary: As co-director of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, Lucy Ware decided to remake her site’s approach to selecting readings for the Invitational Leadership Institute. Her framing of the problem and participatory solution could work for any site team concerned that the connection between teachers’ shared practice and the wider literature needs refreshing. While today’s institutes are probably building a shared online repository rather than a common file box, what gets into our shared spaces and how continues to be a key question in the reading strand at any NWP site.
Original Date of Publication: 2004
Despite our best intentions to use the Invitational Institute texts to build a vibrant learning community, the choice of readings and how we have used them has often been a struggle at the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project (WPWP). We regularly assigned texts based on predetermined beliefs as to what the teachers needed to know, both in theory and practice. Then we added professional writings of qualitative teacher-research and articles that reflect teachers’ stories, in an effort to provide models for participants’ own writing. But the professional reading piece always felt assignment-driven and too much like an add-on in an otherwise rich discovery process that fully engaged the minds and hearts of teachers.
An accompanying concern was that the demonstrations by participants were too “surface” and grounded solely in what the teachers considered “best practices” without either reference to evidence or examination of the larger issues in which their practice was located. We wanted the demonstrations to move beyond grade-level concerns and to connect with all participants on fundamental principles of the teaching of writing. If the demonstration was not so much a presentation of something that the teacher already knew or did well, but instead grappled with ideas that provided some tension with practice, the demonstration could benefit not only the audience but the presenter(s) as well. We came to believe that reading might be a way to advance this more sophisticated take on what a demonstration could be.
If we were to connect the reading we do in the Invitational institute to this evolving view of the purpose of a demonstration, we would need to overhaul our approach to this reading. During the initial interviews and the pre-institute meeting, we mined responses from the participating teachers for patterns of interests and concerns. Some common strands were: the student writer, contexts for educational change, writing to learn in all subjects, and building a writing curriculum. Participants then joined inquiry groups around these broad topics.
The leadership team for the institute then selected titles and compiled articles (multiple copies were kept in a file box to be borrowed or copied) to address these broad areas. We brought books and articles from our personal libraries and the writing project library. Teachers were encouraged to add to the collection, going to the WPWP or the university library or bringing in articles that they found useful.
As these changes were incorporated, the results were positive. Teachers were reading in areas of greatest concern, and the demonstrations connected to areas where participants wanted to learn more. The inquiry groups became safe sounding boards for fine-tuning questions that supported the demonstration.
Further, we found that fellows began to read more widely than they had in former institutes. We think that this was because of their participation in the choice of topics and because they had a clear purpose for the reading since it was linked to questions they had about teaching, learning, the social contexts of education and to issues related to their demonstrations. The demonstrations were riveting because they were connected to critical concerns that had broad implications. The professional writing was enhanced; teachers felt proud of their ability to conduct research in a limited area and received feedback continually on the content of their pieces. One measure of the impact of the work of these inquiry groups came when we found that, although the professional writing was mainly supported in these groups, participants requested time to read and respond to each other’s professional writing in their writing response groups. This let us know that the teachers owned their writing about practice and wanted clear connections between what they believed as teachers and who they were as writers.
We will continue to refine our uses of reading, based on what we learn from evaluations and from those participants who get involved in planning future institutes. But, for now, we’re pleased with the ways reading has become an integral part of the fabric of our summer learning community.