Reflections on CRWP 2012 Open Institute

CRWP 2012 Open Institute Flyer
CRWP 2012 Open Institute Flyer

As many readers of my blog know, the funding situation that hit the National Writing Project in the spring of 2011 still causes repercussions throughout our network. One way that we at Chippewa River Writing Project have responded is, for this summer, to hold out on offering an invitational institute and, instead, offer a hybrid online/face-to-face open institute (also offered for SB-CEUs and graduate credit). Beginning online June 11 and stretching until July 13, with one week of F2F contact June 25-29, we created Teachers as Writers: Reflecting on and Responding to the Common Core. Here is the program description:

The Chippewa River Writing Project invites K-12 teachers from all content areas to participate in a one-week open institute focused on the integration of a genre-based, technology-rich approach to teaching writing in an era of the Common Core Standards.

During the week of June 25-29, 2012 — with additional interactions online both before and after the institute — participants will work with CRWP teacher consultants to better understand the expectations in the CCSS, explore useful digital writing tools, and engage in their own personal writing.

This hybrid professional development experience, like many other workshops that I conduct with teachers, was both surprising in its rewards and challenging in implementation. My co-directors (Penny and Kathy) and I tried to structure an opportunity that would offer participants a glimpse into the summer institute (participating in teaching demonstrations, although not leading one; writing groups; creating personal and professional texts; engaging in digital writing). Here is a brief synopsis of what we did before, during, and after the institute, with reflections at the end of the post.

Pre-Institute

When we recognized last fall that we would in fact not be offering an Invitational Summer Institute, we marked “the week” on our calendars and opened up registration via Google Docs. Working with colleagues in the English department, when I realized in the late spring that there would be enough attendees to warrant an application as a CMU Global Campus course for grad credit and SB-CEUs, I began that process, too. What was interesting about this process — as compared to the careful recruiting and vetting of applications for the ISI — is that we had many, many people complete the Google form indicating their interest, and I sent them email updates along the way. However, about five never replied (and never showed up) and about five more emailed me the week before to say that they couldn’t attend. A few more dropped during “the week” due to personal circumstances. In short, this was unusually high attrition. Also, because our ISI usually enrolls people “by hand,” and not through the normal course scheduling process, I hadn’t even thought that some people would enroll without me knowing. Hindsight being 20/20, I could have done more to describe the institute in our advertising.

Once we got to the point where we were entering “class time” and the online sessions began, I knew that having a webinar to go over routine matters on the syllabus and assignments would be helpful. Thus, I used Doodle to schedule a poll of participants and set up a webinar on the Friday before class began to go over these details. I was able to record a screencast of the webinar and send that to those who could not attend. Since participants would be working on two major projects — a “significant professional text” and a “digital belief statement about teaching writing” — I wanted to clarify those assignments. I was still clarifying well into the week, and that was OK because it acted like so many coaching moments.

The other portion of the work before the institute was for participants to share their thoughts about the CCSS and the introduction to the Calkins et al text, Pathways to the Common Core through a discussion board on the wiki. Despite my efforts at encouraging people into participating and replying to one another, only one other person really did (and, admittedly, I did not either because I didn’t want to stifle conversation). The balance between teacher-directed and student-centered online conversations still eludes me, even though I attempt to craft engaging questions and welcome people to reply to one another. At any rate, we used these responses during the institute to initiate conversation about the CCSS and introductions to one another on Monday.

CRWP CCSS Wordle
CRWP CCSS Wordle

During the week-long institute

Our daily schedule included Writing Into the Day, a teaching demo on narrative (Tuesday), argument (Wednesday), and informational texts (Thursday). Also, in the afternoons, we explored technologies, as generated by participant interest: Google Docs, Prezi, Glogster, Citelighter, WeVideo and iMovie. To the extent we were able, we also had impromptu writing groups. Over the course of the week, I also took time to meet with individual participants to help them frame their thinking for their final projects. From pre-service teachers who were trying to develop lesson and units plans to graduate students creating their syllabi and assignments to veteran teachers and professors thinking conceptually about how to redesign their approach to teaching writing, it was a busy week.

As with most NWP institutes, the magic happens in these interactions, and I wish that I could point to one specific reason why it all seemed to come together. Participants K-college were pleased to have a chance to dig into the CCSS with colleagues who were both interested and empathetic. We had one participant from an urban high school and two who taught adult ed, as well as two teacher educators. Even the graduate students who, not directly affected by CCSS (yet), were interested in finding out more about what students should know and be able to do as they enter freshman composition. On Friday, each participant shared a brief overview of what he/she had learned and would be working on for his/her final project. We used a simple “I think, I like, I wonder” response and the conversations that afternoon were engaging right up until the end.

Post-Institute

CRWP Hangout
CRWP Hangout

After a week of vacation with intermittent internet access (which I had warned participants about), I returned home to find their “progress reports” on our wiki page and then had to arrange for two types of online response groups. One group, mostly the graduate students who would be teaching freshman composition, wanted to use Google Docs to offer brief responses to one another’s projects and then participate in a Google Hangout to talk together. The other, mostly those in K-12 settings, wanted to use Google Docs only to offer comments and feedback to one another without any other type of group meeting.

This worked out fairly well, and the resulting Google Hangout I was quite interesting because people were able to share a variety of projects from Google Docs, to Prezis, to wiki sites, all with the embedded features.  more importantly, I think that most of the participants ( high school and college teachers) thought that using a hangout to connect with other writers do something that they could do themselves in a writing group or with their students outside of class time.

Reflections

As our open institute comes to a close, I am generally happy with the results. We had ten teachers enroll for credit, three more for SB-CEUs. So, it seems as though a one-week commitment with some additional online work is one way that people feel comfortable completing a course. And, of course, we had the NWP spirit infused throughout the entire institute, even though the online portion was not as fulfilling as I would have hoped it would be. We do have a group of people that we can look to for next summer as we begin thinking about recruitment for the ISI (where we will offer a stipend or tuition remission). And, I appreciated the diversity of the group, from new teachers to veterans, from early elementary through college.

In planning a future event like this, perhaps I would have participants do something more substantive online before the institute began (such as create a writer’s profile), although I wouldn’t want the technology to be off-putting. Also, for lack of better term, striking the balance between teacher-centered and student-centered approaches to online and F2F pedagogy is necessary, although I am still not sure what else I could do to engage people (and hope that they don’t drop out along the way). I want to welcome teachers to an institute such as this on their own terms, based on their own interests. Yet, when we expect a certain number of participants to show up and then one-third of them drop out right before or during the institute, that makes the financial costs of running such a workshop seem like a less worthwhile investment.

As for the post-institute online work, I recognize that I need to be much more organized with this. I should have made expectations for group communication much more clear our last face-to-face session. Throughout the weeks people were e-mailing me to ask how best to respond to one another when I naturally assumed that they would be communicating via comments on Google docs and other web-based texts. That said, I do feel that most participants gained from having the face-to-face and then online writing groups, their final projects reflected a deep level of thought and engagement. A few that were particularly interesting include:

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the open institute and I look forward to hearing about how they implement ideas from the common core and digital writing in their classrooms this fall.

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