So I realize my last post was pretty vague about the meetings I’d attended, probably because I was both mentally and physically exhausted. All the sessions were good but I think the best one was on why participants in the writing project find it such a transformative, almost cult-like experience. Ann Whitney of Penn State is studying the phenomena and looking at what conditions were most conducive to it. What I got from her was that of all the transforming experiences of the writing project summer institute, the most important one is the writing group. Whitney’s conclusion then, is that writing group time needs to be conserved at all costs. If you need to cut corners, DON’T do it during the writing group. It’s important, too, to make sure the writing groups are well balanced and that they’re running smoothly I think most of us who have experience with summer institutes would tend to agree—the writing group seems to be where teachers bond and where they feel valued as writers. She also noticed that the writing that the fellows did that was most transformative was when they wrote as authorities about what was going on in their own classrooms.
Yesterday was National Program Leaders meetings. Intense and a little scary, it felt like the Star Chamber in there but in a good way. At one point I raised my hard to ask a question, “So when you [meaning the powers that be] decide. . .” and in answering it, Tanya Baker kindly reminded me that it’s “we,” not you. Gulp. I have become “them. “ My partners, Lynette Harris and Paul Epstein made the transition as smooth as possible, though, and there’s no other “them” I’d rather be.
But I’m leading up to the best part of my story, which is introducing Jamie. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m a pretty reluctant flier, in spite of the fact that I do it all the time. I was a bit nervous about the trip to Memphis since there was a possibility of storms when we landed—joy joy. Then I boarded the plane and met my seatmate, seventeen year old Jamie. Bless his heart, this was only the second time Jamie (not his real name) had ever flown (the first being on the way to DC) and he was absolutely terrified. That was how he introduced himself, extending his hand and announcing“Hi, I’m Jamie. I’ve only flown once before and I’m pretty scared.”
Needless to say, the higher power must have been working for me, because other than sitting beside an off-duty pilot (which I highly recommend, based on experience), sitting next to a bravely terrified seventeen year old who’s palpable fear is eliciting every nurturing-mama instinct in my body, makes for a pretty good trip. I had to talk him through take off and landing (i.e. “Mind if I bring these armrests down, ma’am? I need to hold on during this part”) and explain every bump and rattle. I also got to see pictures of his momma, and his lovely girlfriend and her lovely “cornflower blue” prom dress. He’s wearing a white tux with a cornflower blue vest, by the way.
And what a guy. He was in DC because he’d been named a Horatio Alger Foundation scholar, a competitive college award for youth who have been through adversity. I guess having his father die when he was 15 and his mother in a nursing home due to various health problems—he’s lived in eight different friend’s homes since he was a sophomore—is what qualified him. That and the three essays he had to write. He told me about those when I told him I was a college writing teacher. Of course he said, “I’m not much of a writer,” and then proceeded to tell me that he does like to write poetry and music. Music is his passion—he plays about five instruments, including the baritone and the guitar and he organ at church. It’s in the genes I guess; his Dad played backup guitar for George Jones. He wants to play in the Ole Miss band and he’s going to be a music education major, after two years of community college—he wants to stick close to home at first so he can visit his mother every day and continue to volunteer at the home.
Anyway, he also showed me photos of the black tie ceremony where he received his Alger medal (they even give them shadow boxes to keep them in, nice touch) as well as photos of him shaking hands with Clarence Thomas, Denzel Washington and a “billionaire” who promised to personally give every scholarship recipient at their table $500 a month while they were in college. All I can say, is, the guy better keep his promise. I believe it’s a mortal sin to mess with the minds of kids like this.
I asked him if Denzel Washington had any words of advice for him. “Yes ma’am,” he nodded somberly. “He told me to stay with my music.”
I didn’t ask about Justice Thomas.
I’ve always been fascinated by the writing experience in the WP summer institute, and I completely agree with the sanctity of the writing groups. I suspect it goes deeper than that, though, at least here. R-E-S-P-E-C-T (go ahead, sing it) for the teachers as authorities in their own classrooms is a huge hurdle for participants who may be used to lesser treatment in their schools – especially by administrators. The summer institute doesn’t make them earn this respect, it’s assumed. The act of writing their experiences allows participants to unapologetically declare the value of their expertise and to put the wavering educational focus (NCLB testing) back on the students they nurture.
The summer institute is the antidote for Battered Teachers’ Syndrome; it’s where teachers rediscover their value.
And about Jamie…
I’d like the name of that billionaire so we can see he follows up on his promise. That fellow needs to know there are squinty-eyed teachers watching for follow-through.
Great story Stephanie! What a wonderful “single-serving” seat-mate friend you are.
What a lovely story Stephanie! You are a great “single-serving” flying friend.