National Writing Project

Reading in the Summer Institute: How, Why, and What

By: Nick Coles, Richard Louth
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Coles and Louth, seasoned writing project directors, share not only what was read in their sites' institutes, but also discuss why and how institute participants read these selections.


"What do you read in the summer institute?" This question, often overheard at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, the NWP Directors Retreat, and other gatherings of site leaders, can stop almost anyone within earshot.

The reading component of the summer institute is a means of bringing teacher knowledge into relationship with "research-validated" practices. As Jim Gray writes in Teachers at the Center, NWP "summer institute programs have always been devoted to the exploration of theory and research. As professionals, teachers need to immerse themselves in the why as well as the what of their work." As the range and substance of professional literature about teaching writing and reading, as well as school reform issues, has grown over the years, the opportunity for rich discussions of reading and research continue to be crucial to the summer institute experience. So before addressing the question of what we read, we'd like to consider two other questions: "Why do we read in the summer institute?" and "How do we read in the summer institute?"

Why Do We Read in the Summer Institute?

If we think of the summer institute as a teacher's first deep experience with the writing project, and if we think of our site as a professional learning community, then the function of reading is clear. Professional reading, as an integral strand of the institute's work, can help a summer institute become an intentional learning community. Further, reading connects summer institute participants to ongoing professional conversations beyond the institute. Rather than devaluing the practitioner expertise participants bring with them, this experience enhances expertise by linking research and theories of writing to the practice of teaching writing.

There is, after all, a content to our teaching practices and a "knowledge base" for our expertise, and we can bring these forward in our institutes. Successful teachers are often described as "expert learners" and/or as "reflective practitioners." As expert learners, teachers can share their expertise by demonstrating how they interact with texts and how they use reading in teaching writing. As reflective practitioners, teachers value the opportunity to consider their own work by setting it in the context of current writing on their profession, whether this is theoretical, research-based, or descriptive of life in classrooms. Some of the most popular literature in our institutes is in fact written by current or former classroom teachers.

How Do We Read in the Summer Institute?

A clear rationale for a strong reading program in the summer institute does not necessarily solve the problem of how to structure reading into the summer institute. Approaches to reading in the institute are many and varied across the NWP network. At some sites, all participants read the same texts to provide a grounding in common issues; at others, reading is a matter of individual choice; at still others reading may be done in small groups by grade level or by special interest. Some institutes set aside specific times (an afternoon a week, for instance) devoted to reading and discussion; others connect readings to the teacher demonstrations or to ongoing inquiry projects. Some sites favor books, some prefer articles, and others use a combination of the two.

Often citing an interest in modeling effective strategies for classroom use, institute leaders choose strategies such as literature circles, jigsaws, book talks, response logs, online discussions, close reading exercises, structured conversations using protocols, and written minireviews, as well as informal discussions over lunch. Many sites either give out staff-selected readings at a preinstitute meeting or use that meeting to identify participants' research questions and choose readings on the basis of their interests. Most sites maintain some form of classroom library for use by participants throughout the institute. Some prepare binders of articles, grouped by topic, in order to provide teachers with easy access to key texts related to the work of the institute. (See sample reading lists for some common topics.)

In what follows, we describe how we have woven reading into our respective summer institutes, in quite different ways, and why our thinking about institute reading has changed over time.

Thinking from the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project

(by Nick Coles, former director)

As a core strand of our institutes at the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, we have wanted to invite participants into the ongoing professional conversations about teaching and learning. We want to have certain texts to share and critique as a group, as well as texts that address issues specific to our particular teaching situations: student/school demographics, grade levels, and subject areas.

So we typically provide at least one book that we read in common. These have often been books—such as Mike Rose's Possible Lives, Lisa Delpit's Other Peoples Children, Regie Routman's Literacy at the Crossroads—that raise issues about schooling and school reform, rather than texts that address specific teaching practices. This book is chosen by the institute leadership team and made available at the pre-institute meeting. We then have whole-group discussions on that text for an hour or so once a week, sometimes using a jigsaw method in which participants take responsibility for introducing particular chapters.

In addition to these common readings, participants choose a book to be read in grade-level "teaching groups," usually primary, intermediate, middle, high, and college. The groups make their choice at the pre-institute meeting from a set of possibilities preselected by the leadership team. Copies of the chosen books are mailed ahead of the institute to give participants a head start on their reading. Teaching groups discuss sections of their book at their weekly afternoon meetings; they also prepare a brief book talk for the rest of us, with highlights and recommendations for reading.

Since I left the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, this model has continued to evolve. (See related article by Lucy Ware, co-director of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project.)

Thinking from the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project

(by Richard Louth, Director)

At the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project site, we have moved between a common text and a set of grade level texts before discovering the power of individualized choice offered by a "reading circle."

In our early years, we used Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones as our common text because it inspired writing, was easy to read, did not seem like a "textbook," and because it also captured the spirit of our institute. We did not assign chapters, but simply provided the participants with this book, asked them to dip into it, and referred to it frequently, often quoting from it during our "sacred writing time" at the beginning of each day. After a few years, it seemed that many of the participants were already familiar with Goldberg, so while we still referred to it, we quit purchasing it for everyone and instead just kept a few copies in our writing project library.

At the same time as we were using Goldberg, we tried to integrate other types of reading. For instance, we formed reading groups according to grade level, using Dan Kirby, Nancie Atwell, and Regie Routman (for high school, middle, and elementary.) However, we found that these groups were only somewhat successful, perhaps because they divided the institute rather than united it, or because the participants were not overly interested in these books chosen by the co-directors, or because we gave too little guidance to the participants on what to do with the books. We also used articles such as Frank Smith's "Myths of Writing" to discuss as a whole institute, and provided copies of the NWP Quarterly for common reading. Neither of these strategies succeeded as we'd wished, but we could not determine why until, upon reflection, we realized that they were "top down, one-shot" efforts.

We did not realize that we had a "reading problem" until the year that we chose Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education as our common text. The co-directors both loved this book and often referred to its ideas about freedom and discipline and "the rhythm of learning" in coaching sessions. Why not use it for everyone? The answer was simple: ownership and choice. Despite its wealth of ideas, the book belonged to the co-directors not the participants, and the participants did not care for it. From that point on, we determined to shelve that book and all common books and instead look for a way to give participants more ownership of the reading selections and process.

The solution to our problem came from Sherry Swain, former director of the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Project, who suggested how we might integrate reading and research into the fiber of our institute through a "reading circle" approach. Rather than assign readings or purchase a single text, we now provide an abundance of texts, let participants choose whatever texts appeal to them, and schedule periodic time for private reading, reflective writing, and discussion. Co-directors stock our writing project's shelves with their own books and periodicals, National Writing Project publications, and Heinemann books checked out from the university library. Participants bring and exchange their own books as well. Also among the books in our library are several copies of the Louisiana Writing Project's Best Practices anthology and chapbooks from previous institutes, "home grown" publications that make the idea of "research" less alienating, provide resources for demonstrations, and serve as useful models for participants' own professional articles.

The ownership possibilities allowed by the reading circle led to some reading choices we never would have anticipated. The first came when a high school teacher chose to read a college textbook on technical writing. Then there were participants who elected to delve into chapters in the once despised The Aims of Education because they'd heard about the book in one-on-one discussions and were curious about it. The reading circle format also led some teachers to take responsibility for guiding our discussion of the reading. There was the occasion when a teacher asked "Can I lead discussion and writing next time? I've an idea of another way to do it that I'd also like to try with my class." Clearly, we were a long way from the top-down approach that had once dictated our reading choices. Choice, diversity, and ownership—the foundations of our institute—have come to determine how reading is approached in our institute.

What Do We Read in Summer Institutes?

Here, too, there are wide variations across the network as sites try to address participants' interests, core content knowledge, and/or current issues in education, particularly those affecting the particular schools, teachers, and students in the site's service area. Before deciding on a text or texts, summer institute leadership teams might consider the different kinds of reading available, and how they could fit the institute's needs. Rather than provide a list of specific readings, we instead offer a broad list of possible topics that sites might consider when designing their own reading lists and libraries:

  • Schooling and school reform
  • Writing practices
  • The teaching of writing
  • Assessment and evaluation
  • Writing across the curriculum
  • Reading/writing connections
  • Research and teacher inquiry
  • Teaching diverse populations
  • NWP as an agent for improving schools

Because reading is becoming more integral to the writing project's mission, this is a good moment to reconsider the role of reading in our summer institutes. When we asked ourselves what we would do differently in our next institutes, having written this article and learned more about institute reading practices around the NWP network, both authors would make some changes. In particular, without sacrificing choice, we would both attempt to approach the reading more intentionally in order to connect it to the teaching demonstrations and the inquiry sessions. We would seriously reconsider how, why, and what we read as we attempt to balance the components of our institutes, the dynamics of our professional learning communities, and the interests of our participants.

Rather than advice for other directors, then, we offer these guiding questions:

  • Is time devoted to reading in your institute? Is it well spent?
  • How and by whom are decisions about institute reading made?
  • Does reading connect with demonstrations? Writing? Inquiry? Where does it belong?
  • Can your readings be classified by type or topic? Is one type emphasized over others?
  • When does institute reading begin and how does it conclude?
  • Is choice and teacher ownership honored in what, how, and why you read?
  • How is discussion and/or writing about institute reading facilitated?
  • Is reading an "add on" or truly part of the institute's working culture?

About the Author Nick Coles is the former director of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and works as a field director for NWP. Richard Louth is the director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project. They are members of the NWP Directors Retreat Leadership Team. The authors are grateful for responses to this article draft from Joye Alberts, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Linette Moorman.

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