National Writing Project

A Professional Writing Retreat for Teachers as Writers: The Minnesota Experiment

By: John Albright
Date: April 5, 2010

Summary: When John Albright of the Minnesota Writing Project organized his site's first Professional Writing Retreat, he and his colleagues faced some unexpected challenges, but gained valuable insights in the process of overcoming them.

 

After I returned from the 2006 NWP Professional Writing Retreat in Leavenworth, Washington, I wanted to do it all over again. So I applied for and received a minigrant from NWP to organize a local version of the retreat for my colleagues at the Minnesota Writing Project.

Writing is a solitary activity, but without support from a community, writing often does not happen.

Currently the only Writing Project site in the state, the Minnesota Writing Project is housed at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The site's mission is to serve educators in the entire state, which consists of approximately 300 school districts and more than 50,000 teachers. The summer institute largely attracts teachers from urban and suburban schools, but also serves teachers from rural school districts.

With the support of our site leadership team and the National Writing Project, I recruited fellow teacher-consultant Jennifer Budenski to lead the retreat. We decided to schedule a one-night retreat on a weekend in February 2007, to be followed over the next two months with two sessions in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

First-time Retreat Challenges

Organizing a retreat of this kind brought with it some interesting challenges. Our first surprise was that recruiting for an all-expenses-paid writing retreat was not as easy as we had anticipated. We invited 50 people from a list of active teacher-consultants provided by our site director, Muriel Thompson. We targeted those who were more likely to be able to invest the required time for the event.

We wanted to make the retreat available to teachers who did not live near the Twin Cities, and we knew that the commute could provide a serious obstacle for them. Historically, it has been difficult to bridge the distance gap between rural schools. So we decided to provide small travel stipends for commuters coming from a distance.

We suspected that some teacher-consultants would be intimidated by the name of the retreat: "Professional Writing." We were concerned that teachers would be asking, "What does this mean? That my writing needs to be of a 'professional' caliber? That while writing, I need to behave like a professional? A professional what? I'm not sure, but it sounds like I might be busy elsewhere that weekend."

If any of these stipulations were, in fact, prerequisites for retreat participation, I too would have been eliminated from the pool of qualified candidates.

So we tried to ease that pressure by letting people know that they did not, in fact, have to have a topic or writing idea refined by the time the retreat began. Our invitation mentioned "focusing on the pre-writing process." The middle, and possibly final, stages would be carried out independently, but we would track and support each other, and provide additional support at the two follow-up meetings.

There were also obstacles associated with getting people together for our follow-up meetings. The first session was to be devoted to working over our rough drafts and the second was intended to share and celebrate our completed drafts. This schedule turned out to be difficult, and, inevitably, a couple of participants did not make the meetings.

What We Learned

Though we experienced some challenges in organizing our site's first professional writing retreat, what we learned through the process more than made up for them.

For a writing retreat to be successful, choosing the right location is crucial. Our retreat location, the Minnesota Humanities Center , in St. Paul, was ideal. The facilities had everything that we needed: a relaxing lounge, catered beverages and snacks, quiet lodging, and a meeting room.

The writing retreat gave teachers the opportunity to clarify their tasks. In a world that continually pulls us in different directions, it's important to find time to focus on projects important to us. On his evaluation, one participant put it like this: "I feel the retreat provided a jump start to my writing process. It allowed me to focus on the project without outside interruptions. I enjoyed meeting with other writers involved in a similar project."

Writing is a solitary activity, but without support from a community, writing often does not happen. We were quite successful in providing an opportunity for people to get started. In their post-retreat evaluations, all 10 participants indicated being grateful for the time and space to do some professional writing.

Writing with others creates opportunities for inspiration. Most of us were inspired simply by being able to learn from each other. One teacher-consultant, Joy, wrote on the "achievement gap." Mike started a project on boys and literacy. Mara fleshed out the strengths and weaknesses of a literary analysis assignment. Sharon wrote on how to create a professional journal at a school. Jen Budenski began an article, Using Visual Art to Assess Thinking in a Language Arts Classroom (PDF) , that was later published in Minnesota English Journal (Fall, 2007).

Despite those successes, in retrospect we can see that a single overnight retreat just does not provide enough time, and the follow-up sessions did not have a retreat feel to them. For future retreats, we will honor the full sense of the word retreat: "the act of withdrawing, as into safety or seclusion." A retreat needs to provide opportunities to escape the chaotic demands of society so that we can demand more from our inner selves and be able to hear our inner voices.

But if we fell short of some of our goals, we took an important step in establishing a tradition by which teachers can practice expressing their ideas and observations about writing in the classroom, sharing their experiences with writing across the curriculum, and describing their own successful instructional practices—in short, writing professionally.

About the Author John Albright is a member of the Minnesota Writing Project.

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