National Writing Project

A Michigan Site Helps Teachers Reach a Writing Crossroads

By: Jenny Orton
Date: May 18, 2011

Summary: Jenny Orton, a teacher-consultant with the Crossroads Writing Project in Michigan, discusses how her site continues to improve its dual-retreat model to help teachers take time from their daily lives and reignite their commitment to writing.

 

The passion to be both a writer and a writing teacher can fade after the invitational summer institute as state tests, large classrooms, and the daily tasks of teaching move to the forefront of concerns.

At the Crossroads Writing Project in Big Rapids, Michigan, we've found that if teacher-consultants don't have opportunities to deepen their commitment to writing, the summer institute will eventually become just a fond memory. The challenge then is to bring teachers together to continue their quest to live and teach as writers. The best vehicle for reinvigorating their craft and encouraging collaboration? Writing retreats.

Such retreats became a reality at our site in 2007 when our leadership team added two events to better meet the needs of a variety of teacher-consultants: weekend writing retreats and four-day advanced writing institutes.

Finding Inspiration over a Weekend

Our weekend retreats are designed for teachers who want to meet with other writers to inspire and bolster their writing experiences throughout the year. Because of the voluntary nature of these retreats, the schedule and expectations change with each group and even with each participant.

Here's a snapshot of how we've put them on. On Friday evening during dinner, everyone states his or her goal for the retreat, and the facilitator supports these goals throughout the weekend. Participants choose whether they'll work on professional articles, memoirs, poetry, or any other genre. While some teachers come with a particular purpose, most are there to be part of a literary community, seek new ideas for topics, and refresh their commitment to writing. Participants frequently transition to our advanced institutes.

A Focus on Getting Published

The advanced writing institutes are intended to offer time and support to those interested in focused work on a project, with an emphasis on publication.

In order to attend an advanced institute, teachers need to have participated in a summer institute. Because stipends, housing, and graduate credit are offered through the advanced institute, participants have expectations regarding scheduled writing time and progress toward completion of a chosen project. Participants get large chunks of uninterrupted writing time and receive precise feedback from readers. Discussion and presentations focus on the publication process.

As teachers gain experience and confidence in their writing, we encourage them to reflect on their teaching practice and explore professional writing. A few participants have published short pieces or poetry in the Michigan Reading Association Journal.

In addition, we are in the early planning stages of developing a collaborative anthology of professional writing. Both advanced institute and weekend retreat participants will be encouraged to submit work to this anthology.

We believe in the importance of ongoing community writing experiences to support teachers of writing.

The Biggest Challenges: Location and Expense

Any location we select for an advanced institute or a weekend retreat will be almost 200 miles from some of our districts. The Crossroads Writing Project resides in a large rural region in central and northern Michigan. Our biggest and most urban district is the Traverse City area, population 130,000, followed by four cities in the population range of 11,000 to 23,000. The remaining districts are mostly small towns and rural communities.

We tackle the distance issue by alternating our locations. It is more cost-effective to hold advanced institutes in Big Rapids on the campus of our hosting university because we can coordinate space and resources with our summer institute. However, every few years both the advanced and the summer institute are offered on a community college campus in Traverse City in order to honor our most northerly teacher-consultants.

The Crossroads Writing Project is not able to offer stipends, credits, or speakers for the weekend retreats. Participants cover their own housing expenses, and everyone contributes food items and cooking and cleaning time. The time spent in the kitchen deepens the group's rapport and keeps the cost down. Teachers can choose to share a room and split the cost or pay the full amount for a bit more privacy. As a volunteer facilitator, I get a free room.

Our advanced institutes are a good deal for teacher-consultants as they are funded by a grant that provides teacher stipends, affordable graduate credits, and — if they are traveling more than fifty miles from their home district—a dorm room. Coaches also receive a stipend and, if necessary, a dorm room.

Everyone loves the idea of attending a writing retreat—until it's time to send in the check and put the dog in the kennel. We have had too many last-minute cancellations, especially at weekend retreats. As a result, we've learned to keep costs down and get the money up front. I send a series of emails to the group designed to build interest and remind them of their desire to include writing in their daily lives. And, for those attending an advanced institute, the motivating factor of receiving a stipend and graduate credits helps reduce cancellations.

Growing Our Numbers and Capacity

Each summer participants from the advanced institute talk to new summer institute teacher-consultants about future opportunities to deepen their writing commitment. This creates much interest in the advanced institute and retreats, and our numbers continue to grow.

We've learned that consistency of dates is one reason teacher-consultants return to our programs. We know our spring retreat will take place the third weekend of April and the fall retreat the first weekend of November. Our advanced institutes are not quite as regular, but they always take place in either June or July.

For the weekend retreats, we eventually made participation more flexible. As we initially struggled to fill vacancies, we opened the retreats up to all Writing Project teacher-consultants in Michigan. This positive move enhanced the experience for all participants.

Finally, we encouraged teacher-consultants to invite fellow teachers (non-teacher-consultants) who have a passion for writing. This added a different flavor to the retreat and also provided a pool of potential participants for future summer institutes.

There has been a natural evolution of leaders for both the weekend retreats and the advanced institutes. Teacher-consultants, who keep coming back for more, frequently end up as coaches or as part of our leadership team.

Because we believe in the importance of ongoing community writing experiences to support teachers of writing, and because few such opportunities exist in our area, the Crossroads Writing Project is committed to consistently offering a variety of writing retreats for teachers.

Participants have told us these events "make them better writers and better teachers." The retreats allow them to "connect with engaging colleagues and renew a love and respect for writing." Though providing such opportunities may require creativity and tenacity, we believe the payoff for teachers—and for the development of leaders at our site—is well worth the effort.

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