“The diversity of participants, from rural to urban schools, chemistry to music content areas, meant that our common ground began with an understanding of the diverse needs of our students. Writing about our classrooms allowed us to make visible for others how our classrooms need to be spaces where all students feel encouraged and invited to participate in classroom dialogues.”
Katie Kline, director of the Greater Kansas City Writing Project (GKCWP), made this observation about participants at their 2008 summer institute. What was different about the participants in the 2008 summer institute?
In the third cohort of Project Outreach, GKCWP explored questions related to access, relevance, and diversity in their site’s self study—and discovered that the project’s leadership did not reflect the diversity of their service area.
The site’s self study revealed that nearly all of GKCWP’s activities in its summer institute, continuity, and professional development programs served participants who hailed from suburban schools. The leadership team itself was composed of teachers who taught primarily in secondary suburban schools. The project did not serve Kansas City’s urban center, schools that had the highest percentage of students affected by poverty.
“It became obvious that if we wanted to change the face of our leadership, we need to start by changing our leadership pool, the summer institute,” said Annie Riggs, GKCWP’s professional development coordinator.
Examining the Summer Institute
In order to begin the process of change, the GKCWP created a Summer Institute Leadership Team (SILT) “to improve all aspects of and all processes connected to the summer institute,” as the site outlined in its Project Outreach 2007-08 action plan.
“In addition to increasing access routes to a shared and sustainable leadership for teachers in underrepresented areas that serve low-income students, SILT will work to increase the diversity of GKCWP’s leadership, focusing on gender, race and ethnicity, geography, grade level, and content areas,” the plan continued.
The team felt that this written statement was critical to their work because it institutionalized Project Outreach values and gave clarity to SILT’s decision making.
This team carefully examined every aspect of the summer institute: publicity, recruitment and selection, coaching and demonstrations, writing and response groups, reading and research, and follow-up.
Changes in Recruitment and Applications
GKCWP’s self study revealed that past methods of recruitment, such as fellows inviting and encouraging their colleagues to apply, resulted in replicating the current teacher-consultant pool. Changes in recruitment, from communication to selection, were essential to diversifying the summer institute participants. SILT implemented the following changes:
The Invitational Summer Institute Application
- The site developed a more detailed description of the summer institute focus, expectations, and cost (including information about university enrollment requirements and stipends).
- The application included new, explicit language communicating the focus on social action and social justice.
- The site created a redesigned application form, making it simpler and more accessible, requiring about 10 minutes to complete.
- The site set an earlier application deadline to allow time for additional recruitment as needed.
Invitations to Apply
- A summer institute recruitment team was formed to visit schools within Kansas City’s urban core.
- GKCWP, on SILT’s recommendation, added scholarships that supplemented the summer institute stipends to offset more of the tuition cost, increasing access.
- A revised summer institute schedule resulted in a later start date to accommodate school districts located in the urban core.
- SILT replaced individual interviews with a group interview called a “facilitated conversation” responding to Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (PDF).
- More teacher-consultants were involved in the selection process as a move toward increased shared leadership.
Rethinking the Content of the Summer Institute
New participants in the summer institute required a change in its content so that it better reflected the needs, concerns, and potential conflicts of a more diverse group of teachers.
To reflect the focus on social justice and social action, SILT chose as a common text, Writing for a Change: Boosting Literacy and Learning Through Social Action. New articles, such as “Reflection on Race in the Urban Classroom” and “Why Do They Always Do Outside Work” also injected equity issues into the institute.
SILT also recommended infusing summer institute demonstrations with a sense of inquiry. These workshops, the place where teachers’ knowledge from their own practice enters the summer institute, invited teachers to bring questions and concerns about their strong practice to the table. These included questions about equity and about the role that teaching plays in the shaping of a democratic culture.
Teachers’ writing in the institute also reflected SILT’s focus on Project Outreach goals. New to the project were invitations for teachers to write “to consider how social change can be an effective tool in your classroom in conjunction with writing.”
In addition to making visible the diverse needs of their students, this writing helped participating teachers see themselves as agents of change—and with tools to make a difference in the education of their students.
Bumps in the Road
Change is never easy—and even with careful planning and thoughtful implementation, conflict can occur. Reconfiguring the leadership structure at the site and rethinking the summer institute meant changes in responsibilities for site leadership. Summer institute facilitation needed to reflect the change in content and focus—resulting in the need to bring new summer institute facilitators into leadership.
Increasing diversity and attention to social justice and social action also increased the possibility for tension as participants read about and discussed potentially volatile and sensitive topics.
SILT’s careful and inclusive planning did not eliminate the conflicts and controversies that often attend conversations about race, language, and poverty. At one point in the institute, communication broke down between facilitators and expectations for facilitation were not as clear as intended. Feelings were hurt and tempers flared as participants and facilitators learned to navigate and communicate about issues of race, language, and poverty and their connections to writing and education.
While this first attempt was not the summer institute they imagined and planned for, it became a starting point and a focus for reflection and problem solving for SILT.
Despite the bumpy start, more diverse leadership emerged from the summer institute, moving GKCWP toward their goals of creating access routes to shared and sustainable leadership for teachers who serve low-income students and increasing the diversity of GKCWP’s leadership.
Two of the three co-facilitators for the 2009 Summer Institute are new teacher-consultants from the 2008 class. The 2009 facilitator team represents GKCWP’s continued commitment to diversity: male and female teachers, suburban and urban teachers, elementary and secondary teachers, and science and language arts teachers.
As the site prepares for the 2009 summer institute, it feels confident that the changes brought about through SILT will better help the incoming fellows carefully consider the very real concerns of their classrooms, which—now more than ever—are filled with culturally and linguistically diverse students.
Furthermore, SILT continues to be mindful that the new fellows frequently seek resources and time to best meet their students’ needs; thus, SILT’s collaborative curriculum planning process relies heavily on Project Outreach’s concept of relevance to guide decision-making. GKCWP is hopeful that this summer institute will renew and strengthen teachers’ knowledge of the inherent connection between writing and learning, despite ever tightening restrictions on teacher’s autonomy.