“A typical middle or high school teacher comes in contact with 80 to 150 adolescents per day. An early childhood or elementary teacher guides twenty to thirty young children six hours a day for an entire year. These teachers deal with learning disabilities, adolescent angst, boyfriend/girlfriend problems, and fears about not getting into the right college. They see the pressures of unexpected pregnancy, student homelessness, family green card and visa problems, court appearances, violence in the neighborhood, and the sudden death of a parent. Though ‘manage daily emotional crises’ appears nowhere in the curriculum guide, every good teacher knows that dealing with them is essential to successful instruction.”
— Joe Check, former director of the Boston Writing Project
It has happened at each retreat so far. Someone is bound to say it—”Kristy, you’re like our mom” and “You take such good care of us!” My initial response is to be flattered—”taking care” of retreat participants is my main objective, as well as minding the needs of these teachers so that they can focus solely on themselves. But occasionally when I reflect on these comments, I cringe.
- How can I justify a “because it feels good” writing retreat?
- How does the act of nurturing teachers translate to better instruction in the classroom?
- Why is meeting the very human, emotional needs of the participants important?
- What else does the retreat accomplish?
Joe Check points out the often-ignored emotional component of the teaching profession. The unspoken, most important duties of a teacher require large amounts of emotional energy. Without strength in this area, a teacher can feel limp and frustrated. Summer months are a time with great restorative potential. Attending a writing retreat is one way to recharge teachers’ emotional batteries.
In a time of test score pressures and budget cuts, the field of education focuses on the end result. Although the personal benefits of a retreat can hardly be measured in a traditional way, the professional results are the same for any National Writing Project experience. Participants add new dimensions to their own identities as writers. This leads to better writing instruction in the classroom and improves student writing, and, ultimately, the test scores of those students, not to mention experiencing what it’s like to have more than a forty-minute period to concentrate on one task. And with that time and space comes creativity.
Reignite the Fire
As a retreat facilitator for my local Writing Project site, I am fascinated by the ways a writing retreat transforms a teacher’s personal and professional writing life. A well-executed retreat reignites the fire of the Summer Institute and here’s why: the objectives of a successful writing retreat are at the heart of every Summer Institute. It’s all about nurturing creativity, building camaraderie, and boosting confidence.
According to author/educator Sir Ken Robinson, there just isn’t enough creativity happening in our schools. And it’s not just our students’ creativity that is important; the most effective teachers are also the most creative, and that is no coincidence. Being surrounded by friends and feeling fully engaged in the writing process sounds like a recipe for confident writers. Isn’t that exactly what we want for the students in our own classrooms?
If You Build It
I find that more candidates are available in the summer months. Most teachers have a more flexible schedule and some distance from the daily responsibilities of teaching. There are many arrangements to be made in preparation for attending a writing retreat. The summer months often lend more time to the practicalities including transportation to and from the retreat site, gathering the appropriate research and writing materials, and in many cases, finding child care for the little ones left behind.
Each July, teacher-consultants with the National Writing Project at Rutgers University embark on a four-day retreat at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Take a walk down one of the Farmhouse corridors, and you’ll see rooms scattered with papers, books, computers, guitars, and fans, which move the sometimes humid summer air. Hear the sounds of creativity: fingers tapping laptops, laughing (even crying) voices reading drafts aloud, and the printer humming yet another piece of writing into the universe.
The Farmhouse is a comforting space surrounded by thick foliage. A tarn hugged by wildflowers captivates writers and photographers alike. The landscape accommodates the usual suspects: deer, foxes, rabbits, frogs, a variety of birds, and even the occasional bear. Location and accommodations are two of the most important components of a retreat. In order to make the most of the time together, a comforting spot and healthy meals are a must.
Our retreat schedule follows the NWP Professional Writing Retreat Handbook, starting with a Thursday afternoon and ending on a Sunday morning. There are designated times for orientation, meals, socializing, independent writing, and group response. Orientation on the first evening of the retreat is followed by a visit by a guest writer. As our retreat is open to creative as well as professional writing, I find the guest writer can address the needs of each participant by speaking about the writing process and publication in general.
For example, one guest writer recounted the timeline of her writing life and then introduced a writing exercise entitled, “I Can’t Believe I Remember,” in which she led writers on a quick-paced brainstorm of memories listed in chronological order. Participants wrote down every event they could possibly remember followed by a pair-share exercise, in which partners wrote about the other’s memories.
Another appreciated feature is what I like to call an Inspiration Station. I stock mine with plenty of books on writing, magazines, professional journals, tape, colorful stickers, scissors, and a stapler. We even feature handmade mailboxes in this area so that writers may write short notes to one another, words of assurance and encouragement, such as “Hey! I loved that story about your mom. I can really relate to…” Additionally, consider posting schedules, menus, and daily announcements in this area so that it also becomes an information station as well.
An Unexpectedly Isolating Profession
Despite being surrounded by energetic students all day, there is little time to spend with colleagues. Often the occasions on which we do connect tend to be points of conflict. Maybe you’ve been there: attending department meetings—yawning, hungry, and energy entirely depleted at the end of the school day; standing near the copy machine patiently waiting in line minutes before the bell rings; or attending a mandated professional development workshop—thinking of all the reading, lesson plans, and grading on your to-do list.
Granted, there is the occasional chunk of time at the beginning of the school year, but this is typically scheduled with orientation meetings and set-up rituals. And at the end of a school year, tensions can run high as everyone eagerly awaits their last paychecks. Yet once you strip away the school year and the demands and procedures that come with it, teachers can actually learn from each other, collaborate on ideas, and simply relate. A writing retreat provides the time and space for teachers to be with each other as true colleagues and active writers. And with the added bonus of prepared meals and a lot of free time to write and reflect, productive and meaningful professional growth occurs.