Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sun Belt Summer 2007

Since 1989 I have been a member of the Sun Belt Writing Project which is based at Auburn University in Alabama. I still remember my first summer institute. It was the summer after my second year of teaching and I was desperately looking for some way to become a better teacher. My first two years didn’t go well.

That summer I was introduced to the (then) new ideas of Nancie Atwell in her book In the Middle. I devoured Clearing the Way by Tom Romano, a book that showed me many practical applications of Atwell’s ideas. A book that is still relevant today. I was entranced by the simple advice of Natalie Goldberg to just write in Writing Down the Bones. This is another book that is a must read even still today.

I went back to my classroom and was determined to go with the workshop approach 100%. It was my tenure year, but I really didn’t care. That wasn’t bravery or zeal, I was young and figured if I lost that job I could always find another one. In fact, it might have been a motivator for me to move and go somewhere else.

We had new textbooks that year, replacing the books I had been furnished the first two (those books had been titled Modern English In Action—or was it--more aptly--Inaction?). I assigned the new books to my students. Had them write their names in them, in ink, as I was instructed to do. I then collected the books, put them in my closet and left them there the rest of the year. I had a 100% turn-in rate for books that year, not a single one was lost.

I was very lucky to work under a principal who trusted what I was doing and was strong enough in my district that I got tenure. He let me try the new method. All he wanted was for me to explain it to him so that he could explain it to the parents who called him with questions. Ah, the good old days.

I went back in 1991 as a senior fellow at my site. Basically, I wanted to hang around and they let me. I did it again in 1993 and 1995. I think I worked with the site again in 1997 or 1998, but I am a little hazy there. In 1999 I helped to keep the site alive when it hit a really low ebb. I have been there ever since. Somewhere along the way I started getting paid to do so. Now I am the Technical Liaison for my project. It means I like the techie stuff. Like blogs.

Some people, like my lovely wife, wonder why I do this every summer. Why do I make the drive to Auburn every day for four weeks (it was five until this year)? It is 40-45 minutes each way. And there is a time change involved, also. So I never really get to be on an even keel for the whole time I’m there.

I do it because it is a way for me to keep up with what is going on in the current research on writing and reading instruction. I do it because it is an opportunity to write. I do it because I have good friends there, the kind of friends that are more like family to me. And every summer I get to meet 10-15 incredible teachers. And this summer was no exception.

The amount of talent in the room was unbelievable. The conversations were zany at times and always interesting and informative. The teaching demonstrations were outstanding. The level of caring and commitment was off the charts. These people were the cream of the crop. And I am proud that I got to work with them and learn from them this summer.

But now it is over and the post-Sun Belt blues are kicking in. Tomorrow I will go and finish cleaning out the room. Then there is the report for the year. And then nothing.

As I live in a different city than almost all the participants of Sun Belt, I am now pretty much going to be cut off from all these wonderful people.

At least I am now in a school where I don’t have to be the lone stranger in the English department. In my old school no one ever wanted to go spend a summer at Sun Belt. Well, one person, but she went to a different school after her Sun Belt summer. Where I teach now there are several Sun Belt TC’s (Teacher Consultants). It makes the day a little less lonely.

But the TC’s from this summer are pretty much all Auburn folks. Except for one lady from Prattville and another from Guntersville. For those of you not familiar with Alabama geography, those places are a long way off from here. And I am back in Phenix City.

To any of the TC’s who may read this. Thanks for the great summer. I appreciate all the hard work you put in. And I really appreciate all the new ideas I get to take back to my classroom this year. Mostly I appreciate the warmth and good humor you all shared with me this summer. I hope that you all have your best year ever this year and every year after that, as well.


Claudette said...

I so identify with those post-Sun Belt blues. Here I am on Monday morning looking for ways to still feel connected to Sun Belt and all the wonderful people I met.

I love your description, Art.

Art said...

Thanks, Claudette. I am in a mall in Dayton, Ohio (don't you love wifi?) and I still miss you guys.

whit said...

It brightened my day to read your recount of Sun Belt. Thank you for your dedication to Sun Belt and for your encouraging words this summer. I look forward to seeing how your "view" develops throughout the school year! Take care, my blogging buddy.

Olivia Fulmer said...

I have been a writing project fellow since the early 90s myself. The several institutes I took have enriched me as a teacher. I think it has encouraged me to be more reflective about my practice and to continue to learn. I hope that I can set the example for my students to be writers, thinkers, readers, and learners.

As a result of the Midlands Writing Project, I feel connected to other teachers, some of whom are more "like-minded" than those I teach with. It's hard to convince teachers in my school to give up four-five weeks of their summer for the writing project institutes. It has been one of the most meaningful professional development activities that I have done (besides National Board Certification process).