July 6 – Day One
The first day of school is typically an exciting affair. The body is alight with crackling activity. Synaptic pathways bathe in neurotransmitters. The rat brain’s fight-or-flight mechanism serves up heaping plates of epinephrine and cortisol until students’ sympathetic nervous systems cry “uncle!” Students cast furtive glances around the room, sizing up potential new crushes and avoiding last year’s misguided romances. The first day of ISI isn’t much different, minus the crush stuff. Probably.
Starting time is 9:00. Assistant directors arrive between 7 and 8. The director lives here, I think. By 9:30 everyone except those stymied by Northern Virginia’s maniacal traffic have arrived. ISI begins, as these things often do, with a modicum of necessary administrative tedium. I-9’s are filled out, parking passes are distributed, and ethnographies are scheduled.
Sarah, our fearless leader (OFL), leads us in a round of ‘One Thing You Probably Didn’t Know about Me.” These sorts of icebreakers follow the dictum that you can learn more through a few moments of play than you can through hours of work. I’m still unsure whether or not I think these sorts of icebreakers are purposeful, but I know lots of people find them helpful.
What a wonderful cornucopia of individuals and experiences we have. What follows is an incomplete sampling of ISI 2k15’s impressive human capital:
-Over one hundred years of teaching experience
We discuss the syllabus and expectations. We talk blogs, statements of inquiry, writing groups, and reading groups. We discuss ISI’s four dimensions of writing: for self, for the classroom, for colleagues/admin, and for public/publication. And lastly we discuss the two main tenets of the Writing Project:
- Teachers teach teachers.
- Teachers of writing must write.
These two directives are so simple. And yet what power lives in them.
At this point we break. Any teacher worth his or her salt knows when the audience has hit a stopping point. We refresh and return. Then, we write. Some plop down on the floor. Others put headphones in for a soundtrack. Keys click, journals flip, and quickly the weight of freshly-written words permeates the atmosphere. The Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2015 Invitational Summer Institute has officially begun.
Reading and Writing Groups:
We returned from lunch ready to dig into the good stuff. Reading Groups are going to be awesome. We have all the major topics covered: creative writing, technology, at risk youth, theory, workshop, and mentor texts. Our capacity to learn is affected by time and not much else. This is what teaching is all about. This community we are building has the power to transform. This only happens when you’re willing to remove the yoke of top-down control, to lift the veil and truly examine what’s going on around you, inside you.
We end with a discussion on Writing Groups. Our rules? Write stuff, read your stuff, then talk with each other about it. That’s it. No technocratic measurement. No transactional writing where I’m only producing because I want something in return. Writing Groups are my favorite part of ISI. We are born again as students, neophytes to the written word. The space between us and the written page is both finite and boundless. I remind myself to erase my ego and commit to being fully present for every letter I write. To leave behind cynicism and irony and plunge into the murky business of carving out a tiny chunk of meaning from the dizzying totality of life. What a month this will be.
 I would like to add here Dr. Paul Thomas’ exhortation that teachers must become not only writers, but scholars of writing.