June 22nd, 2016
What are you working on this summer? During the school year, it’s easy to get bogged down in our day-to-day to-do lists. Big ideas, big projects languish in desk drawers for months — maybe forever. In this guest post, author Dave Somoza shares how a summer writing institute helped him focus on his big ideas, connect with like-minded colleagues, and helped him write a professional development book, Writing to Explore.
How a Summer Writing Institute Inspired a Book for Teachers
By Dave Somoza
It was a crazy time in my life. I had two small kids at home, I had recently started a new teaching job, and I was returning to school at night to complete my master’s degree. I was talking with my graduate advisor on a spring afternoon when I asked about class opportunities for the summer. I told him how much I loved teaching writing and how I’d wanted to find a way to steer my classes in that direction. He jumped up and grabbed a flyer from his secretary’s desk. He told me excitedly about a summer writing institute that I could still join, which would allow me to write about what I was discovering in my teaching, meet with many other enthusiastic teachers, and become part of a writing community. Oh, and I’d receive graduate credits too! It sounded perfect. When I told my friends about it, they thought I was crazy—why would you go to class in the summer to meet with other teachers and write? It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, for my teaching and for myself. And it led to a book on writing for teachers, something I never thought I’d do.
Around that time my friend and author/college professor Pete Lourie visited often—his daughter was attending college in the town where I lived. We would get together for coffee and talk for hours about writing and teaching, and the more we talked the more we found we had in common. One morning Pete said, “Dave, we have to write a book together!” I remember laughing and explaining that I wasn’t a writer and never would be. But that idea came up again when I started the summer writing institute. I was spending time with incredible teachers from around the area who were all so passionate about writing and had so much to write about. I began to focus on how I teach writing and on the beautiful ideas that the kids were coming up with in my classes. So I wrote—not a lot, just some small chunks—bits of ideas that seemed to explain my thinking. Later, I would compile these bits into larger sections and eventually even chapters. But it was sitting with this group of dedicated teachers at the institute and listening to their ideas about teaching and writing that inspired me. At first it was just fun to get a few of these ideas, which had long been floating around in my head, down on paper. Eventually I decided that maybe Pete was right; maybe we could actually write a book together in two voices—the teacher and the professional writer.
Now when I think back on the summer institute and why it worked so well, I realize that teachers—all teachers—have so many great ideas, big ideas, and teaching philosophies. But the way that we work often forces us to focus on the small details, the to-do list of insignificant items we have to complete in order to make it through the day: call John’s mom about upcoming IEP meeting, meet with Sarah at recess to go over subtracting mixed numerals, e-mail colleagues to confirm field trip, eat lunch while checking e-mail, pee. It’s crazy how busy we get. It’s an insane job, and it’s the hectic schedule that tends to suppress our best ideas. Yet all of these great ideas are mulling around just behind the to-do list. Often it’s not until we put ourselves in a new situation, purposely, with really interesting people that our best ideas come to the surface. Sometimes, if we take the time to sit alone and think and write, these ideas can blossom.
A summer writing institute is exactly that kind of place. When mine started I walked in slowly, feeling a bit like an imposter for even being there. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a writer, like all the others. I was just there for the credits. The room filled up, and I imagined that the other attendees were all brilliant teachers who knew exactly what they were there to do: hone their skills. I started thinking this may have been a bad idea. But a cool thing happened that first day. Our instructors, who were wonderful and bright and down-to-earth people, were able to somehow draw us all out of our selves. They started group discussions about the teaching of writing, which we could all relate to, and pretty soon all of those ideas and philosophies that we had about teaching and learning and living and writing began to bubble up and flow out of us. Then we broke into small working groups, which was another great idea. Here we talked more privately and more openly about ourselves, about our work, just getting to know one another. I learned that we were all in the same boat, trying to figure out what we hoped to get out of this experience.
It’s been almost ten years now, and I still remember every member of that group. We met every day, bounced ideas around, and shared our writing, which we were all self-conscious about at first. Every day we also had time to ourselves to think and write alone, knowing that the next morning we’d be back together and we’d need to have something to share. The range of topics our group wrote about was beautifully varied, from personal narratives about childhood experiences to more philosophical ideas about life and learning. I focused on how I teach writing. Between the talks about writing we shared ideas about teaching—things that had worked and things that hadn’t. I realized something else while I was there: teachers are so open. They want to share ideas, and they want to listen and learn from others. It’s such a non-competitive field where we can all imagine ourselves in the other’s place and can work together to help one another. By the end of the summer, our group had a powerful connection. By sharing ideas that were personal and professional, we had opened up to one another in a way that usually takes years between friends, and here we had done it in weeks between strangers. I’ll never forget those teachers, and I’m so grateful to have joined in.
After the institute, I was on fire. I now had a great start on my writing, and the ideas just kept flowing. I wanted to write each day, which I often did before work—just a bit at a time, one idea, one lesson, one student’s writing that had inspired me. Pete and I talked almost daily, and he was working like mad too, describing what his life was like as an adventure writer who travels the world turning his detailed journals into published books. We e-mailed ideas back and forth, edited each other’s writing, and inspired each other to continue. This was collaboration, too, somewhat similar to the group work at the institute. When we felt we had a clear idea of where we wanted to go, we started looking for a publisher.
Our book, Writing to Explore, is written in two voices and talks about the writing projects we’ve done with our students, how students have responded over the years, how teachers can incorporate research and technology into the writing process, and how adventure writing can become a vehicle for exploration in both fiction and nonfiction writing. We both still teach and write, but we also travel to conferences and summer institutes across the country, talking to teachers about writing. It has been an incredible ride!
As summer arrives, some of you may be attending summer writing institutes. I’m sure you’ll have a great experience too. Sometimes summer institutes don’t fill up right away, so there may still be time to get into one. And if you feel passionate about an idea that you’re doing with your students and have considered writing a book, reach out to Stenhouse.