On Friday July 21, we wrapped up our 2-week NEH Summer Institute for Teachers, “Making the Good Reader and Citizen: The History of Literature Instruction in American Schools,” hosted on zoom by the University of Texas, El Paso, directed by Jonna Perrillo and me.
Along with the co-Directors, the program involved 7 Visiting Scholars, 3 K-12 Education Leaders, and 28 NEH scholars – mostly teachers, but also curriculum leads and librarians – representing a diverse array of regions and schools types (mostly public, but also charter, independent, and religiously affiliated).
Collectively, we were verbose.
The tone was set on the first day of the institute, when following the project team introductions, the participants were asked to go around the zoom room, with each stating their name, their school, and the title of a text that they were considering approaching differently in their work with students, possibly for the project they would develop over the course of the program.
They completely ignored the constraints of the prompt, speaking at length about their schools, their students, their motivations for taking the institute, and the reasons for their text selection(s).
Again and again, the NEH scholars gave us so much more than we asked for. We broke Padlet, pouring some 20,000 words into anticipations of and reflections on our daily work together (and comments on those posts). Every single discussion, small group, whole group, had more words than time. At the end of two weeks, the final projects were brilliant and also prolific, demonstrating a great investment of thought and energy, on behalf of students and colleagues.
Word cloud generated from our Padlet posts.
There was more going on in this outpouring than the typical prolixity of English educators. I think there was a pent-up eagerness for intellectual community. For many, this eagerness was fueled by isolation and frustration – as Jonna expressed in our recruitment video, “it’s a tough time for teachers out there these days.” Speaking for myself: as an English professor and department chair facing “the End,” I’ve felt embattled, and in need of solidarity.
From my perspective, this sense of community flourished almost instantly. Indeed, this Summer Institute (like its predecessor, the 2021 summer seminar that Jonna and I also co-directed) developed as the ideal realization of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework.
If anything, in a diagram of our institute, there would be even more overlap between the ovals than in the diagram above. Assuredly, it made a difference that our object of inquiry (the “cognitive presence”) was teaching and learning, and in the conversation between then and now the NEH scholars were already experts and practitioners in the now.
The two weeks were so amazingly generative. I feel confident, as we move into the next phase of the project, that we’re fulfilling the NEH’s mission for its summer programs by providing meaningful professional development that will extend beyond its participants in improving teaching and learning. I hope we’re doing more: providing sustenance for careers, and creating an ongoing community.
An only-on-zoom moment that made a lasting impression came on Thursday of the first week, when visiting faculty member Leila Christenbury – already out of time for her session – asked participants to share something that energized them going into the school year, and Michael responded that he was energized by “the people in this room” – and the grid view blossomed with heart reactions. And then Leah added that she was energized by thinking of her students.
For me personally, the program has given me a lot to think about and work with, for my teaching and my scholarship in the history of English education. More than anything, it’s inspired me with a sense of shared mission.