Thursday, July 7, 2011

Denver Writing Project - Piece #3

Tomorrow, the 2011 Denver Writing Project Summer Institute comes to an end.  It has been a great journey and a professional development experience that changed me as a writer and as a teacher of writing.  Below is my third piece for the project.  We were charged with writing a total of three pieces (two "creative" and one "professional" piece).  One of my long-term goals is to write a research-based article for submission to an education journal on a literacy related topic.  But time constraints being what they were (and this being summer vacation after all) I couldn't muster the energy at night to do the research that it would take to draft a "professional" journal article by the end of the project.  So instead, I chose to write a (creative) reflection (yes, I'm breaking the rules!) of my experience in the project.  One of the many things we discussed in this project is the power of writing across content areas, and we were challenged to think about and play with writing the way that mathematicians, scientists, artists, historians, etc. might think about "texts" and "writing."  So, in that vein I attempted to "quantify" or write a reflection that is also a "mathematical calculation" of my DWP Summer Institute Experience.

Author's note: All numbers are rough estimates and any errors in calculation are the result of overzealous creativity and wordplay....please don't count this against me!  Also, any confusing figures might be inside references that only this summer's DWP participants will fully understand (for example: our T-shirt tagline slogan for this year is "write more.")  So, without further apologies or additional comments, here's piece #3:

How Do You Measure A Writing Teacher?
Calculations & Reflections of the DWP Summer Institute Experience
By: Jessica Cuthbertson
Jonathan Larson, writer and composer of the pivotal 1996 musical, Rent, asks how we measure a year in the memorable song “Seasons of Love.”  Is it in daylight, inches, miles, cups of coffee?  Or, as the catchy chorus suggests, is it in the calculation of 525,600 minutes?  After 19 days, approximately 114 hours (or 410,400 seconds) of learning in the Plaza and North Classroom buildings, 19 hours in lunch breaks, and 760 miles commuting to and from the 2011 Denver Writing Project’s Summer Institute, I’m wondering how to measure what I learned about teaching and writing.  How do I quantify a professional development experience that exceeded both my mathematical capabilities and my greatest expectations? 
The Human Equation
Perhaps it is the people that count above all other factors in the Denver Writing Project.  In fact, without the human variables there would be nothing to plug into the DWP equation.  This summer, 16 teachers that spanned grades K-college counted as participants.  An additional 4 teachers counted as facilitators, mentors and coaches, and 4 guest presenters humbled us and helped us become better writers; 1 of these guest presenters performed 3 slam poems that moved 80% of the audience to tears at a rate of 2 to 10 teardrops per participant.  Another guest presenter facilitated 4 intense quick-write exercises that explored hermit crab forms – and generated an average of 500 words per exercise.  An additional 3 content area specialists expanded our vision of texts by walking at least 4 tenths of a mile to support us in noticing the world around us.  10 techies collaborated with us on at least ½ dozen digital tools in a computer lab that was a comfortable 75 degrees, the warmest indoor environment on campus.  Over the course of 4 weeks, 16 teachers shivered through 16 captivating demonstrations, at a rate of 1 per day, with the exception of July 5th which squeezed in 2 sub-zero demos before lunch.  The demonstrations, while all unique (think prime numbers) shared the following patterns: engagement, audience involvement, research and thought provoking instructional implications for a range of learners and grade levels.  Indeed, in a myriad of ways, the people do make a difference and are the sum and heart of the DWP. 
The Fun Factor
Despite their importance, human variables gathered together cannot stand alone.  The fun factor was a key element in sustaining the 16 teachers over the course of 19 days.  Fun was measured in laughter, at a rate of at least 1 to 3 outbursts per day, with outbursts increasing in frequency as the project progressed.  Fun was measured in food: 4 distinctly themed potlucks and 18 mornings of snacks and caffeine sustained writers who generated at least 3 polished pieces each (48 total, 32 “creative,” and 16 “professional”).  In most cases, the daily word count exceeded the daily calorie count per participant, except for on Fridays when the ratio of calories to words was likely quadrupled due to the constant temptation of a 3 x 8 foot table sprinkled with nearly 20 delectable dishes.  On these days, words were read aloud by various writers at a value that far exceeded the excess calories consumed.
The Infinite Remainders
And so we are left with infinite remainders…countless things that don’t fall neatly in the human or fun factor equations described above, but instead are additional rational numbers that exist beyond the DWP Summer Institute experience.  Remainders like the online network that will extend far beyond the 19 days of the writing project, but that requires a minimum of 1-2 weekly postings to exponentially increase the activity and comments necessary to keep the online community alive.  Remainders like the ongoing writing groups that will continue to meet at a regular, equitable rate after July 8th.  Remainders like the lists of books, ideas, genres, exercises, professional tools, and contacts that will spill into classrooms this fall.Remainders like the pages of notes (electronic or hard copy) kept by each participant that will live as a permanent point of reference for the learning, and a reminder of all of the solved problems and puzzling questions that remain.  Remainders like the two books studied in reading groups and the discussions they generated.  Remainders like the $700 stipend per participant that may already, in fact, be a negative number in many participants’ checkbooks – subtracted in the form of parking fees, fuel, groceries, professional resources and classroom library books purchased from the list of titles scribbled in the margins of notebooks.  Remainders, like the last deviled egg at the third celebratory potluck meal that secretly all 20 participants wanted to reach for, but that no one participant felt comfortable taking away from the greater whole, leaving the plate a big, empty zero smudged with homemade mayo.   Remainders, like the anthology that calculated a series of words from each of the 16 participants, and that will live, loved and worn, on cluttered bookshelves in each participant’s home or classroom. 
So, how do I measure the DWP experience?  In friendship, food and fun.  In words, written, re-written, revised and re-read.  In 19 summer days on campus and 19 evenings at home spent writing, learning, thinking and being.  And of course, like all compulsive counters – whether mathematicians or wordsmiths, I measure this experience in the above 1000 word, 5 paragraph essay, but allow my 19 new friends the freedom to measure your learning in the number of words, paragraphs and punctuation marks you need, on whatever paper matches your intended purpose and audience, and in whatever genre (or genres) you choose. 
At the end of the 19 day journey, it's simple addition…write more.  

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