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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Freshness in the Mountains

A week in the mountains of North Carolina renews and refreshes the bodies, minds, and spirits of hard-working teachers.

Mary Turner arrives early in the afternoon, excited to participate in a seminar offered by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT). From a wide group of offerings, Mary has chosen If Quilts Could Speak: Storytelling with a Needle. Although she has never quilted, she has fond childhood memories of her grandmother and other women sitting around a quilting frame. After making herself comfortable in her room, she joins other participants for a tour and an orientation.
Mary takes one of her grandmother's quilts to the first seminar session. She and the others share their quilting projects and dreams as they talk about the seminar's guiding questions: How can we read a quilt to learn about the lives of quiltmakers and their community? Why are we still making quilts?
Early the next morning, the seminar leader guides the group through the quilting basics. They look at shape, arrangement, color, and texture and begin an activity on color interaction and drawing with scissors. The teachers are introduced to Amish and Japanese quilting traditions before beginning their sampler quilts. They settle into individual workspaces and make friends with a sewing machine.
After reflecting on what they learned in the morning session, participants return to the seminar room. A presenter explains traditional piecing and appliqué techniques, and participants move to individual sewing spaces around the room. The presenters help individuals, and the participants help one another. The next morning, the group visits a nearby museum to meet a fiber artist and to see the exhibit "Mountain Women and their Traditional Coverlets." The fiber artist discusses the role of weavers in the economy of Appalachia. Mary tries her hand at carding, spinning, and weaving. She spends the afternoon working on her sampler quilt in the seminar room.
The following day, participants travel to a folk art center where they examine the evolution of the textile craft. They compare and contrast quilts with traditional patterns and contemporary designs. Mary and the others return to NCCAT and explore quilts as expressions of personal and cultural values. She sees how quilts are part of the healing process through a video on the AIDS quilt, with its hundreds of individual blocks memorializing AIDS victims.
On the final full day, Mary and the other teachers analyze a short story in which a quilt embodies personal and cultural values. The closing session, "Let the Needles Speak," features a Japanese needle ceremony, and everyone shares his or her creations.
Driving home, Mary reflects on what she learned and how her experiences apply to her classroom, particularly in the areas of mathematics, art, literature, and social studies. She realizes that throughout the week, the group talked not only about quilts and quilting, but also about schools, classrooms, and helping children and teachers realize their dreams. Mary, like many other teachers, left the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching filled with the spirit of professional and personal renewal.

The Vision

Fifteen years ago, a state commission looked for ways to strengthen education by retaining the best teachers. In a 1983 speech before the North Carolina Commission on Education for Economic Growth, Jean Powell, the 1984–1985 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, recommended that To attract and retain the best teachers, we must find a way to enhance their self-worth, pride of accomplishment, and enthusiasm. . . . We'd like to study the "real stuff.". . . If that kind of learning experience doesn't turn on teachers, I don't know what will. That excitement will be communicated to students. Furthermore, being a student will give a teacher a renewed perspective of the student's role. The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching was the result.
Begun as a unit of the University of North Carolina and situated in the mountains of western North Carolina, NCCAT is a residential facility to which career teachers come throughout the year to refresh themselves intellectually. The Center pays all expenses, including travel and the cost of hiring a substitute for the teacher's home classroom. The Center's mission is to advance teaching as an art and as a profession. Its successful professional development model renews teachers both professionally and personally. They return to their classrooms with a recommitment to teaching.
Teachers select their seminars to reawaken their own joy of learning. The Center offers a wide range of topics that are relevant to many subject areas: Appalachian Spring Wildflowers; Young, Black, and Male in America; The Holocaust; The Harlem Renaissance: Duke Ellington at 101; Baseball: The Great American Pastime; Sound Health; Island People, Island Culture; Cherokee Life and Culture; Weaving the Web; and Turners and Burners: Folk Potters of North Carolina, to name just a few.
The seminars expose teachers to new knowledge to remind them of the pleasure and the excitement of learning. As students, the teachers experience all stages of learning, from chaos to "aha!" They rekindle the flame of their own passion for learning. Because the Center gives no grades, no exams, and no credit, teachers feel free to actively question, dialogue, and debate in a safe but challenging environment.
Presenters exemplify best teaching practices and make teachers feel at ease in risking new thoughts and ideas. Teachers have time to process and reflect on the seminar topic. They return to seminar sessions refreshed and ready to grapple with more issues and ideas. They take back to their classrooms a wealth of information and new teaching methods.

The Process

The Center faculty carefully design experientially based and intellectually stimulating seminars. The faculty usually begin with a messing-about, muddling stage, as ideas for a new seminar begin to gel. Frequent interaction with colleagues and research on the proposed topic follow. To maintain their focus, the faculty create guiding questions, which they later use to direct the learning of the teachers during the seminar.
The Center's programming team previews and critiques all seminars. At least two staff members conduct each seminar: The leader designs the seminar, and the coordinator is responsible for logistics. Expert presenters from the field of study round out the faculty.
The model is residential. When people leave their environment and move away from day-to-day responsibilities, they can better focus on the content and immerse themselves in the experiences. A five- or six-day seminar allows sufficient time for participants to really process and deal with challenging materials. Over time, NCCAT has discovered that a group of 18 to 24 participants works best for learning, renewal, group discussion, and cohesiveness.
The majority of teachers do not know one another before attending a seminar. The groups comprise educators from all grades, all subject areas, and all regions of the state. Usually, they are surprised at the mix, but soon find that regardless of level, subject, or location, they face similar issues. This realization greatly promotes professional networking and reduces the feeling of isolation.
On the first day of a seminar, a group of stressed and tired strangers arrives. They are immediately put at ease, treated as the professionals they are, and engage in introductory activities that help them relax and build new friendships and trust with colleagues. They quickly realize that they share the same day-to-day struggles to educate students in today's world. This insight creates a comfort level that prepares them mentally to jump into the topic.
Staff members work to maintain group cohesiveness throughout the week. They listen to teachers and address their needs. By the end of the week, a sense of community develops. Participants come to realize that teaching is still an important and respected profession.

The Evaluation

Participants evaluate every seminar, and the evaluations are circulated among the entire program team. This process allows NCCAT to continually improve the model and the seminar content. The strength of the program comes from listening to the teachers. Seminar participants in the quilting seminar conveyed the benefits in writing. I will go back feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the complexities of life and teaching with a sense of renewal. I will remember as I teach my children each day what it is like to be a learner. I will remember that learning is a lifelong process and my children in school are just at the beginning of that process. I need to make it as exciting as possible for them and provide them a safe, nurturing, and conducive environment in which to do that learning.Even though none of us was participating in a seminar centered around teaching, we all talked teaching throughout the week. It was great to hear how my colleagues faced the challenges every day! It validated my own thoughts/feelings about teaching in so many ways. It was great to be a learner again.
Teacher participants report that the NCCAT seminar experience positively influenced their classroom practices, recharged their interest in teaching, and enhanced their personal and professional renewal (Educational Research & Development Center, 1992; NCCAT Program Evaluation & Research Committee, 1997). In 1999, the principals of teachers who had participated in seminars reported that the teachers returned with a heightened interest in teaching, creative ideas for their classrooms, and a more positive attitude toward teaching as a profession. One principal stated, The integrated approach of the seminars crosses all grade levels and disciplines and offers a positive, retreat-style experience that is intellectually centered. (NCCAT Program Evaluation & Research Committee, 1999)
The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching believes that strong professional-renewal experiences retain the best teachers in the classrooms, keep them fresh, and replenish their motivation. Scott Griffin, the 1996–1997 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and a participant in the Leadership, Creativity, and Change seminar, summed up the experience: For many teachers, this can be a life-changing experience. It will remind them that our children belong to all of us, and when we teach them, we are holding the universe in our hands.

Educational Research & Development Center, University of West Florida. (1992). An evaluation of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching: Alumni survey. Pensacola, FL: Author.

NCCAT Program Evaluation & Research Committee. (1999). Principals' and assistant principals' perspectives on the effects of the NCCAT experience on school improvement. Cullowhee, NC: Author.

NCCAT Program Evaluation & Research Committee. (1997). The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching alumni survey. Cullowhee, NC: Author.

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