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May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Summer Sustenance

By leaving the routines of school and home behind, teachers find that a retreat is actually a wonderful way to move forward.

Chances are good that you've seen a refrigerator magnet with the slogan "The three best things about being a teacher are June, July, and August." At Mapleton Elementary School in northern Maine, where I facilitate a schoolwide teacher-research group, we agree with that statement, though perhaps not for the expected reason. Mapleton teachers certainly see summer as a time to vacation and recharge their batteries. But these teacher-researchers also know that the summer months can be a prime time for analyzing data, writing, and reflecting, particularly when they participate in—as they have for the past two summers—a weeklong retreat.
Group members see teacher research as a powerful way to spark educational change. They have been formally inquiring in their classrooms since 1996, when three teachers received a staff development grant and invited me to join them as their facilitator. As Gail Gibson, Mapleton's principal and a member of the research group, explains, this kind of inquiry is an effective change agent because teachers are examining their own classrooms and they're choosing what they're going to change. It fits the teacher's needs, unlike with traditional staff development, where everybody gets the same thing whether they need it or not.
The bulk of the group's work takes place while school is in session. During voluntary, monthly after-school meetings, members discuss professional literature, develop research plans, and share classroom data. Each year, the group selects a topic of focus, then teachers design their own questions beneath that umbrella. During an inquiry on spelling, for example, schoolwide data included parent surveys, student writing samples, and student interviews. Individual inquiry projects ranged from an exploration of kindergartners' spelling of pictured words to an investigation of 4th graders' weekly spelling workshops.
Because good teachers wonder about their classrooms and gather information about their students, conceptualizing research questions and collecting data came naturally. The other components of systematic inquiry were less easy to adopt. We realized that in-depth data analysis, reflection, and writing—the kinds of activities with the greatest potential for deep changes in practice—were harder to fit into the cracks and crevices of our already full lives. For this reason, we decided to experiment with a summer retreat. We felt sure that four or five days of uninterrupted time would sharpen our analytical skills and increase our commitment to teacher research.

Key Features

After obtaining grant support, we booked space for 11 group members at a wilderness lodge about 50 miles from Mapleton. All but two of the school's full-time teachers attended. Because that first retreat was such a success, we returned to the same site last year.
Although the areas of focus differed—spelling in 1998 and Maine's learning standards last year—both retreats had the same flexible schedule. The heart of the retreats was the whole-group morning session, which began with an opening read-aloud and a directed free-write, often around an open-ended question, such as "What did you learn from analyzing data from the parent surveys?" or "What has been the most significant challenge of implementing the Maine learning results for you?" The group devoted the rest of the morning to analyzing data, discussing an article, or responding to drafts shared by individual members.
In addition to professional activities, we built in time for recreation: swimming, kayaking, and napping. Often, however, the professional and the personal melded, as a discussion begun during a work session spilled over into dinner or an evening walk. This balance between work and play helped us remain focused, rested, and positive; it also kept group members coming back for the second year.
According to participants, certain elements were crucial to the success of the retreats.
The chance to pursue professional activities of their own choice. Although we devoted half of each day to whole-group data analysis and discussion, individual members set their own afternoon agenda. Some read professional material; others wrote. Some made appointments with other teachers to read through and analyze student work samples; others met with grade-level partners to develop plans for the following year. I conducted research and writing conferences with individual members who requested them. Members remarked that they worked harder during these self-directed sessions than during one-size-fits-all workshops.
Data-driven conversations. Members brought a wide variety of data—ranging from student-completed surveys and response logs to teacher-generated charts and field notes. Grounding our work in student samples or observations helped us maintain a positive attitude and focus on long-term goals.
Sustained time together with no competing concerns. Judy Kenney spoke for other members when she called the retreats "a way to separate ourselves from the outside world." This temporary separation is especially important for women who teach in isolated and rural regions such as northern Maine, where the pull of the past is strong and conceptions about women's roles tend to be traditional. Judy wrote, We could have gotten together on a Saturday at someone's house and tried to sift through a year's worth (a career's worth) of data and come away with something. But having the opportunity to have an extended period of time in an idyllic setting with no worry or thought to making meals, cleaning up, doing dishes, and washing clothes allowed us to focus on our research and quest.

Benefits of Retreat Participation

These weeks of summer focus have made an enormous difference in our professional development. The retreats foster the kind of cross-grade collaboration that different lunch schedules and grade-level district workshops interfere with during the school year. For example, when we focused on spelling, members worked with a cross-grade partner to analyze the spelling in essays written to a common prompt by our 1st through 5th graders. As we identified strengths and weaknesses, we listed spelling conventions that seemed developmentally appropriate for each grade level. We then constructed a schoolwide spelling rubric to supplement the district report card. Without cross-grade conversations, we could not have reached consensus about the indicators for such an evaluation tool.
Another benefit of the retreats was, in Martha LaPointe's words, the way they functioned as "a very good team-building experience." According to Martha, the retreats put everyone on a level playing ground for participation, even those teachers whose heavy family responsibilities made commitment to research more difficult during the school year. This sentiment was echoed by Lois Pangburn, who saw patterns of leadership shift within the group during the retreat. She was pleased to see some members who had been reticent during meetings at school blossom as writers and researchers.
Finally, the retreats allowed teachers to reflect on their past practices and then to use those insights to plan better instruction. In the summer, teachers stand on the bridge between what did happen in their classrooms and what might happen in the next year. To capitalize on this vantage point, each member drafted a written plan for inquiry that she hoped to carry out in the upcoming school year. Having the luxury of four or five consecutive work days meant that plans were more sophisticated and thoughtful.
Group members translated the time to talk and reflect into a variety of changes. Some were schoolwide. For example, by analyzing data from a parent survey about spelling, teachers realized that they needed to be more explicit with community members about how they taught spelling in context; in their weekly newsletters that fall, they paid attention to this issue. Individual teachers also made changes. Lyn Edgecomb used time during a retreat to plan an in-depth study of nonfiction literature, which she initiated with her 5th graders when she returned to school. Other teachers decided on new assessments, rewrote assignment expectations, and developed essential questions for units.

Retreats in Other Contexts

We realize that a summer retreat represents a significant commitment of time, energy, and funds. Despite our positive experiences, we are not recommending that retreats become part of every district's school-change plan. A retreat's appropriateness depends on the staff development that is available in a school and on the needs and interests of the staff.
Regardless of the adjustments they make to fit specific contexts, retreat participants will discover the same benefit that Mapleton group member Lyn Edgecomb discussed on the last day of our 1999 gathering: I have been able to think in a way I doubt I could sitting around in the teachers' room. Looking at the expenditure of funds for product, I can think of no better way to get the most bang for the buck. As Mapleton group members see it, intellectual sustenance for school change seems eminently worth the loss of a few days of leisure in June, July, or August.

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