A Day in the Life of an Institute Workshop

At any given IWT workshop at Bard you would likely find yourself in a comfortable, bright classroom in the Olin Humanities Building. You would be part of a group ten or more teachers, of all ages, sitting around a large central table, heads bent over notebooks, writing (overwhelmingly by hand, although some are experimenting with laptops). This group around a seminar-like table appears to be leader-less: It might suggest an informal writing group or even a creative writing workshop in which each participant occasionally presents his or her work for critique by group members, but the people gathered here are actually writing together, in silence (the laptops do change this dynamic, with mixed reactions from the group). This silence is occasionally interrupted by a leader (there is in fact a leader, though it’s not immediately apparent to an outside observer) who orchestrates the writing, calls time, and invites more writing via carefully worded prompts; she or he writes right alongside the group.

A Day in the Life of an Institute Workshop

quotation markTeaching teachers about writing by actually having us write is just wonderful. Writing and Thinking 5/08quotation mark

—High school English

At any given IWT workshop at Bard you would likely find yourself in a comfortable, bright classroom in the Olin Humanities Building. You would be part of a group ten or more teachers, of all ages, sitting around a large central table, heads bent over notebooks, writing (overwhelmingly by hand, although some are experimenting with laptops). This group around a seminar-like table appears to be leader-less: It might suggest an informal writing group or even a creative writing workshop in which each participant occasionally presents his or her work for critique by group members, but the people gathered here are actually writing together, in silence (the laptops do change this dynamic, with mixed reactions from the group). This silence is occasionally interrupted by a leader (there is in fact a leader, though it’s not immediately apparent to an outside observer) who orchestrates the writing, calls time, and invites more writing via carefully worded prompts; she or he writes right alongside the group.

Looking Further

Looking further, you would also see spread out near each participant, texts—poetry, essays, excerpts from longer philosophical works, maybe even scientific papers. Listening in as group members begin to speak, you would hear them taking turns reading their own writing aloud. Early in the session, the writing might be of a more personal nature—stories about childhood, or about early experiences with writing. Later in the session, be it a day-long, weekend, or weeklong workshop, the writing might become more analytical, reflecting on what the writer has noticed in a text or texts, and also more complex, as the personal and the analytical writings enter into conversation with each other. You would notice that discussion emerges after writers have read, for it is the writing itself that generates the talking, and then the discussion is folded back into further reflective writing that allows group members (again, including the leader) to notice patterns and polarities within themselves and others, and to raise questions.

These workshop participants are teachers of English, composition, history, mathematics, biology, and anthropology, and the occasional freelance writer. When IWT began offering workshops for teachers in 1982, the fact that all workshops were grounded in the teachers’ own writing was a radical departure from most professional development programs oriented to teachers. Twenty-five years later, teachers consistently say that it is this aspect of IWT workshops that remains distinctive, and that the experience of writing in an IWT workshop keeps them connected to their work and their students. In an IWT workshop, teachers learn through doing—they learn to be writers, just as they would have their students be, to write their way into understanding, and questioning, texts, ideas, themselves. Whatever their discipline, as writers in an IWT workshop teachers come to understand things about teaching and learning that, too often overworked and over tested, they may have lost sight of. They realize that in the press of daily life, they have been missing something—the company of other teachers, as intellectual companions and writers. These workshop participants leave having encountered new ways of thinking about familiar subjects through writing.