Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Renewal 2013: Going Back to the Start

Fueled by our #clmooc and Connected Educator-inspired Summer Institute, and spurred on by the engagement our TCs have shown in shifting our site from a paper-based place to a digital place, we decided that this would be the perfect year to hack the Renewal Meeting, a tradition of continuity at our site for the past 25 years.

The Renewal Meeting is a reconvening of the Summer Institute on Teaching Writing, a Friday in early November for the TCs and co-facilitators to come together on campus to reflect on their summer work and to discuss applications (and implications) of that work in the current school year.

At the RIWP these days, we have granted ourselves permission to hack and repurpose systems that no longer work for us, a privilege that many of us are not afforded in our schools or classrooms.

And, here are the facts: We love the home of the RIWP, Alumni House, an old farmhouse that was on the campus long before Rhode Island College moved there from its former downtown Providence location. Our house has eight nonworking fireplaces, a kitchen, and two sometimes working bathrooms. It possesses a funky mildew smell, like a Cape Cod cottage with damp sea air permanently sealed in the walls, and contains outdated computers and a now-defunct copy machine. But, as our federal funding for the RIWP has shrunk down to nothing, our offices are becoming less and less attractive places to write and create and meet. And, having sat around the conference table in Alumni House, in front of a blasting air conditioner, circa 1978, all summer, we were eager to bust out of our routine for the Renewal.

So, I went ahead and planned a fully hacked day of learning events in our local Providence, RI community. It seems that serendipity was smiling on me because when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design's website to investigate what sort of exhibit they were hosting (maybe something relevant to our SI themes of "making and hacking"), I discovered that the RISD Museum was in its final week of an exhibit called "Locally Made." Amazing synchronicity!

When I investigated the schedule of events for the exhibit, I saw that on Friday, November 1, the day of our Renewal Meeting, the museum was hosting a local fiber artist, who'd be displaying her work and talking to visitors about it from 10-12, and then a queer performance artist was moving into the same space to stage her just-written performance piece about a break-up. Two local artists sharing their work and talking about process! Plus, an entire gallery of locally made art. Plus, an entire museum of amazing pieces and installations.

So, I planned the day (a director's task): We would meet at Cafe Choklad in downtown Providence at 8:30. At 10:00, we'd head over to the RISD Museum (where we all got in for free because we are teachers!). At 1:30, we'd leave the Museum and head across the street to grab lunch together and to reflect on the day's "takeaways."

I felt good about the plan, and after I emailed it to the group, I suddenly felt self-concious about my assumption that this group of TCs would want to "be bothered" with all of this: parking in downtown Providence, spending money out of pocket, having a loose plan for the day, not knowing what would happen at the gallery, seeing a queer performance artist (what's that?!), etc. But, I was wrong. The teachers immediately responded with emails like "YAY! I am in!" and "Count me in!" and "Yes! A fieldtrip!" It was clear to me, in about five minutes after sending out this email, that folks needed a change of pace, and that this repurposing of the renewal meeting was just what the doctor (Cook) ordered.

It was a great day. We laughed and smiled and learned and got ideas for teaching and making and writing with our students. We learned a little more about one another, and we got to process the school year so far. We stood and stared at art. We heard working artists talking about their process and their revisions and their failures. We saw a powerful performance piece that brought tears to some of our eyes. We met new friends at our local art museum and formed a relationship with a local artist, Ruth, who invited us all to her studio on the East Side to watch her work. We were living the life of connected educators that day, and it felt so good...a true renewal, and a demonstration of some of the ideas we want to carry forward through our entire year of work at the RIWP.

Hack what doesn't work anymore.
Repurpose old ideas to fit new aspirations and dreams.
Do not hang on to methods and systems that drain us.
Connect to our local community in both obvious and surprising ways.
Honor the capacity in teachers to take risks, to go on adventures, to bust out of our comfort zone.