Our site has been at UConn a long time—since 1982. As an undergraduate, I was a student of then-director Mary Mackley’s during the 1991-92 academic year, while I was attending the Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates. Later, still early in my teaching career, I attended the summer institute (SI) at UConn in 1999. Mary retired just five years after that.

How I came to be director is unusual in its own right. I completed my PhD at UConn in December 2006, but since I was still teaching high school, as was my wife, we had no intention of leaving the area. But that winter the position of Writing Project Director opened up. During my April break, my colleague Kelly Andrews-Babcock and I were conducting interviews of teachers for the SI when I had to excuse myself to attend my own interview for the director’s position. I was hired in May. The high school year ended in June and then the SI began. By August 1, I was officially the Director.

That first summer, 2007, we were still giving all the teachers a three-inch blue binder of photocopied readings that everyone came to call the “Blue Whale.” It was legendary, perhaps notorious. I followed that custom in 2007, but the following year Kelly and I replaced the Blue Whales with flash drives full of PDFs of articles, with the university and CWP logos on respective sides. Teachers dubbed those flash drives the “Blue Minnow.” We still give out flash drives with logos, but for the most part, we have made the whole operation digital, using a wiki space for each SI cohort, where each teacher maintains his or her own e-portfolio.

We also moved away from assigning copious amounts of common readings and have replaced that part of the SI with an inquiry-based model in which teachers work in groups, not unlike writing response groups, where they share their self-directed research. We now only read a handful of texts and articles in common.

With the use of Teacher Leadership grant funds, we have even been able to award mini-grants to teachers so they can continue their research throughout the following year. We publish brief reports of their research in a journal, and we also require the teachers to submit proposals based on their research to professional conferences and journals (like those of NCTE). We’ve had some nice success getting teachers’ work accepted for presentation.

Another aspect of the summer that has evolved since 1982 is the publication of writing by teachers. From 1982 till 2007, our site published a small chapbook of self-selected writings by teachers and did a small printing run for distribution just among those teachers. In 2008, we began holding a fall writing contest for our teacher-consultants (TCs) and producing a full scale literary journal. We still have a section for self-selected pieces from that summer’s teachers, but then we have a section for teachers whose work has been chosen for publication from the contest. We get anywhere from 50 to 90 submissions, all from TCs, and publish about six to nine pieces in poetry, prose fiction, and prose nonfiction. We also include self-selected pieces from writing retreats we run. That makes for a much more substantive journal. We print and distribute more of these, hold an annual award ceremony, and post the PDFs on our website.

I also recall that back in the day we met in an old building that lacked air conditioning or technology. We were pretty sweaty all the time, and very hands-on with our activities. For instance, we videotaped the teachers’ demonstration workshops and then gave them the VCR tapes to review afterwards. Today, we are in a climate controlled building with all high-tech classrooms. We have smartboards, computers, projectors, and wifi. Video podcasts of demonstration workshops now go up on our website. And we get so cold sitting around in the air conditioning that many of the participants end up wearing sweaters, and sometimes we even open the windows to let some warm air in.

Two things that haven’t changed much are food and Friday read-arounds. Each teacher and facilitator takes a turn making breakfast for everyone one day, and often the teachers try hard to outdo one another, so we eat well. Lunch has its traditions, too. A local caterer named Lizzie Searing has run a food truck on campus for years. Her fare is terrific, not the typical lunch truck food you’d expect, and the teachers all sit together on benches or stone walls under an old oak near Lizzie’s truck. (The benches are new, too. She used to have just one old picnic table, but over time the university accommodated her popularity by putting several tables beneath the oak she parks near).

Fridays we have a celebratory read-around of our current drafts of our writing. We use a nice lounge with cushy chairs that’s on the second floor of our building. We drink a little wine and write kind feedback on post-it notes to one another. There’s always a lot of laughter and a fair share of tears. Kelly always remembers to stock tissues with the post-its and the wine opener.

So as the NWP enters its fifth decade and we approach our 35th anniversary in Storrs, it’s nice to note the changes as well as the enduring traditions in the summer institute.

CourtmancheJason Courtmanche is the Director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Storrs and Lecturer in English at the University of Connecticut-Storrs. For twelve years he was an English teacher at RHAM High School in Hebron, Connecticut. He has received a Fellowship from Teachers for a New Era, a literacy award from the New England Reading Association, certification as a teacher education program evaluator for the National Council of Teachers of English, and a Teaching Scholar award from UConn’s Institute for Teaching and Learning.