The impact of the summer institute experience on me cannot be overestimated. Amongst all the professional learning experiences I’ve had over my brief career as a teacher, the Philadelphia Writing Project Summer Institute had the biggest impact on me.

At that time, I was working in a school (not my current school) where I did not feel like my growth as a young teacher was a huge priority for my administration. I did not have a mentor and I felt alone as I grappled with the difficulties I was facing in my practice. I was craving a connection to a community where there might be a safe space to explore my questions. I was very much in need of conversations that would foster inquiry, reflection, and ultimately change my classroom practice.

The memories I have from the days I spent during the summer institute are so vivid that I can still recall some of the sensory experiences.

As I walked through the door of the Philadelphia Writing Project site, the smell of freshly prepared eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes further intensified my morning hunger. A station for coffee and cartons of juice is set up already. My colleagues are milling about the table. Some have already started writing in their morning journals in the conference room.

My experience as a writer and teacher of writing was honored in a professional setting.

What followed each morning varied from day to day during the summer institute, but each day helped me to gain a better understanding of the experience of my students when I asked them to write in my classes. During the summer institute, we as the participants, read mentor texts, we wrote frequently, and shared our writing in small and whole group settings. While this was a frightening experience for me, it was the first time, my experience as a writer and teacher of writing was honored in a professional setting. I learned about giving feedback without being judgmental, I learned that as writers, all of us need space and encouragement. Writing every day with my colleagues transformed my practice as a teacher of high school students. In my classroom, I intentionally start each day with writing and I often write in front of my students in a blank google doc projected for the whole class to see. Again, these experiences bring out my writing insecurities, but I think it is important for my students to see me grapple with decisions that a writer must make to improve her craft.

The institute challenged me to do many of the things we ask our students to do. It helped me to understand the sense of risk and fear that may accompany these activities. I was able to experience what it would feel like to be a student in my own classroom. It was a humbling experience, but it also gave me a lot of ideas for reaching students in my classroom, and raised some important questions: How do we use writing to build classroom communities? How do we form an inquiry community? How do we honor home literacies in a school setting?

I am not alone in my deep reverence and gratitude for the homecoming NWP summer institutes offer teachers. I asked teachers in the Philadelphia Writing Project network to share how the summer institute shaped their teaching lives and below are a few of the responses I received:

I am one of the charter members of PHilWP. I taught for 22 years at a middle/high school (now closed) where the opportunities for outstanding teaching existed but were almost completely ignored by the staff. I longed for colleagues who cared, and I finally found them that first summer at Penn. I subsequently attended two more institutes and did a lot of work as a TC. Essentially, PhilWP rescued me from a dull and dampened career. The kids were always marvelous, but I really needed my writing project buddies to be a happy teacher.

— Mary Silverstein

I attended my first summer institute in August, 1987, at a time when I was losing my sense of commitment and efficacy as a teacher. The summer institute propelled a career that has included supporting many other teachers as they designed “schools within schools” in large high schools, completing a doctorate, and directing a University teacher education program. But most importantly, that summer institute transformed my teaching in the classroom, my relationships with students, and my professional collegial connections. I returned to the classroom after that first year and transformed my classroom practices, and continued to do that every year thereafter.

— Dina Portnoy

My first summer at the Philadelphia Writing Project was like Summer Camp for my soul and mind. I was two years into my teaching career in inner-city Philly and in dire need of support and understanding from folks who really ‘got it.’ That experience of infused reflection, reading, writing, and dialogue shaped who I am as an educator from that summer on into nearly two decades later. It has guided my professional life in that I am secure in the knowledge that there is a broad base of like-minded teachers who are there not only as ‘consultants,’ but as fellow travelers on this journey of enlightenment and as nurturing cheerleaders who will lend a hand, a heart, or a listening ear whenever asked. PhilWP is a priceless entity in my teaching life and I feel blessed to be part of it.

— Angelique Darcy-McGuire

Through my work with the national writing project I have become a more reflective, sensitive thinker. The Philadelphia Writing Project has opened my eyes to the true beauty of all cultures. As an ESOL teacher I now see my role as that of a mirror, where colleagues can share all professional concerns and have their voices honored in a safe and nurturing environment. As professionals who want to make changes in the world, we need to find these rare spaces where our writing can take our work to levels never before imagined.

— Leslie Kirshner-Morris

My deepest thanks to the organizers of this celebration for inviting me to share my thoughts and to the entire NWP community for letting me learn from you and with you.

Meenoo Rami NWPMeenoo Rami (@meenoorami; teaches her students English at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. She is the author of Thrive: 5 ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching from Heinemann. The founder of #engchat, Meenoo has become a mentor to teachers across the country and a sought-after speaker.