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Summer Institute Reflections by Dr. Karen Ristuccia

“Write an essay about what you did on your summer vacation” is the trite topic every fictional English teacher assigns in September. But, in this case, The Wilberforce Middle School’s composition teacher is writing about summer vacation, specifically about two “vacation weeks” the entire Wilberforce faculty shared. While you might want to hear about France, England, Alaska, or Lake George, those conversations await our school picnic. Today I will tell you about Summer Institute, ten special days (8/20-8/31) when our faculty worked, played, planned, and learned together.

The Summer Institute schedule is diverse and demanding. We began each day worshipping together, reviewing different attributes of God, singing His glories, and receiving inspiration from both one of our Wilberforce grandparents and each other. Reminded of our calling and our mission, we grasped the challenges of readying for a new school year. During the two weeks, we focused on becoming better teachers: talking about our disciplines, learning how to lead and assess our classes well, evaluating lesson plans and proposed laboratories, and discovering new, effective academic resources. We ended our two weeks with a time of praise and prayer, laughter and tears, thanking God for bringing us through the last year and preparing us for this coming one.

Great content is important, but the secret of Summer Institute’s success is our relationships. Guest speakers taught us how to coach academically (whether the “sports field” was a humane letters essay or a Socratic discussion), help grieving children, and support students with ADHD.  Each new lesson we shared became a topic for discussion, scrutiny, and debate—sometimes as we ate pizza or bagels, other times as we built desks, labeled books, and cleaned closets. We talked about health and safety, role-played classroom scenarios, and practiced using three types of epipens. We also made sure to revisit topics that surfaced during our June 2018 evaluation week—from narration to scientific modeling, from reaching “strivers” and “thrivers” to Sabbath rest. As we restocked recess boxes, moved furniture, laminated charts, conquered Google Drive and Renweb (or at least tried to), we held our own Socratic discussions, developing our ideas on journal writing, gospel living, transformational teaching, writing thesis sentences, and keeping balls out of the pond.

And we teachers and staff had fun! We experienced Charlotte Mason first hand, dancing and singing in harmony, taking a nature walk in 90-degree weather, identifying plants and studying nature journals. We ate Ms. Chong’s Black Forest cake. We updated computers. We met with mentors. All the while, we were multitasking: some of us directed essay-writing bootcamp; others of us led the student leadership retreat; a few of us began coaching sports teams, and all of us enjoyed the orientations we helped host.

So we grew together.  We connected with peers as we shared goals and planned classroom visits. “I want to incorporate commonplace books in Latin.” “I would like to teach students how to join rhetorical excellence to courtesy and respect.” “We are going to draw our own maps rather than just coloring in pre-drawn maps.” Each of us committed ourselves to reflecting together, promoting our on-going professional growth. Through these two weeks of educational partnership, we bonded as a learning community. It is into this strengthened community of learners we now invite our students.

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