Summer Camp’ for Teachers

By S. J. Childs

An innovative professional professional development project expands the literature canon and creates multicultural curriculum in Portland, Oregon.

The voices coming from the Madison High School cafeteria are loud and excited. It is the end of June, but these voices aren’t students talking about vacation. They belong to 50 high school teachers from Portland Public Schools who gave up some of their break to attend the Summer Literacy Institute, known unofficially as “Summer Camp.”

The Institute is one week of intensive collaboration among teachers to develop curriculum units and workshops around multicultural texts. The summer of 2001 was the Institute’s third year.

Why would teachers give up their first week of vacation to start working all over again? As one teacher put it, “The end of the school year can be depressing. After this week, that depression is gone. I have great books and great lessons I can take into next year.”

The Summer Literacy Institute differs sharply from many staff development models, which take a top-down approach and rely on non-district “experts.” Instead, the Institute is led by Portland teachers, with the goal of developing a collaborative, ongoing staff development process that relies on local teacher-experts to lead future workshops and in-services. Over 75 teachers — more than half of all Portland Public Schools’ high school language arts teachers — have gone through the Summer Literacy Institute or have led workshops during the year.


The Institute’s ultimate curriculum goal is to expand the language arts “canon” to include more culturally diverse readings that raise social justice issues, and to create curriculum that engages students in linking the literature to their lives and the broader society.

Such a specific and directed reform isn’t successful if it is happening in only a few classrooms or in a couple of buildings. While in many areas of education decentralization and site control are positive changes, in the context of curriculum development and teacher education, a central vision and a district wide reform effort can have several advantages. Portland is a good example.

Linda Christensen — Portland Public Schools Language Arts Curriculum Specialist and Rethinking Schools editor — designed the Institute as an alternative model for teacher education. Christensen assembled a team of teacher advisors (one from every high school) who met monthly to assist in the development, planning, and revision of the Summer Literacy Institute and the other staff development workshops that take place throughout the year.
Too often, teachers are subjected to staff development that relies on outside experts lecturing at us from a distance, ignoring our own expertise and professional knowledge. Stuck in rows of chairs, we passively listen while highly paid outsiders impose their “wisdom” and authority. In the Institute, classroom teachers are the experts. The Institute promotes collaboration and fosters a sense of community; it is also a model for new-teacher training, pairing new teachers with veterans to help guide them in developing curriculum.

During this Institute, teachers engage in three main activities. First, they read research articles on literacy, language, and achievement.

Second, mornings are devoted to teachers sharing lessons — perhaps on using watercolor painting to access a novel’s meaning, or improvisation to understand a character’s motives and actions. In an effort to move toward reflection and critical analysis, we also devote morning time to issues such as creating independent reading opportunities, integrating English language learners into the classroom, and bridging the achievement gap. (This format was modified slightly after the first two years.)

Third, in the afternoon, teams of teachers meet together to develop lessons and strategies around a book or theme that are available for other teachers to use throughout the year. These lessons and strategies have become the basis for later staff development workshops.


The goal is to infuse district classrooms with books and lessons that address issues of race, culture, class, and gender. In various forums throughout the school year, Christensen invites teachers to lead workshops on strategies to improve reading and writing, but she makes special effort to seek out teachers who will offer workshops that raise questions about social justice and that focus on multicultural literature.

Of course, even the best workshops don’t necessarily transform classroom practice. Not all teachers are willing to open their locked boxes of canonical curriculum to admit a few titles not on the dead-white-men list. But every year, more of those teachers retire or leave; and every year new teachers enter the district and try to figure out what they are “supposed” to teach.

The Summer Literacy Institute pairs these new teachers with master teachers. And the Institute introduces more titles that deal with issues of social justice and that speak more directly to our students’ lives. Because of the Institute, diverse titles are being bought and getting used. Just glancing at the list of some of the recently purchased books by the school district as a result of the Summer Literacy Institute (see page 5) shows us something has changed.

During the first year of the Literacy Institute, the teacher-advisors set guidelines for the literature we would write curriculum around. We wanted to introduce literature that puts traditionally marginalized groups at the center. We adapted guidelines from the San Francisco Unified School District and “Teachers’ Choice for 1996: A Project of the International Reading Association.” We sought to select titles that: 1) reflect high literary quality; 2) have cross-cultural themes; 3) actively challenge stereotypes; 4) raise issues of class, race, gender, and justice; 5) move beyond victimization and show resistance and empowerment; 6) provide historical context and deepen cultural knowledge; and 7) have the potential for use across the curriculum.

Teachers have developed units around works such as Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya; Slam by Walter Dean Myers; and Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. Over 30 curriculum guides have been developed over the last three years. (See box for a sampling of these.)

For Thousand Pieces of Gold social studies and language arts teachers integrated the study of the novel with its historical, political, and social contexts. The curriculum includes a lesson on Confucian philosophy and invites students to look at their own family structures for similarities. Another lesson asks students to examine the social construction of beauty and how it oppresses women. Using the foot-binding in the story as a jumping off place, students brainstorm ways our society today compels people to alter their bodies to fit in, and then write personal narratives on the subject. Another lesson requires students to read newspaper articles on current immigration situations and draft fictional pieces about the subjects of the articles, allowing them to link immigration issues of the past with those of today.

Some of us created units to reintroduce African-American classics such as Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston or The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Lessons for Their Eyes Were Watching God focus on the politics of language; examine the relationship between art and justice; use the lenses of race, class, and gender to analyze scenes from the novel; and help students write their own “love” stories.

Some teachers in the Institute pair the “classics” with modern pieces to open new doors into the issues. For instance, during the 2000 Literacy Project, language arts and social studies teachers used Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in a unit on colonialism that includes simulations, role plays, poetry writing, character logs, and more.

Others have chosen new pieces of literature that give voice to those not often featured in the language arts curriculum — for example, prisoners, Native Americans, Latinos, poor people — with books like The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake; When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago; and Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. All three of these units invite students to make connections between their own lives and the main characters. (Admittedly, while Where the Heart Is focuses on a poor teen mom and strikes a chord with many of our students, it is hardly a “social justice” novel. Characters do not engage in acts of resistance to effect greater equality and the narrative never questions the legitimacy of a society where the Wal-Mart CEO, one of the richest men in the world, looks generous by giving the main character a few hundred dollars and a job. However, the curriculum developed during the Institute explores essential issues only hinted at by the book — inviting students to participate in a class analysis of work and to study Wal-Mart’s dependence on sweatshop labor and the displacement of local businesses through its marketplace bullying.)

A few groups organized their units around a theme. For example, Language, Manipulation and Globalization is a multidisciplinary unit using film, fiction, and nonfiction to analyze the role of the media and consumerism on cultures and the environment. Texts include Savages by Joe Kane; My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki; Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen; and The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill, as well as films like Killing Us Softly and Wag the Dog.

A team of teachers I worked with created a Women’s Literature Unit, subtitled Women and Resistance, focusing on the power and resistance of women in society and not on their victimization. We use early classic authors like Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but also explore newer works like Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of the Butterflies and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. In a series of lessons, students examine the use of silence as a tool of oppression and the power of silence as a form of resistance. From this they write their own narratives about times they were silenced or used silence as a source of power.

Christensen, the Institute organizer, secured foundation grants so that the district could purchase class sets of books featured in curriculum units. Many schools, including my own, matched these purchases by buying additional class sets of curriculum-featured books. We have also developed a “centralized” collection at the District library and have begun a new era of sharing collections among schools.

But putting books into bookrooms is not enough. Without the curriculum guides developed by the Institute participants, many of the new titles and a lot of the old ones would be used by only a couple of teachers and would gather dust the rest of the year. When the structure of school life keeps us isolated during most of the year it is difficult to borrow, steal, and share; but these guides encourage that kind of sharing and make it easier for teachers — novice and veteran — to try new things and to move beyond the comfortable.


To be sure, there are still plenty of teachers ignoring these more multicultural titles, still giving fact-chasing multiple choice tests, never offering students a chance to hear and speak in their own voices, nor inviting them to critique the world around them. But more and more they find themselves at the margins.

In addition to being ignored by some teachers, this teachers-teaching-teachers model of curriculum development has other weaknesses. For example, new teachers may have great ideas, but they often lack the critical awareness that comes with years of reflective teaching. The curriculum guides make it less scary to try new titles, but many also reflect the short timetable, limited knowledge base, and uneven teaching skills of some participants.

Teachers are exposed to new literature through the curriculum guides; but unfortunately, they are exposed to some poorly designed lessons as well. In the Institute’s first two years, we had clear standards for the texts we chose, but neglected to impose standards on the lessons we included. In order not to destroy the spirit of collaboration and good will, many teacher-teams avoided the harder questions about each other’s lessons and strategies. Some units became dumping grounds, where any remotely connected lesson was included: not examined, not tried out, not revised. Some lessons were fun and engaging, but didn’t delve into the texts’ historical or political realities.

Just as our own teaching evolves with time and critical reflection, so too the Summer Literacy Institute has evolved. Any district hoping to adapt this model must see it as a continual work in progress.

Recognizing these weaknesses, this year, Christensen and her teacher advisors redesigned the Institute to create an atmosphere of critique and revision. Wanting participants to use their time more reflectively, organizers developed a new format, switching from morning show-and-tell workshops to morning discussions. In heterogeneous discussion groups, teachers — from different curriculum teams, from different schools, with different years of experience — confronted a series of vexing issues.

For example, we talked about the question of home language in the classroom: When should teachers demand that students use Standard English and when is home language acceptable, or even encouraged? What are ways to “correct” that respect students’ cultures? Alternatively, how do teachers often correct in disrespectful ways? What do we need to know about the relationship between culture and language to answer these questions? Discussions of these and other issues helped push teachers to consider what for many were topics they had not thought deeply about. The curriculum guides were likely better because of this effort.

In addition to morning conversations, teams were encouraged to reflect before developing lessons, and to critique after writing lessons. Groups used critical questions, developed previously by participants, to guide the early discussions. They examined whether the lessons addressed the different needs and abilities of the students. They identified how the lessons developed reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills. They asked how the lessons connected the material to the students’ lives, how they connected the unit to society, and how they addressed race, gender, and class issues. Repeatedly, Christensen encouraged us to clarify our goals, revisit old lessons, critique each other’s work, and eliminate the weak stuff.


One important feature of the Summer Literacy Institute is the cross training that develops within and after the summer. Now, during the school district in-service days, a cadre of teachers from within the district is available to lead workshops. Because classroom teachers lead these workshops, they speak more directly to teachers’ needs. Those attending are less resentful, as teachers can be when a non-teaching or university-based “expert” is brought in to tell them how to teach.

While those teaching the workshops get paid their hourly rate, the expense is far less than flying in experts, and the money saved can be used to do more teacher education, buy more books, and create more curriculum. It also gives teachers a chance to peek into each other’s classrooms without having to leave their own, and has developed a certain pride throughout the District.

The ethic of collaboration that has emerged from the Institute and the workshops has been remarkable. Indeed, when reading Institute evaluations and talking with participants, it is hard to extract a comment that is not filled with giddy enthusiasm. One teacher noted: “I had the chance to collaborate with a most gifted instructor to develop a unit I can’t wait to teach. What the Literacy Institute makes evident is that working teachers, sharing their best practices provide the best forum for developing new curriculum. After a long hard year, meeting with my fellow language arts instructors from across the district re-energized me.”

In my 11th year as a Portland teacher, I have noticed that the community of language arts teachers has grown beyond “that nice teacher down the hall who lent me a lesson.” It is now a district wide community.

When I first started teaching, I often felt like I was all on my own. It took long hours into the night for the first few years to gather all my tricks together. Even with the Portland Writing Project under my belt, I needed more to grow. I needed to work with others on a continual basis — to revisit my practice and revise my lessons.

The Summer Literacy Institute and the Workshop days throughout the year give me that chance.

S. J. Childs ( teaches at Franklin High School in Portland, OR.