5 Tips for Organizing a Summer Retreat for Learners

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summer retreat: Brilliant or Insane
WNY Young Writer’s Studio fellows on summer retreat at Beaver Hollow in Java, NY

Last year, I had the opportunity to plan a fantastic multi-day summer retreat for the middle and high school students I work with at the WNY Young Writer’s Studio. I began planning a full year in advance, and when my research turned up less information than I was hoping for, I found myself making my own plans and taking a whole lot of notes.

In the end, the best learning came from doing, and I returned home with some great perspective that I thought I would share with anyone who is planning a retreat for learners.

Five Tips for Organizing a Summer Retreat

1. Choose a venue that provides as much stimulation as it does silence. We found that a good work session was about 90 minutes in length, and it was important that long stretches of  silent work time were broken up by bits of activity and heavy doses of laughter. Initially, I hoped for a rural venue that would provide ample amounts of tranquility, and we found one in Beaver Hollow, New York which also offered much more.

Writers were able to hike, row boats across a serene lake, swim in outdoor and indoor pools, and soak in hot tubs. When the rain threatened to douse our nightly bonfire, our event planner offered the perfect selection of movies and set us up in the theater on a moment’s notice. The staff made all of our writers feel very much at home, even though they are much younger than a typical visitor to such a center might be. We were completely doted on from check-in until check-out. This was joyful learning.

If you’re unable to spoil the learners you work with in similar ways, I doubt that anyone will suffer for it, but ensuring opportunities for physical activity, game play, and socializing is important.

2. Begin with action planning. When learners arrive on retreat, they often bring a suitcase of unrealistic expectations with them. Encourage them to set manageable goals given the time available to them, remind them that learning on retreat is messy and uncertain work, and applaud their dedication to the process rather than the completion of products.

Our first activity on retreat resulted in the creation of individual action plans, and writers reflected on their progress and adjusted their expectations as the hours unfolded. I think everyone left feeling satisfied as a result.

3. Create a structured schedule. We had one, but I invited writers to abandon it if it didn’t work for them, and in the end, they didn’t like this. Writers found it hard to work if friends chose to play, and those who were playing felt guilty if others were working. It occurred to me that while adults might be able to negotiate these kinds of choices easily, the writers I took on retreat wanted tighter expectations, and they told me so when I brought them together to debrief our experience.

4. Invite company. One of the highlights of our time together was an after dinner visit from Amy Ludwig Vanderwater. She shared her notebooks, her writing process, some of her favorite catalysts for writing, and most of all, her personal experiences as a published writer. This was the perfect end to our first day on retreat and a nice alternative to the typical fireside chat.

5. Gather feedback. During our summer retreat and especially at the end, I prompted writers to give me very specific kinds of feedback on the experience, and I gathered them together to debrief everything face to face using our peer review protocol. As writers moved through rounds of warm and cool feedback, I realized that decisions I treated as afterthoughts resulted in activities that they valued most, and some of what I fretted over deeply didn’t matter to them nearly as much. I left with a list of great ideas for future retreats, including plans for optional mini-workshop sessions and an open-mic night.

Are you in the process of planning a learning retreat? I hope these ideas inspire you. More importantly, I hope you’ll return to the web to share your tips and tools and the feedback  you received at the end of the retreat as well. I had a difficult time finding resources to support my own efforts as I began planning our retreat. What would you recommend?

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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