Veteran English teacher Sandra Stiles has spent many summer days buried in curriculum, prepping for the upcoming school year.
“I used to spend all summer getting lesson plans ready,” Stiles said. “And then I was burnt out by the time school started.”
Not this year.
Stiles, an English teacher at Johnson Middle School in Manatee County, has not touched her curriculum this summer.
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Instead, she has been living the life of a novelist — writing 10 hours a day while holed up in a historic retreat on the Gulf of Mexico.
As one of five teachers in Florida selected for the State Teachers Artist Residencies (STARs) program held annually at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood, she has been given the time and space to pursue her craft.
“It’s three weeks of uninterrupted time just doing what I want to do, which is write or research,” she said. “They provide us with a place to stay and one meal a week, and the rest of the time is ours to use as we want.”
Four other teachers – from Osceola, Seminole, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties – are attending Hermitage’s retreat this summer along with Stiles. The program is run through a partnership between the Hermitage and the Florida Alliance for Arts Education.
Hermitage’s beachfront campus is typically populated with painters, sculptors, writers, playwrights, poets and composers. But the summer offered the retreat center the perfect time to bring in teachers, and Hermitage began welcoming a handful of art, music or creative writing teachers in 2011.
No papers to grade, no curriculum to plan or implement. They leave our environment feeling appreciated and energized and these benefits go back with them into their classrooms.
Hermitage executive director Bruce E. Rodgers
“Our STAR program gives them the rare opportunity to live among artists as artists themselves and work on their art,” Hermitage executive director Bruce E. Rodgers said. “No papers to grade, no curriculum to plan or implement.”
Rodgers said the program pays off in the classroom when teachers return.
“That renewal and sense of confidence in themselves as an artist then gets transferred out to the students,” Rodgers said. “The students see them in a different light than just their teacher.”
Stiles said she is working on several writing projects, including a young adult novel that tells the story of a young girl transported back in time to the east side of the Berlin Wall. She said she wants to use the story to help students understand a portion of history that does not get much attention in school and explore the idea of what sort of walls people put up in relationships.
Though she is enjoying her break from middle school students, that does not mean she isn’t thinking about them.
“I keep journals at school and at home, and if something quirky happens, or if a kid says something funny, it’s fodder for a book,” Stiles said.
Stiles said the time spent away from day-to-day distractions not only has given her the resources to complete major projects, it also has stoked her love for creative writing — both teaching it and doing it.
“I am so excited to go back to school on (Aug. 4),” Stiles said. “I actually feel like I am better prepared now because I am taking some time for me.”