A crescendo, shavasana, and thank you

What a week! After our last week at the ISI, I’m again left wondering how to capture the experience. Before our final “shivasana”-like day, there wasn’t much slow down. Week 4 was like a crescendo to the NVWP ISI 2016.

This week’s presenters were eminently practical and applicable to my classroom. In fact, I had already planned to have my ENGH 101 students write “This I Believe” essays before Joan’s excellent presentation. Silly as it may sound, it was good to be reminded that students should interact with example essays before writing their own, and I appreciated that Joan lets students experience them orally and in written form.

I loved how Natalina’s presentation continued the idea of writing from pictures, which is now a theme from several presentations! Natalina’s writing inspires me to try new things, even if they’re the scary things like fiction writing (kidding…sort of). It was also fun to see the way our teaching ideas intersect: I did a descriptive writing prompt with monsters, too! I’m pretty sure her classroom is a super-fun, learning-rich place to be.

The authentic writing theme of Sara, Steph, and Jen’s presentations resounded deeply with me. Authentic writing is something I wrote about this spring [insert link], after the experience of having students submit poetry to a national contest. I learned in the process that “authentic” writing is difficult to define, but all of these lessons had great examples of students genuinely engaging with content and/or shaping the rhetorical purpose of their writing.

Sara’s chart of one topic turned into many genres of writing helped solidify and simplify my understanding of multi-genre writing. I can see immediate applications in my ENGH 101 course, as I challenge students to choose the best genre for their purpose (or best audience, etc). I loved our discussion, too–I think sometimes you all don’t realize what wealth of experience and instructional resources you hold! But in our discussion, I gained several new insights about how to implement authentic, multi-genre writing in the classroom.

“Tell them where to look, not what to see,” said Steph, quoting Carol Jago. What a powerful reminder that our students must be doing the thinking work! I loved the student-generated question demo, and while it may seem more applicable with older students, I can see younger ones learning to ask better questions, too, under guidance and metacognitive growth.

Jen’s presentation was equally as powerful, and I felt challenged afterward to use more online platforms for my students’ work. Her freewrites also got me thinking about the larger issue of audience and how audience affects our writing, which was a rich thought process that I enjoyed.

As I said in our roundtable discussion, I want to remain involved with the NVWP and foster these connections, but it was also comforting to be reminded by Sarah that it will always be here for us to come back to, even if we lose touch with the NVWP for a time. As I take time to process all that I’ve learned, heard, and considered, I’m challenged to consider Peter’s call for “missionary like zeal.” It challenges me and asks me to reconsider the current state of education and what I will do about it.

Thank you for your part in this NVWP ISI 2016; what a joy it has been to learn and grow with you! Thank you, thank you, thank you.


It Takes a Village to Raise a Writer

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“It might be true that it is “quality time” that counts, but after a certain point quantity has a bearing on quality.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
― Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

One of the most important things I learned through my participation in the NVWP ISI is the value of regular practice. Inspired by morning pages, our writing marathon in Fredericksburg, and most especially by Michelle’s passion for journaling, I have begun carrying my journal with me everywhere I go so it is on hand whenever the urge to write strikes. More importantly, though, I’ve quickly come to realize that its presence sparks the desire to write far more often. Filling my journal during morning pages, composing pieces for my portfolio and generally engaging in the regular practice of writing has improved both my writing fluency and my confidence in my writing. It’s also a valuable reminder of the limitations of the classroom. If we want students to reach their full potential, they have to be writing both inside AND outside of school. But how do we as teachers encourage this?

Writing, many of us agreed, often takes a back seat to reading. For example, my niece, a rising fourth grader, is a voracious reader. She completed the latest 320 page Harry Potter book in less than a day. Everytime I see her, she is absorbed in a book. As awesome as this is, and it is awesome, I rarely see her write. Fueled by our discussion about the importance of encouraging families to write together, I found a great guided journal, Start Where You Are, and purchased a copy for both my niece and her mother (my sister). Journaling together will not only provide an opportunity for regular writing practice for my niece but also model for her the process of self reflection. As we all learned from our Progoff Intensive Journaling workshop with Dave Arbogast, journaling can help us be more self aware and directed, and therefore live richer, more fulfilling lives. Could you ask for more? Journals, I’ve decided, are a gift I will now give often.

Now back to the classroom. As an advocate for my students, I have to place the same emphasis on writing as reading and do whatever I can to promote the value of regular writing practice. At back to school night, I plan to spend a lot of time talking about the importance of writing as a family…I am hopeful that I can motivate other families to also journal together. Inspired by Arvinder’s Family Literacy Nights, I would also like to lead something like this, perhaps also as a way to promote our future writing center, in my school. I am hopeful that a lot of parents would support this…especially if I dangled some incentives in their direction. I am also inspired by assignments like Lauren Jensen’s portfolio project and Matt’s lifeline essay. These are assignments that bring writing back into the community. Because if I want to make my students better writers, I can’t do it alone. It takes a village to raise a child…and it takes one to raise a writer too!

Mark Farrington’s Workshop: How to Write Better Fiction, How to Live a Better Life

Behind me, I hear the familiar, popcorn on a stove like sound of the coffee pot sputtering through the final moments of its brew cycle. The smell of coffee begins to mingle with the warm scent of cinnamon as Sara’s blueberry oatmeal bake finishes in her slow cooker. Room 447 is rather cozy today. Finally, after one last choking fit, the pot is suddenly silent; the coffee is done. Fellow caffeine lovers trickle towards the pot, quietly refilling cups. Even though I’ve already had too much coffee this morning, the nutty aroma proves too much to resist and I join them. Today, Mark Farrington will be leading us in a fiction writing workshop. Now that we have refueled our sleepy morning minds with coffee, donuts, and homemade blueberry bake we are ready to settle in for his presentation.

Mark’s short sleeve button down, perhaps a linen blend, is a calming muted cerulean. It’s hue and texture remind me of chalk paint. Opening up my marker case, I choose a pen to match. I’m excited for his presentation. Throughout the institute, many of us, myself included, have expressed a desire to stretch ourselves and try our hand at fiction. A collective of readers, many of us are intimidated by the literature we read and teach, fearful that our own efforts will never measure up to the artistry of our favorite works. Today, though, with Mark’s guidance, we are hopeful we will slay yet another dragon of self-doubt.

After giving us a little background on his career, did you know Mark was once a writer on display (have you ever seen, or even heard of, a writer on display before?) and beliefs about fiction, Mark leads us through a visualization exercise. We participated in a similar exercise earlier in the week with Dave Arbogast during our Progoff intensive journaling workshop. As I turn inward, letting go of thoughts, I am told to visualize a room, and then later a person. Following this visualization exercise, Mark instructs us to describe the images we saw in our journals. This is only the first of many strategies Mark gives us to help us generate inspiration and gain focus when writing fiction. Some other strategies include: writing the first line, identifying a character’s stepping stones, and prompts to help develop character and plot. As he continues with his presentation, what soon becomes clear to me is that Mark is not just giving us strategies to use to write better fiction, he is giving us strategies to use to live better lives.

Quoting E.L. Doctorow, Mark explains that writing is accomplished one line at a time, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Listening to him, I reflect on where many of my own writing efforts have gone wrong. I have often overwhelmed myself from the outset of a project, feeling that I had to have everything figured out before I began. As I have matured, though, I have realized I will never have it all figured out. None of us will. And if we wait until we have it figured out, we will likely never begin.

Write stories one line at a time. Live life one day at a time. Change education one student, one classroom, one school, one policy at a time. Little by little, step by step, we will get to our destinations. Thank you to Mark Farrington, and to the National Writing Project, for not only teaching me how to be a better writer, but for showing me how to live a better life.

NVWP ISI 2016 Day 20: The Afterglow

Day 20 of the Northern Virginia Writing Project: The Afterglow

We received our certificates and said our tearful farewells yesterday, but today is still a writing project day. In fact, as I bask in the afterglow of the NVWP ISI 2016, I vow to myself that, from now on, every day will be a writing project day.

I applied to the writing project because I knew it would transform me. I applied to the writing project because I knew, as a teacher, as a writer, and as a person, it would make me better. Like Sara describes in her poem, I had heard the seasoned reviews; teacher consultants pretty much universally testify to the life changing power of this program. I came wanting this, needing this, but feeling it is another thing entirely. Overwhelmed with gratitude for this experience, I am hopeful that heading into the future I will have the opportunity to pay this gift forward: to my students, to my school, to my community, to the writing project, and to education…though perhaps not all at once.

When the advocacy interest group spoke with us, they asked us to think about where in our field we currently felt comfortable advocating: ourselves, our students, our schools. As I prepare to return to the classroom, this is a question which I am giving a lot of thought. How will I be an advocate?

Open since 2008, my school is still young. Therefore my department members and I have the opportunity, and also the responsibility, to shape the narrative of the ELA program at our school. We have big plans next year. We want to found an English Honor Society chapter and unveil a writing center. Before coming to the NVWP Summer Institute, I was more than a little scared to take on these projects. Now, however, my fear is replaced by excited anticipation. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a little scared, but as one of you said, that’s ok. We’re all scared sometimes, but we keep pushing forward because we are part of something bigger than ourselves and we are not alone. Before coming to the NVWP, I found lots of links, articles, and books about writing centers. Don’t get me wrong, I love books, but having the opportunity to talk with other educators about their experiences opening a writing center made me feel so much less alone and so much more inspired. Books don’t invite you to visit their center and observe! Books don’t answer the questions you have that they didn’t anticipate! Books are great, but as Emily sagely observed sometimes, in fact often times, it’s more about the people behind the writing in the books.

Therefore, as I look to the future and to my plans for a writing center, I find that now I am thinking just as much, if not more, about building the community around the writing center than about the services and resources offered by the writing center. As I read somewhere, when it comes to writing centers, you can’t assume that “if you build it, they will come.” It is not enough to say that I want to open a writing center, I have to help build a community of writers. I have to promote the writing lifestyle. So how exactly does one do that?
Thanks to the Northern Virginia Writing Project, well more accurately to the PEOPLE of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, I think I now know how. You create a space, literally and metaphorically, for people to explore themselves, you nurture them to create in that space, and, through that creation, you cultivate community artifacts. . Surrounded by magical stones, a thinking place, a journal, an anthology I will treasure forever, I sip on some writer’s tea and say thank you to the people of the NVWP. Looking at these artifacts, the ones that represent the growth and discovery I experienced with, and indeed because of, all of you, I know I will now be a better teacher, a better writer, and a better person.

The Summer Institute may be over, but I hope that my journey with the National Writing Project is just beginning. Congratulations NVWP ISI Class of 2016. Now let’s go write a better world!

Katydids in the Wind

I observed the strangest thing on my commute to the institute the other morning. I was stuck in traffic on 66, bored in my car, taking in my surroundings. As traffic began to move again, I looked over my shoulder, trying to assess whether the center lane seemed more auspicious than the right. Then, I spotted a katydid hanging on to my side view mirror for dear life.
To make a long story short, literally (just ask my writing group) a drama transpired while I sat in stop and go traffic as the little guy struggled to make his to my windshield and then proceeded to try to cross it, bracing himself against the wind. At one point, while I was driving about 15 mph, he was square in my line of vision, facing the cars ahead of us, antennae flying everywhere and I found myself wondering how he felt: Frightened? Ticked off that he’d gotten himself into this mess? Exhilarated? Ambivalent? Apathetic? I was engrossed in his plight, and tried to move as slowly as possible while willing him to take off– at one point, I considered using my windshield wipers or getting out myself to nudge him along, but I didn’t.
There were a few times as I slowed down when it looked like he would take off, he but then seemed to hesitate, and my heart would sink as traffic started moving again. I took advantage of a lull in traffic and was able to and snap a quick picture, and then before I knew it, he flared his wings once more and was gone. Just like that. And I was elated.
As we walked in the labyrinth today, I thought about this little katydid, and realized that that this incident had stuck with me for a reason. I am the katydid– we are the katydids. Slightly out of our element, exposed, but keeping our face to the wind. We have hung on, and stayed a while, sharing our stories, considering the perspectives of others, all the while, building our confidence. We have braced ourselves and kept our feet grounded, until the moment hits and we take off, liberated as we head back into our worlds as we have known them.

ISI Portfolio Feedback

I really enjoyed listening to everyone talk about portfolio feedback yesterday.

Gert Biesta, probably my all-time favorite theorist, divides the learning process into two types: learning as acquisition and learning as response. Learning as response entails placing individuals in situations where they encounter that which is other, is destabilizing, and cognitively violent.

In a learning-as-response model, education seeks to produce new ways of thinking and new ways of being. When students respond (regardless of if by voice, words, product, etc.) to the unfamiliar, they articulate who they are. It is an endless process of becoming.

Our ISI portfolios are now complete. To me, feedback isn’t necessarily important because the value is not in the product but in the process. Every blog post and statement of inquiry is the byproduct of our transformations. Our portfolios are dead records which, while certainly valuable in many aspects, have served their purpose as vessels of our growth.


Summer Recipes

Recipe #1:
Crock Pot Blueberry Breakfast Casserole:

Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 2 hours
Total time: 2 hours 15 mins

3 Tbsp Melted Butter
2 Cups Long Cooking Oats
1 Cup Flour
1 Cup Brown Sugar
1 Egg Slightly Beaten
1 Cup Milk
¼ Cup Oil
1 T Baking Powder
½ tsp Salt
2 Cups Blueberries
¼ Cup Chopped Walnuts

Mix all ingredients except blueberries and nuts.
Fold in blueberries and nuts.
Pour batter into your crock pot
Cover and cook on low for 3 hours or high for 1½ -2 hours or until the casserole sets up
Serve warm.

All cooking times are merely estimates and vary. You should always pay close attention the first time you make a crock pot recipe to note how long your unit takes.
My personal notes: I subbed pecans for walnuts, and coconut-almond milk for the regular milk. For flour I used white whole wheat (slightly more fiber but still pretty much the taste of regular white flour). Lastly, I used the Quick Oats instead of long-cooking oats. If I made it again, I would also cut back slightly on the sugar (just personal preference!)

Recipe #2:
A Successful NVWP ISI 2016 cohort:

Now this recipe is a little bit harder to concoct. The most important ingredients are mutual respect, excitement to learn, willingness to throw your writing hat in the ring, plus a sense of fun. It is also helpful to have a variety of background interests and personalities and teaching styles, all to help spread ideas to others. Throw in a pinch of “animal warmth” (I believe this was contributed from Anna’s ethnography today?) from our family thinking space in Room 447, and a sense of collaboration “by choice, instead of forced family fun” (thank you Kate Hutton). The big pot gets stirred by OFL, Sarah, with some relief assistance by Porcelain Peter, Much-missed Michelle, and Just-in–time Jen. Each individual participant imbues their own flavor into the Summer Institute Stew, with so much uniqueness that I could not possibly do everyone justice to describe their contribution here. Suffice it to say, guess you had to be a part of it to understand this delightful delicacy!

Writing Personas

After reading Peter’s mandated article on standardization, I recalled a study I had conducted at my school to explore how writing teachers’ assessments, impetus on standardization of the writing format to comply with state testing writing prompts, and feedback influence the development of students’ writing personas. The writing persona in my study is defined as a consolidation of the writer’s personal experiences; cultural voice; personal vision as a writer; social demands of writing etiquettes and dominant writing practices; and understanding of the writing process. My student participants were invited to create self-portraits of their writing personas and were encouraged to use alternative forms of expressive presentations ranging from poetry to illustrations to computer-generated word clouds. Here is one of my students’ writing persona portrait:

To handle my aggression
Mainly negative

You live in a bad community
You curse somebody out
Mom and dad separated
Makes me more mad

Writing is your business
Not for public

Just like to be by myself
Freestyle in the mind
Two hours of writing
Go back and act like nothing happened

Want to hear proper words
You go get a book

In a writing class
I write fake
Teachers tell me,
“Write five paragraphs, not two.”
They take it over the top
“Write this, write that, write this, write that”

Got to be sad or mad
One of them
You can’t be happy in writing
There’s no point

As life goes on
I’ll probably live better
I’ll probably stop writing

I want a writing club
With serious writers
Who walk out of it not feeling happy

Lessons in Fiction

August 3, 2016: “Lessons in Fiction”

Mark Farrington is a fiction writing extraordinaire, and as he led us through a fiction-writing workshop, proved to be truly a great guide into his craft. In a very short amount of time, He was able to change the way many of us think about and approach fiction, while also making us feel more like writers. “I’m not interested in what you write, I”m interested in how you write it,” he says. It is all about the process.

We started the workshop with a pro-goffian type guided meditation where we visualized a room and slowly developing the scene. Afterward, we don’t discuss the contents of what we’ve written, but discuss the process (are we starting to notice a theme here?) Sarah notes that for her, it seemed forced at first, but then it seemed right, “Oh of course it’s a woman,” she exclaimed. Matt really loved “getting into the zone,” Whitney felt soothed by the process, and Katlyn struggled with the “influences of binge-watching a show.” (Jane the Virgin, for the win). Mark tells us that all these processes are normal and responds by telling her that “Fiction writers are thieves: but it ceases to become what it was once you take it inside. It becomes fiction.”

As the morning progresses, we spend the morning going through various short writing exercises, some of which we share, some of which we don’t. Mark tells us that not everything has to be shared, and that you don’t always have to finish what you start, “sometimes, it’s just about discerning whether or not something “interesting came up that you’d want to explore further. Mark continues to expose us to the nuances of fiction, and tells us that “fiction become interesting when characters are pushed out of their comfort zone,” and this of course is driven by tension. “The lifeblood of fiction is tension.” There are different types of tension; narrative and textual, and they should reveal what the characters are really worried about. Just as in life, there should be more than one tension, like little fires threatening your house, and as writers we should aim to include one tension per page.

We learn that what happens in a story is less important than what it means to the character it happens to. There are really only 7 plots anyway, he says, although he can’t remember exactly what they are. It sounds about right, though. We all write potential first sentences to a piece. We all read them aloud. For the record, again, it wasn’t sexual. Or maybe it was. Who knows. Mark tells us that fiction “is not a mirror of reality, it’s an ILLUSION of reality.” As writers, we shouldn’t try to duplicate reality, we should just suggest it and let your readers interact with it. Have some fun while we’re at it. We then spend some time working on character development. We recognize that it is not necessarily a character’s traits that make them interesting, but more how they react to what happens to them and identifying what their tensions are, what it is this character would worry about.

As we debrief at the end of the session, Peter points out that we didn’t discuss or worry about developing the plot, but that the pieces we were developing were great, anyway. So the main lessons learned seem to be that: great fiction is the result of great characters (and what happens to them,) tension is everything, and writing is all about the process.

P.S. Mark also suggested a Mr. Potato-Head approach, to character development, where you take characteristics from multiple people. So I will leave you with a Mr. Potato Head of our fellow institute members, pulling the best from the best. And with that, I introduce to you, the valedictorian of the NVWP class of 2016.

This character would have:

Peter’s awesome facial expressions (and noises)
Anna’s green eye (left?)
Matt’s blue eye (right?)
Arvinder’s eloquence
Emily’s soothing voice
Joanne’s laugh
Christy’s smile
Kyle’s ability to morph into Ron
Katlyn’s enthusiasm
Sara’s adorable baby bump
OFL’s messy sexiness
Whitney’s style
Michelle’s light-bearing abilities
Elissa’s ability to speak Japanese (and bake)
Lauren’s thoughtfulness
Natalina’s imagination
And our collective ability to read the crap.

This I Believe

I believe that at the end of this week, I will be leaving room 447 a better teacher, writer, and human than when I entered on July 11, 2016.

On day one, I was nervous. I had put some difficult things on my plate that I had planned to explore in my writing this summer. I had been struggling this past school year with my organization, my attention span (or lack thereof), and my motivation. I hadn’t finished reading a book or writing a piece of my own in a very long time. I was completely drained. I’d be lying if I said that after day one of the ISI everything completely changed. It didn’t. I was very overwhelmed at the end of day one and going into day two. It was so familiar (TOO familiar) to feel like I had so much to do and no idea how to do it. But I came back. Day after day I came back. One day, I suddenly realized that I was doing the things I had to do, I was learning so much, and room 447 was feeling like home.

So here is what I believe. Each of you has touched me in a way that I cannot ever thank you for. And because of each of you, I am better a better teacher, writer, and human.

Natalina. Your quiet elegance and observant nature is something I admire. Being a multi-tasker at heart, I don’t have this skill down pat the way you do. You are kind, passionate, and love your students. Keep writing romance! I can’t wait to have time to sit down and read your first book.

Emily. The sound of your voice puts us all into a happy place, maybe not as happy as Peter’s place, but happy nonetheless. You are thoughtful, generous, and so incredibly kind. Whenever we were in a need of a resource, we knew to ask you.

Anna. Your green eyes sparkle when we talk. You seem quiet in a group, but when you engage one on one, it’s a sight to behold. Your found poetry lesson helped me find words I needed to write about something very difficult for me. I am indebted to you. Your teaching is powerful. Thank you.

Elissa. Your quick smile, easy laugh, and pure enthusiasm made coming here every day wonderful. I loved, LOVED, spending the writing marathon with you. You have so many gifts, don’t forget it.

Stephanie. Profile buddy! We connected instantly on day one over our anxiety about this whole process. You are magnetic. Get over your fear of presenting to the group–people want to hear your voice.

Sara. You are so well spoken, level-headed, and calm. You remind me of what I strive to be! I could discuss education (or dogs, or JMU) with you for hours and never get bored. Your new blessing come November is going to be so lucky to have you as a mom.

RonKyle. So witty. So funny. So interesting. You’re a multigenre man. I love listening to you work out ideas. Your wealth of knowledge makes me want to read more…a lot more. And I still love that you drive a Mustang.

Michelle. Gone from us this week, but never forgotten! Your bubbly, enthusiastic, and passionate personality is contagious. You make me want to be a better teacher.

Lauren. I love your honesty. You had a tough year. You have struggled with the changes within your school, but still, you have made the most of it. You gave me so much inspiration when I created my thinking space, and I can only imagine what goes on behind your classroom walls. I would love to be there!

Jen. We haven’t had you long, but I have loved getting to know you during the writing marathon and our times in room 447. Your passion for teaching is contagious. Michelle convinced me to start blogging, but you’ve convinced me further that my students need an audience. I can’t wait to start with them next year!

Peter. You do get the award for the world’s loudest typer, beating out my brother-in-law. I want to bottle your energy and drink it in a cup every morning. You are inspiring. I wish I knew how you had time to read so much, write so much, and just be…so much. Shine on you crazy Porcelain Peter.

Katlyn. I love that your passion for reading is slowly turning into a passion for writing. I could really listen to you read in accents every day. I would love to share more teaching expertise with you, because it’s clear you have so much to offer. Keep writing your fiction, it’s so good!

My writing group….sigh. I want to cry.

Christy. You are a ray of sunshine. Please STOP apologizing. Don’t edit yourself. You have so much to offer in your writing, in your voice, and in your teaching expertise. I think we may be creatively connected in how we run our classrooms, and I love that. I admire your generosity and your humility.

Arvinder. Your words have left me breathless time and time again. Your writing is powerful, provocative, innovative, and beautiful. I could read it every day. I hope I can continue to read your work after this. When you speak, it is clear you do so with great thought put behind your words. I admire that so much.

Matt. Our rose between five thorns! You are a steadying, calming presence. I am so grateful to have met you. When you speak about our work, my work, you are thoughtful and delicate. You are a poet yourself, and I can’t wait to see where it takes you. The first piece you shared with us was so powerful, and I am so grateful for having the opportunity to read such a personal work about a topic I feel very naive to. Thank you.

Joanne. Without sounding like a total creep, I think I want to be best friends with you. You are so funny, thoughtful, and dedicated. Dedicated to teaching, your family, and pushing yourself into writing new things, and teaching new things. Your poetry was gorgeous and your gathas hysterical. Your lesson inspired me to write this, so hey, that’s saying something.

Sarah. OFL. You will write a happy poem. Until then, it was a privilege to be in your writing group, to read your poetry, and get to know you on a deeper level. The story of your mother is very interesting, but I think the story of Sarah is an even better one. I admire your dedication to the NVWP and can now completely see why it is what it is.

Because of all of you, I will leave here tomorrow with an array of new lessons, a few powerful pieces of writing, amazing memories, and 17 new friends. I am so grateful to all of you for the experience, for your passion, and for sharing pieces of you. My heart is full.

Writing from Educators at NVWP’s ISI