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Of what use, the three-credit summer institute?

What brings 37 people, mostly teachers who have just completed a difficult year, (that includes the author) to a reading institute held at Salem State College the same week that school ends?

Don't they need a breather? Are they gluttons for punishment? Yes, to the first question and no to the second.

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Granted, the reading institute is also a three-credit elective course on the way to a master's degree in reading. But for the individual seeking them, they are not an ''easy'' three credits due to the additional project work. So discount that reason.

This particular reading institute has been offered for 13 years. While I can't vouch for the quality of any other year, hearsay is that its reputation for exceptional speakers is what brings these tired teachers, fired teachers, and just rehired teachers back to sit in students' chairs for two weeks.

This year, David McCord exhibited his mastery of the intellectual gymnastics of poetic form. Expressive and impressive, his oral recitations of written works gave one a lift to the higher level of communication by poetry.

If indeed it did not inspire one to return to the classroom ready to teach poetry, it certainly elevated the spirit of this listener.

Within the structure of the institute, Helen Constant, the director, brings to a climax the annual Massachusetts Children's Books Award. Begun as a reading motivation vehicle, it has become highly popular in many of the elementary schools of the state. It offers a list of 25 books to be read and entitles each child to vote for a favorite out of the selections he or she has read.

For those who were in attendance at the institute, the Book Awards Day was a moving experience in a remarkable way. At this time when schools are being bombarded on all sides in Massachusetts - i.e., Proposition 21/2, values clarification, back to basics, discipline and on and on - it was a testimony to what teachers can and are doing to watch the class of Al Allard from Franklin, Mass., dramatize their interpretation of the book ''Sadako and the Thousand Cranes.''

The teacher had read the book to the class as participation in the Book Award Program.

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For those not familiar with children's books, ''Sadako and the Thousand Cranes'' is a story of a junior high school girl 10 years after the bombing of Hiroshima. While her concerns are typical of all teen-agers - school, friends, and family - and the story has no great plot, it opens the mind of the Western child to questions of what happens to life after the atomic bomb.

The little girl's courage in the face of death is mirrored in the Japanese custom of folding tiny paper cranes and making a wish with each one. Sadako wishes for release from her hospital bed, and as she and her friends fold cranes her ultimate release does come.

Picture, if you will, this fifth grade class, using makeshift stage props, no stage, and not the best of lighting or acoustics bringing tears to the eyes of more than a few teachers and parents as they portray the courage of this storybook teen-ager.

I couldn't help but feel these children will be acutely sensitive to some serious issues of armament when adult responsibility is theirs.

Who says no values are conveyed in public schools any more? As long as good books are written, capable teachers will bring the message to the children.

Two authors of winning books were present to speak to the children in the audience for Book Awards Day. As a teacher, it makes my day to see kids happily asking questions that indicate great interest in the printed word.

The final day of the institute brought a speaker who, had he been the only one, would still have made it an outstanding program. Charles Collins, a dynamic poet from Hingham, presented the black experience through several different recitations.

A former drama student, as well as a graduate theologian, Collins teaches sixth grade in Hingham. He brings to his class the same vibrant presentation that we participated in. One does not simply hear Charles Collins. One becomes drawn in and experiences the force and emotion of each piece.

The answer then to what brings teachers to school at such a difficult time for most, is revitalization, a quick-charge to the battery, an affirmation that the business one is in is vital to the development of the human intellect and ultimately satisfying, regardless of the brickbats of local critics and for me, the sham of ending the year with standardized testing.

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