Collaboration as Community

by Janet Ray Edwards

This issue of On Common Ground explores a specific and impelling need: that of building educational communities around issues of ethnic and cultural diversity in American society at large. Together, as scholars, teachers, and students, we seek to discern what is distinctive in our varying cultural traditions and identify what binds us together as Americans. As school teachers look at the faces of their students, more often than not they see cultural diversity embodied. In this situation, they hunger for the academic enrichment­the knowledge of history and culture­that will make them more effective and responsive teachers. Food is available. In the colleges and universities, humanities scholars have been searching new or neglected primary texts and documents, seeking to place them in appropriate cultural and intellectual contexts. To a school-college partnership, these searches bring the intellectual resources that can help teachers understand the roots and branches of American diversity. Moreover, as scholars collaborate with teachers, they report a resurgence of interest in their own, increasingly diverse classrooms. In teachers they find colleagues who may have lacked the time to specialize in scholarly matters but who read with intelligence and imagination. Such a collaborative builds a community of scholars and teachers who address a challenging question: how to engage students with intellectual content informed by scholarship, through practical, imaginative strategies.

These ideas sum up concrete experiences taking place in collaborativs sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) across the nation. Since l989, English faculty at the University of Houston in an NEH-sponsored project entitled "Texts and Traditions: the Common Ground" have been meeting with high school English teachers from six metropolitan school districts in a series of concurrent seminars each summer. Pairing commonly taught works of American literature with works by minorities and women that are less well known, teachers and scholars think together about the question, "What is American about American literature?" In the sessions I visited, one seminar explored two novels that treat a similar theme­the claims of society on the individual­in strikingly different ways. The discussion contrasted Huckleberry Finn's defiance of conventional society in "lighting out for the territory" with the ending of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, in which the child narrator becomes the bridge-builder bringing together disparate societal forces. In a second seminar, teachers explored the contrast between Franklin's account of the "junto" or reading group that supported his learning with Frederick Douglass' commentary on the isolation and negativity that surrounded his learning. Such discussions, teachers agreed, helped them to gain a richer, more complex sense of what constitutes American society than had been available to them through traditional readings alone.

A group of teachers meeting with me after the seminar spoke of their deep satisfaction at the chance to talk with teachers from their own and other schools about books an ideas. In the collaboration, they experienced the kind of intellectual community that they wished to build in their own schools, and not with faculty only. Teachers as well as two of the district language coordinators with whom I met later described the "tomblike atmosphere" among minority students in many classes. One of the coordinators who regularly visited classrooms and talked with teachers said, "These students are no trouble. They don't act out. They just become quieter and more withdrawn, until one day they disappear from the class." For a Hispanic school child who, for example, had never encountered a book by a Hispanic writer or heard discussions of the importance of Hispanic culture in contributing to American society, the chance to read Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima or Cisneros' House on Mango Street under the guidance of an informed teacher could make a significant difference in that child_s engagement with school learning.

To ensure that interactions between teachers and students in their classrooms are nourished by a larger intellectual community, the Houston project has set for itself the goal of reaching a "critical mass" of high school English teachers. To date, over three hundred have participated directly in the summer seminars, with many more involved through dissemination projects offered within the schools by the teachers themselves. With confidence that the university is an ongoing resource and with the support of school district curriculum coordinators, teachers are emerging as leaders in their own schools.

The Houston collaboration drew both intellectual and practical inspiration from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and the generous leadership of Yale scholar Michael Cooke. Once the Houston partnership was itself established­its steadiness reflected in part by the fact that five of the eight original faculty still participate in the project­Houston faculty member Linda Westervelt, with NEH encouragement, took the next step. Her conversations with Beth Daugherty, a faculty member at Otterbe in College near Columbus, Ohio, led Otterbein faculty to design a similar collaborative.

"Joining Hands in the Teaching of American Literature," the Otterbein-Columbus partnership, takes as its premise that, "effectively taught, American literature in all its richness can unite rather than divide society." One summer, intellectual sparks flew as school and college teachers discussed such pairings as Henry David Thoreau's Walden and William Least-Heat Moon's PrairyErth; Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time with Toni Morrison's Sula; Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables with Octavia Butler's Kindred. Teachers returned to their schools that fall reinvigorated to begin building communities of inquiry with other teachers and with students in their classrooms.

But the power of school-college partnership to build communities of inquiry is not limited to a single structural model or a single content focus. A draft statement from the U. S. Department of Education links successful education reform throughout the United States to the "career-long development of teachers and other educators" and recommends that strategies to improve teaching and learning be "collaboratively designed, implemented, coordinated and evaluated by schools and higher education institutions." "High-quality professional development," the statement goes on, "also promotes 'learning communities' inclusive of everyone who has an impact on students and their learning."1 At NEH, other collaborative ventures with distinctive characteristics abound, though space allows mention of only two. From a University of Maryland project on Shakespeare evolved a state-wide collaborative, the Center Alliance of Secondary School Teachers (CAST). In a reversal of the usual emphasis on bringing teachers to the university, CAST takes scholars to teachers in their own counties. As university faculty becme more knowledgeable about school curricula, they are increasingly able to tailor their offerings to specific school needs. In response, the schools support CAST in their budgets. For example, when Baltimore County English teachers were faced with a new mandate to teach world literature at the ninth and tenth grade levels­literature the teachers had never studied­they turned to CAST, which responded with an academic-year study course that made the requirement both feasible and exciting.

Another imaginative conception brings together like-minded school reformers for study at a single, national site and returns them to their own communities to found particular, local, effective, teacherly collaborations. Invigorated by its ongoing partnership with Providence schools that began in l988, a coalition of forces within Brown University­Arnold Weinstein of the comparative literature department; Sharon Lloyd Clark and Laura Mack at the university's Institute for Secondary Education; and the Coalition for Essential Schools, headed by Theodore Sizer­proposed a collaborative project national in scope but local in effect. "Texts and Teachers: Themes in Comparative Literature" brings together teams of four high school and two college teachers from four local sites selected from across the nation, from Boston to Whittier, California, from Tougaloo, Mississippi, to Chicago.

For two weeks each summer, the four teams engage in intensive study of selected literary classics of Western, Asian, and African literature, working together to deepen their grasp of the principles of comparative literary study and to develop strategies for introducing these texts to their students. For example, a seminar on "Rites of Passage" has explored the paradigm of coming of age as represented in major texts from different nations and different moments in history­Chrétien de Troy's Yvain from the European middle ages, Cao Xuequin_s eighteenth-century text The Story of the Stone, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. In a seminar session I visited, talk about how Faulkner's Ike McCaslin learns to read bear tracks led to a discussion of learning to read as the great rite of passage in our culture, and so back to the realities of teaching and learning.

When the teams return to their local sites, meetings are scheduled throughout the academic year. Each teacher implements a course using several of these tactics for classes of high school juniors and seniors or college freshmen. Several times during the year, the high school and college classes come together to discuss a shared text. Already some of these local projects are taking root on their own soil, as they adapt the texts studied with colleagues from across the country to local conditions and needs.

One teacher-participant in the seminar on "Desire in the Marketplace" wrote that in his class at Hope High School in Providence, "we are currently finishing up Madame Bovary and will soon read So Long a Letter and The Joys of Motherhood." These texts show students the differences and the similarities between 20th century Africa and l8th century Europe. He continues, "We are able to build bridges to our own lives with these texts and begin to talk about ourselves through these texts. These texts have helped the students connect to literature."


1. U.S. Department of Education-Professional Development Team, "Draft Mission Statement and Principles of Professional Development," October 31, 1994.

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