Building narratives and community from school outward

The Power of Community-Centered EducationDespite the fact that I collect stories the way a sheep collects burrs, I’ve never found a way to teach storytelling to teens and adults in ways that were effective or useful.

My students want to become accountants, or morticians, or engineers, not writers or English teachers. The best writer I ever had wanted to be a forest ranger. Those students would need to write narratives, but I didn’t know how to give them opportunities to craft narratives that were important to them. I knew that I ought to teach narrative writing, but how to do it effectively eluded me.

Michael L. Umphrey’s book The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place suggests an approach that might work with students like mine.

Umphrey became director of the Montana Heritage Project when it was, in his words, “a gathering of bureaucrats around a heap of money.” The project identified or created opportunities for high school students to do genuine scholarly research in their home communities. Umphrey calls the in-depth exploration of topics done by students in the Montana Heritage Project learning expeditions.

Learning expeditions

Going on a learning expedition sounds much more exciting than doing a term paper, doesn’t it? But when you sign on to an expedition, you expect more than excitement. On an expedition everyone is expected to do their share and then some, to work together for the good of the expedition, to keep up with the group on a forced march to reach safety before a blizzard breaks.

Unlike internships, which put individual students into job sites where they may or may not be involved in the organizations’ real tasks, the Montana Heritage Project put classes to work studying curriculum subjects—biology, history, economics, for example—in the laboratory of their own communities. There is nothing wrong with having students in North America develop ways to market rain forest projects, but community-centered education projects do more than give students collaborative projects on popular topics.

Community-centered education projects provide students with a sense of identity. Students’ research is more than just study. It’s work that they share with others in their local community.

As they study about the local community and build connections to its people, their world expands from their family and their school to a the more diverse community reaching back in time. They produce tangible products of their research that present residents and and future researchers can build upon. Umphrey calls these outcomes gifts of scholarship.

School-community partnerships

At least in my rural area, most of what schools term partnering with the community refers to schools asking the public donate money, or buy ads, or attend spaghetti dinners. The schools’ contribution to the community seems limited to subsidizing the best students through dual enrollment programs so they can afford the college educations that will allow them to move to a state with more vibrant communities.  By contrast, community-centered education projects focus on helping students to learn while helping their own community to become more vibrant, to become the kind of place they want to live in and participate in.

Umphrey writes:

Students doing heritage projects have assisted libraries and museums in building their oral history collections and in improving their historical photograph archives; they have done field archaeology and data collection for state natural resource agencies; they have assisted local people in completing the research to nominate community buildings to the National Register of Historic Places; they have created audio tours for local museums; and they have compiled histories of local organizations. Such projects allow students to gain crucial skills at the same time they accomplish work that benefits the community.

These projects are real work, not make-work. They strengthen the communities in ways that fundamentally support the schools’ learning-teaching function.

I suspect that adopting a community-centered approach to education is not without its difficulties. The projects have to fit the school and the community. Finding community experts who willing and able to teach teenagers to do a good job at boring research tasks could be challenging. Meshing the community work and the demands of the educational bureaucracy could make organizing a trip to the International Space Station look simple.

Despite the risks and challenges, the kinds of community-centered education projects Umphrey describes seem to me to hold real potential for engaging students and encouraging communities.

Pick up a copy of the book and see what you think.

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[Updated links 2014-04-25]

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