Bread Loaf and Rural Communities

By Dixie Goswami

Some 400 men and women each summer‹most of them middle and high school teachers‹choose to spend their summers to pursue further studies at one of Bread Loaf's three campuses: at the Bread Loaf site outside Middlebury, Vermont, at Lincoln College, Oxford, and (as of June 1996) at the Native American Preparatory School, Rowe, New Mexico. More than forty Bread Loaf faculty members, drawn from colleges and universities across America and from the United Kingdom, teach at the three Bread Loaf sites. The result is a community of great intellectual excitement and commitment to teaching.

In 1993, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund began its support of the Rural Teacher Network (BLRTN), a program of the Bread Loaf School of English now far along in its third year. The Network recruits rural teachers (mainly middle-school and high-school teachers) from six states­Alaska, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Vermont­to come to the Bread Loaf School for up to three summers of study in writing, the teaching of writing, literature, and theater arts. The 30 or more teachers accepted each year as DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fellows receive generous awards, including tuition, room, board, round-trip travel, a book allowance, and a $1,000 stipend for professional expenses in the subsequent academic year. The Fellows take two courses at Bread Loaf and, in addition, receive training on Bread Loaf's electronic network, BreadNet. In 1995, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund helped fund two Bread Loaf summer institutes: the third annual Piney Woods Bread Loaf Summer Institute held at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi and the Bread Loaf Institute for Northern New Mexico Teachers of English at the Edward Ortiz School in Santa Fe. Summer institutes were planned for 1996 in Ganado, Arizona, and Gallup, New Mexico.

BreadNet, a central feature of the Rural Teacher Network, may be accessed by almost any type of computer, either over the Internet or via a modem. It is user-friendly, and even the most stubborn technophobe can learn to join with a minimum of time, trouble and anxiety. Accounts are given out, free of charge, to any Bread Loaf student, graduate, or faculty member who makes the request. Teachers use BreadNet to conduct a broad range of activities, from reading groups to professional support to curriculum design and intense discussion about educational issues. BreadNet is a means for all members of the Bread Loaf community to stay in contact with each other during the academic year between Bread Loaf summers.

Since 1993, BLRTN teachers and students in Vermont have conducted inquiries about school restructuring and reform; more than a dozen active BreadNet conferences are the result of teachers and students collaborating on literature, writing, and publishing projects. Several members of the Rural Network teach BreadNet courses for which students receive full credit: for example, Mary Ginny DuBose at Waccamaw High School, Pawleys Island, South Carolina, teaches "Writing with Telecommunications," for which students design and manage a number of online conferences. Susan Miera, at Pojoaque High School (a rural school near Santa Fe), teaches "Writing for the Community," a course that combines action research with public service, writing, and publishing (online and in print). At some point, all teachers iclude students in networked activities, reflecting the belief that benefits to students are the Network_s primary goal.

Aside from BreadNet, there is hardly a means of communication that the rural teachers have not used to stay in touch. In Alaska, for example, living at great distances from each other, teachers have used audio-conference phone calls to plan statewide projects. But even telecommunications, conference calls, and faxes can_t replace face-to-face meetings, and there are many such BLRTN meetings each year‹in Juneau, in Phoenix, in Albuquerque, in Jackson, Mississippi, at the Penn Center at St. Helena, South Carolina, and at the Bread Loaf-Vermont campus itself. Several members of the Bread Loaf faculty and BLRTN staff (James Maddox, Director of the Bread Loaf School of English, and Rocky Gooch, Director of BLRTN telecommunications) are lucky enough to take part in these face-to-face meetings. We probably learn more about Fellows­and about rural education‹from visits that take us into schools and classrooms than we do in any of our other activities. A great challenge is to demonstrate locally and nationally the excellence that exists in many, many rural classrooms. Courageous and innovative rural teachers should be recognized and highly visible, so that their work may inform the discourse and actions of policy-makers and educators.

Partnerships with individual teachers and with schools connect Bread Loaf with the broader community, requiring us to rethink notions of change, of practice, of friendship and shared leadership and to figure out what it means to act on the assumption that teachers and students are essential sources of information about schools and classrooms, that teachers_ reflective narratives are essential agents and advocates of school change. The changes that result from Bread Loaf's partnerships with teachers and schools raise tough questions for faculty and administrators about calendars, teaching assignments and schedules, compensation, and other realities of academic life, the same questions teachers raise when they are urged or directed to add on-going professi onal development to their schedules, and to bear the burden of changes mandated by others. For individuals, limited time is the great barrier to change, including change that comes from productive, long-term school-college partnerships.

Fred Hechinger, writing in the first issue of On Common Ground about university-school partnerships, noted that reports rarely affect policy; powerful stories often do. What follows is one of the stories and essays written by members of the Rural Teacher Network. It appeared in somewhat different form in Bread Loaf Rural Teacher Network.


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