On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998


The Brown University "Texts and Teachers" Program

By Arnold Weinstein

The "Texts and Teachers" Program at Brown University entails the creation of a battery of collaborative courses, planned by teams of high school and college faculty, and taught at the same time, in the same area, so as to maximize interactions and shared experiences. Three consecutive grants from the NEH have made it possible for us to present this concept as a national model for educational reform—at eight sites in the past and at eight sites to come. In our experience of almost a decade with these programs in both regional and national settings, we have found that the challenges, risks and rewards of such partnerships revolve around a small number of key issues: (1) the role of the expertise, (2) the perceived threat of "dumbing down," (3) the forging of genuine partnership. Our program is accordingly structured in such a way as to face these challenges, and to fashion a new kind of collaborative model.

In working closely over the years with the educational reform movement, especially in connection with Ted Sizer's Coalition For Essential Schools (whose network we often use in selecting teams), we have seen how "charged" the notion of expertise can become. The current "activist" view of high school education, in which the teacher assumes the role of coach rather than expert, revitalizes both instruction and classroom life in exciting ways, and it is crucial that the challenge of university collaboration fit into this more egalitarian ethos. Hence, the traditional "top-down" model of university outreach can easily be perceived as elitist and authoritarian, thus at odds with what is most vital in secondary school reform.

At the same time, we firmly believe in the value of expertise, since that is essentially what the university has to offer the high school, both its teachers and its students. But we go to great lengths to show that scholar-experts are also learners in this enterprise. The courses that we propose for collaboration are themselves the result of collaborative university courses in which faculty from different areas team-teach and learn from one another. This can take the shape of cross-cultural courses (involving East-West or North-South comparisons, etc.) or interdisciplinary courses (e.g. "Literature and Medicine" and "City (B)lights" [each of which juxtaposes texts and approaches from Humanities, Sciences and Social Sciences]). Moreover, the university faculty work closely with the school faculty in summer seminars well in advance of the actual courses, so as to maximize interactions and contributions from all parties. It is also the case that high school teachers possess significant expertise of their own, from which university faculty have much to learn, particularly in areas involving pedagogy, evaluation and "real life" implications of the materials and concepts at hand. Most critical of all is the establishing of an intellectual partnership that has reciprocity in it, so that each group knows that it has something to offer to the conversation and the undertaking.

It follows from what we have said about expertise that we seek to maintain the highest intellectual standards in our collaborative project. It is our conviction that the familiar "faculty development" model, by which teachers renew or deepen their scholarly training via seminars conducted by specialist professors, is of limited value. In its place, we have fashioned a process-oriented model, in which all parties are teachers and learners, and in which the notion of expertise is vitally integrated into an ongoing teaching experience. Teachers and students participate in college courses; professors and students participate in school courses; intellectual exchange takes place throughout the semester.

This is admittedly a labor-intensive model, but it makes it possible to produce courses (for college and school consumption) of the highest intellectual caliber. It is here that the risk of "dumbing down" is met and overcome, since the high school students are essentially taking college courses, albeit shaped and modified (by their teachers) to meet their specific needs. We have found that this model simply annihilates a large number of preconceptions about what kinds of materials and approaches are "appropriate" to high school audiences. In particular, students at non-elitist public schools have not balked at reading Kierkegaard, Kafka, Freud, Faulkner, as well as Ovid, Du Fu, Quevedo, Defoe, Flaubert and many other so-called difficult or exotic texts. It is precisely the ongoing nature of the joint courses that carries all the parties through, and university specialists have spoken of the surprises encountered when conducting discussions with lively and curious students at the participating schools: more is doable and done when more is expected. The gratification and empowerment experienced in the school community are very evident in the assessments we have received to date.

The cornerstone of the Brown University model, "Texts and Teachers," is the fashioning of a real collaboration between school and university. We know that this is not easy. Assumptions about what is read and how it is approached abound in both sets of institutions, and our partnership brings the inherent differences very much out into the open. But our experience since 1988 has been overwhelmingly positive: professors who have never before set foot in high schools have welcomed this opportunity to take their expertise into a wider community; teachers at public and independent schools have enjoyed the intellectual stimuli of a new partnership with the academy. Both groups have found that many of their suppositions about the "other" camp were false, and both groups have returned to their "home" bases with fresh ideas. Ultimately, this model redefines "home" as an educational concept, and the making of these teams is a way of broadening our educational constituencies and communities.


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