Heritage Education Magazine | Heritage Online | Grants for Heritage Projects | Publications | Teacher ResourcesTeacherLore | Events | Search | Contact






Take Community Seriously

It begins with a question

Teaching for understanding: using essential questions

Resources for understanding community

Family History Research

Analyzing a primary document: a worksheet

Making field notes: a guidesheet

Field Notes and Local Culture: a meditation

Use Mentors

A mentored miracle: the experience at Simms High School

Use Oral History

A Student Guide to Doing Oral History

Oral History In the Classroom

A Note About Oral History Equipment

How to Get Ready to be Interviewed (for interview subjects)

Oral History Links

Provide Accountability through Public Exhibitions

Planning a Public Event

How to Introduce a Speaker: Adapted from First Impressions.

Preserve Student Work in an Archives

Organizing a school archives

A Sense of Time: Education as an Infinite Game


Everything Else Follows
5 Steps from Community-Centered Schools
to Education-Centered Communities

by Michael L. Umphrey

1. Take Community Seriously | 2. Invite Mentors to Join the Work | 3. Use Oral Interviews Throughout the Curriculum | 4. Provide Accountability and Recognition through Public Exhibitions of Mastery | 5. Start a School Archives of Local Materials and Student Work

Any teacher can begin the process of making a school more community-centered, which is the first step in making communities more education-centered. Here are 5 steps to consider:

1. Take Community Seriously

Community is maybe the most popular buzzword in education today. This is because we sense what has gone wrong and in what direction we should look to put things right.

When we take community seriously, we make it the subject of serious study. With our students, we explore such questions as What does it take to build community? What does it take to sustain community? What makes a community good?

The study of community is naturally integrative, since a community includes its natural environment; its built environment –including its architecture, its roads and bridges, its septic systems, its telephones and televisions, its industries –; and its history, including the ideas and migrations that have shaped it, linking it to all times and places.

In caring about a local community, we develop that sort of provincial mind best able to critique and mitigate the excesses and abuses of global markets. We need people who know and intelligently love particular places and who will work with others to make them humane, beautiful, and abundant.

For adolescents, the need to understand community is particularly acute. Cliques and gangs are their unintelligent response to a deeply felt need. According to Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, the greatest educational need of young people from about age twelve to age twenty or so is learning that focuses on community1. Students need learning that helps them see their families, teams, classrooms, and neighborhoods not just as an environment in which they pursue their individual desires, but as communities of which they are members. Teachers, parents, employers, coaches, church leaders, policemen, neighbors, and civic leaders of all ethnic and religious groups are agreed that they want their young to develop that level of consciousness we refer to as "being a good citizen."

Teaching our youth how to do this could be the central organizing principle of the high school years. It requires no great expense or vast mandates. It simply requires that we look locally–the only place the world exists–for the patterns of history, the laws of science, the applications of mathematics, and the values of art that we want to teach.

2. Invite Mentors to Join the Work

"When you get an adult to student ratio of about 5 to 1, things start to happen," said Chuck Merja, a Stanford-trained engineer who farms in the Sun River Valley and spends a few hour each week working with small groups of students doing research projects at the high school.

Chuck was invited into the program by English teacher Dorothea Susag. Dorothea has demonstrated the transformational power teachers can exert by being personally and professionally inviting. She involves dozens of community members in her students’ research projects.

She points out that the important thing to remember about mentors is that they are research partners and teachers rather than chaperones. At an orientation meeting at the beginning of the research project, she tells parents and others willing to help that their responsibilities might include participating with the students in original research, where neither the teacher nor the students know the final destination; meeting with students during class time provided for teams to work together; helping guide and focus the student research, including suggesting contacts who have needed expertise and helping arrange interviews; accompanying students on expeditions to libraries or interviews; and helping students form conclusions.2

The more community minds involved in posing questions and finding answers, the more seriously students will take the work. At the end of our research projects, students frequently note that their relationship with their mentor was the most important aspect of the research.

3. Use Oral Interviews Throughout the Curriculum

Oral interviews accomplish many things. First, they teach kids the quickest and most powerful way into a new body of knowledge: find someone who knows about it and ask him or her to explain the most important issues, sketch the most critical concepts, and list the most important books and articles. In the process, students get better at making appointments, taking notes, listening, interacting with adults, and reporting their findings back to the group.

A student in Libby said that she learned that every other person is more fascinating than a novel –a wealth of stories–and all you need to do is ask questions and listen–really listen. The great adventure of learning had to do with exploring other minds, she said.

A specialized form of oral interviewing is the conduct an oral history project. This allows students to do truly important work, gathering local history that would otherwise be lost. This is an ideal approach to "telling the stories" of minority groups who live in the area whose cultural heritage might not be represented in published materials.

There is no person or group whose stories lack value, and when we perfect what we are doing with our schools, no elderly person will lack the chance to add their story to the community’s permanent record. When the community is the focus, every member is an expert on something, if only the history of his barn and how it was used in the past. Several schools routinely gather the oral histories of all the residents of local rest homes.

Through oral history projects, the generations can be linked in bonds of understanding, and the learning is powerful in both directions. Older people who are sometimes leery of "kids these days" often find themselves delighted with the young people, tape recorders and cameras in hand, who have come to learn from them. Several school administrators have attributed their success at passing operational levies to the oral history projects conducted in the high schools.

4. Provide Accountability and Recognition through Public Exhibitions of Mastery

Teachers and students in the Heritage Project do high profile work. The final products of their scholarship are published and presented in public. Each project is expected to end in tangible work of enduring value that takes the form of a "gift of scholarship" given back to the community–biographies of community elders, a history of the fire department, or recordings of a local musician’s work.

When students go public with demonstrations of what they have learned – a museum exhibit open to the public, a reading of a research paper to the community, a website put online, a book published–they more easily learn that learning has a public purpose. Indeed, they should be taught that one scholar can change the course of history. This is an important balance to the careerism that is rampant today.

Students also gain recognition and honor for work well done. As public exhibitions gain an audience, they create an organic tendency toward higher standards. At basketball tournaments, the audience pays most attention to the best performances, learning from them and using them as the standard to aim for. The same thing would happen with academic work, if a few of us wanted it to.

At public heritage evenings, the entire community is reminded of and taught their history. The community exists as a living entity only at such events, while stories are moving from hearer to listener.

5. Start a School Archives of Local Materials and Student Work

The work students gather and create should be preserved and future student researchers should use it as a starting point in their work. Every student should leave a permanent mark on the school, and unusually strong academic performances would be preserved.

The body of knowledge, which might seem insignificant at first, grows in importance through the years of work. This, in itself, is important. Much of the value of local history lies in the ways we learn how big projects begin, what a difference individuals make, and how the world around us grew out of the past.

In time, the local archives becomes the school’s most important educational resource, like a family’s photo album, allowing learning to move beyond the dullness of mass schooling toward learning that deeply engages the actual time and place of the learners.

Using and adding to this research project dedicated to local knowledge clarifies and deepens the school’s central purpose, and the collection itself orients new teachers and new students to the larger mission of which they are a part.

At the beginning, all that is needed is a file cabinet.