Everything Else Follows
5 Steps from Community-Centered Schools
by Michael L. Umphrey
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.