Teaching, philosophy

The Montana Heritage Project takes standards to a new level

Today, as it was yesterday and probably will be tomorrow, the hot topic of conversation in the world of education is standards. Those of us involved in the Montana Heritage Project believe that standards are good and necessary. In fact, we have very high standards as illustrated by public displays of student mastery.

Students involved in the Heritage Project spend ten or more weeks per year studying some aspect of their community. They may focus on a historical event or period, a person, a current crisis, or the local economy. They do original research to find answers to their questions by completing oral histories with local residents, researching in archives, visiting sites of historic events, hosting community forums, and reading literature.

And they write.

Heritage Project students write a lot. They keep journals and logs; they transcribe and summarize oral history tapes; they write reports on the progress of their research; they write traditional ten-page research papers, newspaper articles, essays, poems, scripts, and plays. They write to create original gifts of scholarship which they give back to their communities.

I have the privilege of reading and publishing many of the essays that students write for their Heritage Projects. Their essays are thoughtful and thought-provoking, well-researched and well written. They present their papers in various public forums: at our statewide high school academic conference; at the Montana History Conference, sponsored by the Montana Historical Society; at the Montana Festival of the Book, sponsored by the Montana Center for the Book and the Montana Committee for the Humanities; and, of course, locally.

A few of the final products that have resulted from students’ research and writing include: several successful national register nominations, a $2.1 million performing arts center, many contributions to local archives, as well as hundreds of oral histories and publications.

The mastery displayed by students involved in the Heritage Project is sometimes astonishing. After a year of study, freshmen in Corvallis became the world’s foremost experts on the history of a forgotten gold-mining town. Students in Simms created a 3-D computer flyover of the Sun River Valley. Students in Ronan have published three books of veterans’ oral histories now available on Amazon.com. Harlowton students were granted access to a local Hutterite community. They made such a good impression on the reserved residents that they were given permission to publish a book on Hutterite life. None of these things could have been accomplished without a thorough knowledge of the topic, great writing skills, and the technological ability to communicate their findings.

Usually, Heritage Project teachers and students stage some type of public event to present their gathered research to the community. Sometimes, these events are academic extravaganzas and in some communities, they’re as well attended as basketball games. While students sometimes view these events with trepidation, community members view them with anticipation. Community members know that students have been researching them, their history, and their stories so they show up to these events to celebrate the students’ achievement—and to make sure the details are correct. Students know the stakes and feel the pressure. Because they give their research to the community, they have to make sure their theses are sound and their research is thorough. The community is watching them and they know it.

Students want to do a good job on their projects, so they do. You can see it in their essays, in their public events, and in their eyes. Their faces show the pleasure of accomplishing something worthwhile. And they should be pleased. Many of us think they’ve reached a high standard.

Back to Heritage Education

Posted by Katherine Mitchell on 11/22 at 04:19 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Heroes give gifts

The story about Sarah inadvertantly illustrates another reason the large official attempts to reform education ring hollow and leave us uninspired: those of us who’ve been around Sarah a little know she illustrates the heroic spirit that it takes to teach well, as do all of you who make the heritage project work.

Beyond a certain point, usually reached by second or third period on an average day, to teach well requires generosity. Teachers need generosity and a heroic spirit much more than they need another training workshop or another evaluation protocol. The energy it takes to listen with an attentive being to all those students, to take extra care in responding to an assignment, to prepare as well as time permits for far too many classes--that energy isn’t free. It is given at a cost. It requires the sacrifice of more selfish activities, and it is a gift.

Psychologist Ernest Becker in his profound book, the Denial of Death, notes that “if you are going to be a hero, then you must give a gift. . .the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers” (p. 173).

I think all good teachers understand this. There’s always an element of heroism--of selfless giving--in great teaching.

The industry that has sprung up dedicated to satisfying the NCLB requirement that all students have well-qualified teachers seems far, far away from all this. Who believes all the lists of credits accumulated or courses completed or certificates collected get to the heart of the matter? Who believes the processes are well-motivated and developed with the best of intentions?

Teachers who give gifts of service to young people--beyond what could be required by contracts or bosses--are best qualified to teach students why they should sacrifice to create gifts of scholarship for elders and families and communities. The best reason for such work is not that it qualifies students for good colleges or looks good on scholarship applications. The best reason is because in putting their time and talent in service to the society in which they live, young people learn that to be heroic is to do something that endures, and that what endures is not the act itself but the meaning, which can make an act worthy of being remembered. They learn that their heroic impulses are not foolish--that only in acts of heroism and service do they find peace and fulfillment.

I’ve always liked the fact that the Project was initiated as a gift from Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne to the students and teachers in Montana, and that it sustained itself by creating an economy of gifts: teachers and mentors giving to young people, young people giving to their communities and elders. The Heritage Project is about making and remembering heroic gifts, which are all around us when we are awake to them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/13 at 06:31 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

What’s wrong with NCLB

What’s wrong with NCLB is what’s always wrong with school. It’s the product of the timid and colorless imaginations of middle-aged or older functionaries who have risen to positions of eminence by stifling the heroic spirit that so easily gets one in trouble. If J. Alfred Prufrock ("Do I dare to eat a peach?") had been put in charge of teaching the nation’s young people what they need to feel and know to live in the world that’s forming and reforming around them like a kaleidoscope of blood-red and Eden-green moments, I doubt he would have done much worse than NCLB.

I admit that my antipathy is somewhat childish. I didn’t like school, and I remember clearly the boredom I felt when unheroic functionaries who imagined I might care about their timid and colorless plans for me tried to give me advice. What did they know? I was poor, ignorant and stupid, but not so stupid that I couldn’t see that life was dangerous, fully charged with potential for ecstacy and for despair, and that to get through the day I needed better help than little cost/benefit thoughts and blather about the global economy.

It’s not possible to live well without a heroic spirit, and kids need advice and encouragement about how to live heroically. Getting a few more points on a standardized test doesn’t do it. NCLB is full of threats to school administrators, but it’s completely void of promises to young people.

The solution is not a big plan backed by lots of Senators, but lots of little acts of passion. I suggest reading a poem each day by a man who did hear the mermaids singing to him--William Butler Yeats:

The Scholars

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there, all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk their way?

-- William Butler Yeats

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/13 at 03:40 PM
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