Bread Loaf's creative community lends new vigor to rural teachers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THEY will return to their rural classrooms armed with a new vigor -- and new teaching techniques. High school English teachers from 45 states gathered here to spend a month and a half of their precious summer at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. In the yellow, green-shuttered buildings on this mountain-rimmmed plateau, they undertook a rigorous study of literature, writing, and theater to renew themselves as teachers.

This 65-year-old graduate program has in the past attracted to its faculty the likes of Robert Frost (who taught there for 43 summers), Cleanth Brooks, and John Crowe Ransom. One of the school's many summer programs, the Program in Writing, was developed in 1976 by Paul Cubeta, the school's director, and Dixie Goswami, now the writing program director. They brought in rural and small-town teachers (on full-tuition grants, mostly from the Rockefeller Foundation) because ``we were trying to save them as t eachers,'' says Mr. Cubeta. Most of this year's 75 rural teachers have few or no colleagues to provide intellectual stimulation or reinforcement, says Cubeta, so they may lose their professional edge or become discouraged and drop out of the profession.

When Joanne Tulonen came to Bread Loaf, her professional isolation ended. As the only teacher in the Wilsall (Mont.) High School English department, Ms. Tulonen says ``it's easy to get closed off.'' But here she was daily engaged in discussions about literature, writing, teaching, and how they interrelated. ``Bread Loaf gave me a renewal,'' she says.

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Bread Loaf students sometimes sound like educational theorists: Their talk is riddled with words like ``student-centered,'' ``empower,'' ``interaction,'' ``process,'' ``exploration,'' and ``dialogue.'' But participants say the six weeks at Bread Loaf is not merely a theoretical infusion that wears off, leaving them in the doldrums of isolation and old approaches. Many return to their classrooms this fall ready to try some new techniques -- often radical departures from how they were teaching before.

Part of what spurs changes in teaching methods is the inspiration that comes of living in a community of teachers. The conversation among participants in places like the ``barn'' -- a rustic hall with snack bar, stone hearth, and clusters of chairs and sofas -- makes the experience more than academic.

``At Bread Loaf you have a sense of community,'' says Bill Noll of Little Wound High School in Kyle, S.D. ``It's this sense of a reading and writing community'' they want to transfer into their classrooms.

``To be around people who are so committed to writing is really inspiring,'' says Don Hudson, of New Glarus (Wis.) High School. ``I've never worked as hard as a student or accomplished as much.''

Perhaps equally influential is resident counselor Dixie Goswami and her introductory course, ``Teacher as Learner/Teacher as Researcher.'' As in many of the program's courses, students emerge from Goswami's class with new ideas about teaching -- because of both its content and its process. Besides reading about alternative approaches to teaching English, Goswami's students write an extensive letter to her about their development as writers -- a technique that they often transfer to their own classrooms.

More than half of the Program in Writing students also emerge from this course with funding to conduct research projects in their classes back home, including how students in a rural Arizona school respond to word processing, the challenge of native Americans writing about a world dominated by whites, and forming a study-group to explore how writing could function as a tool for learning.

Dale Lumley of Butler, Pa., has spent the last three years investigating the use of ``dialogue journals'' in his junior English classes. During the final 10 minutes of each class, his students write in journals, addressing their entries not to the teacher, but to peers. In a report to Bread Loaf, Mr. Lumley describes the dialogue journal as a ``cycle [that] forms an ongoing written conversation, a direct link between students.'' As he sees it, the journal addresses several student needs: They writ e daily, have ``real, responding audiences,'' and begin to identify more closely with literature.

Lynne Alvine, a small-town high school teacher in the lower Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, says ``when I first came to Bread Loaf, I was probably either ready to leave teaching or become fossilized.'' She used to teach literature in the traditional lecture format. Now, with her students often breaking off into small groups for discussion or writing to each other, she says, ``I probably do 25 percent of the talking.''

Bread Loaf's emphasis on written dialogue now extends to the teachers' home schools. Some teachers will take advantage of the 1984 gift from the Apple Education Foundation of $75,000 worth of microcomputer equipment for their research projects. Those plugged into ``Breadnet'' will be able to initiate long-distance dialogues both for themselves and their students. Teachers expect cross-country interchanges to grow into essays about the similarities and differences between students' social and natur al environments.

How teachers coming out of Bread Loaf interact with their schools back home varies. Some, facing bureaucratic obstinacy, must temper their changes or switch schools, as Vicki Holmsten has done. Bread Loaf graduate Jim Lobdell, on the other hand, has helped to transform the Petaluma High School English Department and assumed its chair.

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