TWO years ago Mary Bonner, a 25-year teaching veteran, felt her teaching was going a bit stale. Like many other long-term teachers, she saw a need for both new inspiration - and new information. Her knowledge of 11th-grade American literature was sound, ``but the whole approach to literary criticism has changed since my graduate work,'' she says. With no college nearby and little chance for a sabbatical, taking a refresher course was not an option.
That changed last year. Ms. Bonner went back to school - salaried and tuition free, as one of the first ``teachers in residence'' at the University of Virginia's Center for the Liberal Arts.
The center, begun in 1984, funded mostly by grants and aimed at shedding the university's image of exclusivity, sends scholars out to lecture in Virginia public schools on topics ranging from Shakespeare to physics.
The center has won the support of the college administration and 200 professors: 135 from the university, 65 from 35 other colleges and universities nationwide, now lead center workshops.
One seminar last year explored the ``lost generation'' of 1920s Left Bank writers just as the topic came up in the Charlottesville curriculum, says Pat Stacy, a teacher at Charlottesville High School. ``They regaled us with personal stories about Faulkner and Steinbeck, and things about Sinclair Lewis I'd never known before,'' she says. ``I went to class armed'' with anecdotes.
``It really gives me a better feeling about being an expert,'' says Katheryn Sublette, a teacher at Western Albemarle High School in Crozet, Va. Ms. Sublette, who has participated in workshops sponsored by the center, adds, ``We've learned how to probe.''
A handful of other states have tried similar programs linking public universities and high schools. But Jerry Martin, director of education programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, says the University of Virginia program is ``easily the most extensive involvement of a state university's humanities scholars with teachers that I've seen.''
Harold Kolb, director of the center and an English professor at the university, says 18 states have requested information on the program. Educators in West Germany and Australia have shown interest as well.
The center is also helping some schools change their curricula. Teachers, says E.D. Hirsch, the Virginia professor who wrote ``Cultural Literacy,'' must be able to ``cleverly attach what a student already knows to what you want him to learn. It's a very difficult process, and teachers have to know a lot.''
``How do you teach Huck Finn this year when you've taught it for the last 10 years?'' asks Marilyn Fantino, another teacher. ``How do you teach it with the same enthusiasm you had during the first two years?''
It's the annual classroom conundrum. Virginia's teachers may be finding a solution.