March 30, 2015 | By Jake Weber
"It is almost impossible for me to imagine what this course would have looked like without the community," says Jess Roberts about English 314, an upper-level Albion College class offered for the first time last fall, and perhaps better known by its rather catchy name, Practical Persuasion.
The associate professor utilized a budding local initiative as an extended, hands-on classroom for her new professional writing course, and the end result is one of Albion's most ambitious college/community joint projects, one that will make an impact throughout 2015.
Wanting her students to experience the demands and results of a real-world writing project, Roberts hit upon The Big Read, a nationally competitive community-reading grant program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Big Read offered several valuable exercises for the class. First and foremost, according to Roberts, writing the application required that students “write for an audience that is neither academic nor imagined." From the beginning, the students knew that their work would be evaluated not just by a professor but ultimately by a review board at the NEA. And it would be judged against real competition, with the outcome—a potential $8,500 award—likely resonating beyond any class grade.
While knowing full well that The Big Read would benefit her students, Roberts was equally aware that the project couldn't and wouldn't make sense as anything but a joint effort. "In a very real sense, the class simply would not have existed had it not been for a number of different people,” she says. “The willingness of members of the community to give their time and energy made it possible for me to pursue The Big Read, and The Big Read application was the defining project for the class."
A group of community members took only a month to identify and evaluate several potential Big Read book candidates, of the 37 titles offered by the NEA. In the end, the committee selected the 1968 young-adult fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Given that Albion's population is roughly one-third African-American (with 63 percent of Albion Public Schools students identifying as nonwhite), A Wizard of Earthsea was chosen in part for its hero, Ged, who is described as having “red-brown” skin and so is a person of color. Albion Public Schools Superintendent Jerri-Lynn Williams-Harper stresses that Ged is open to greater identification among all readers. "It could be me, or you; everyone can insert themselves into this book,” she says.
By the time Roberts' three course participants arrived on campus in August, they had their work cut out for them. Realizing the potential of The Big Read to do more than simply encourage reading, the committee added two additional goals: it should empower youth, and it should encourage interaction between individuals who don’t regularly come into contact with one another. Aware of President Mauri Ditzler's stated intention to build relationships between the College and the community, the committee also determined that The Big Read should encourage Albion College's students, faculty, and staff to participate.
Roberts recalled one of the committee's early brainstorming sessions during which student Madeline Drury, ’15, made a key contribution. "Maddie commented that what she, as an Albion College student, craved were 'meaningful interactions' that extended over time, involved trust and exchange, and were mutual," Roberts said. "That phrase became one the committee returned to over and over."
These added Big Read goals led the students to new perspectives on the community and its residents. "As we put together this program that had young people at its center, Harry Bonner (director of many programs for youth in Albion) said it was important that the students meet with young people," said Roberts. "My students needed to hear what the kids thought when there were no adults in the room—or, rather, when they were the only adults in the room."
It was, to say the least, an "eye-opening" experience, said Drury, who previously had established several close friendships with peers from the community. "We asked the middle schoolers about spaces they and their peers feel drawn to, like Holland Park. I had just become aware of Holland Park, and I believe that I had been more acclimated with the community than the average college student," she said. "It was meaningful to hear from local children."
Holland Park is situated on the grounds of Albion’s former West Ward Elementary, which was a segregated school until its closure in 1953 following the efforts of local civil rights leader Robert Holland Sr.
"After speaking to the middle schoolers, we knew what to put more emphasis on. They were really interested in a 'Chopped'-type cooking event,” said Albion College student Diana Gomez, ’15, referring to the competition show on TV’s Food Network and potential Albion programming to support The Big Read. “We also realized that a true 'open mic night' might be a little daunting, but a gallery/coffee-shop atmosphere for student art inspired by The Big Read would be a better way of having their talent showcased—without putting them on the spot."
As a result of The Big Read committee/Practical Persuasion class collaboration, Albion's proposal is now under consideration by the NEA. Grant recipients for 2015 will be announced in mid-April. One remarkable aspect of Albion's application is the proposal to have seventh, eighth, and ninth graders lead book discussions. "We want to empower youth, so we put them at the helm of the community’s most direct engagement with the book," Roberts explains.
"We live in a society that's not as bureaucratic as it was in the past," Williams-Harper elaborated. "Most jobs require working in a team and collaborating. This is a chance where we get to trust what we've taught them, and let them use their ideas and energies and see their understanding of what the world is."
Roberts is designing a five-day workshop this August, to teach the youth leaders "to identify and hone the skills they need to lead discussions and also to expose them to a college campus. They will tour our facilities, talk to folks in Admission and Financial Aid, meet with faculty and current students, and experience in some small way what it feels like to be in college," she says. "Though I would certainly hope that the experience will lead some of them to consider Albion in the future, I hope more than anything to help make college a viable possibility for all of them. Doing so requires not only cultivating their academic and social skills and confidence, but also helping them see themselves in a place like this."
"We also want to encourage college students to explore our community," Drury said. "It is so important for college students to identify with the town as well as the college, understanding that they also have something to learn from the community and its citizens. In inviting our community onto our campus, we share with them new learning opportunities; and when college students explore areas beyond the campus, they will see what the community has to offer them as well."
(in alphabetical order)
Kimberly Arndts, assistant director of donor relations and stewardship, Albion College, and vice president, Albion District Library Board of Trustees
Harry Bonner, executive director, Kids at Hope and Substance Abuse Prevention Services
Michael Culliver, at-risk coordinator, Albion Public Schools
Madeline Drury, Albion College student
Mandy Dubiel, director of admission, Albion College
Mae Ola Dunklin, Albion NAACP and retired Albion educator
Diana Gomez, Albion College student
Dianne Guenin-Lelle, professor of French, Albion College, and chair, Albion Sister City Committee
Tess Haadsma, Albion College student
Jess Roberts, associate professor of English, Albion College
Mary Slater, owner, Albion Heritage Bed & Breakfast, and secretary, Friends of the Bohm Theatre Board of Directors
Cindy Stanczak, interim director, Albion District Library
Jerri-Lynn Williams-Harper, superintendent, Albion Public Schools
Gregg Strand, director of corporate and foundation relations and the College’s grant writer, brought the students some professional perspective on the project. "The students would show Gregg what they were working on and Gregg would show them how their ideas could be transformed into something for the grant," Roberts said. "He would, in effect, think aloud in front of us, working his way through different rhetorical strategies, working his way from our amorphous idea to something fundable. I think the students gained a lot from seeing how a grant writer thinks about how and what to communicate."
Strand, who met regularly with the students for several weeks, also noted their progress from "writing students" to writers. "At first they seemed like they were fulfilling an assignment and their writing was detached and a bit idealistic, but an ’aha moment’ came when we were working on the section about partnership," Strand said. "I asked them to think about the public library, our public school teachers, and all of the volunteers on The Big Read committee, and then consider how The Big Read program should 'come up alongside' these partners and the work that they do every day.
"Their reaction told me something clicked," he added, "and I saw they had a better sense that grants are not just a good story or a means to money, but they are a way to strengthen and foster community collaboration. It seemed, after that, the students were hands-on and the proposal turned out awesome, as will The Big Read."
Roberts, her students, and Strand also prepared presentations and grant proposals to secure local funding—from the Albion-Homer United Way; the Linda Kochinski Fund and Albion Youth Advisory Council Fund (both administered through the Albion Community Foundation); and the Albion Rotary Club. Albion College, local residents, and local institutions have contributed an additional $40,000 in goods and services.
"Whether or not we get the grant from the NEA, this is still something that everyone is so invested in and that we know is going to happen," said Tess Haadsma, ’15. "That’s really satisfying to me."
These smaller "start-to-finish" projects turned out to be an integral part of the teaching and learning process, Roberts explained. "The community gave my students a real audience to talk to—they found themselves explaining again and again what The Big Read is and why someone might care about it. They talked to the city manager, the city council, the school board, the NAACP, the local [Albion College] alumni chapter, and others."
"I know I was pretty nervous," Haadsma added, "and I think Maddie and Diana were as well, because it was the first time we had ever given a presentation outside of the classroom where there was something real at stake. In retrospect, we probably didn’t need to be nervous at all, because everyone was so supportive.”
Roberts, perhaps, sees it a bit differently: "They got better at it, and they knew it."
The Big Read committee itself served as a valuable resource for Drury, Gomez, and Haadsma as well. "At these meetings," says Roberts, "the students listened and participated as leaders in the community—the school superintendent, the interim director of the library, the secretary of the NAACP, and others—discussed how to create a program that would engage as much of our population as possible: the young and the not-so-young; readers, reluctant readers, and nonreaders; fantasy enthusiasts and folks with deep reservations about the genre; people of different cultural backgrounds."
"Small towns are incredible hosts for collaboration and ideas," Williams-Harper adds. "In a small town, who don't you see and meet? You know everyone, from the grocer to the college president, because they're here all the time. I'm so proud of Jess Roberts because she's pooled the talents of a town at every level. It is important to validate what people feel and think, and I'm excited to celebrate that through The Big Read."
Reading and associated community events around A Wizard of Earthsea are being planned through the summer and fall of 2015. For more information on these events, contact Jess Roberts () or Albion District Library Interim Director Cindy Stanczak ().