Feeding the Hunger’For Intellectual Growth’

By Lynn Olson — January 11, 1989 6 min read

In the last two years, Shirley Brown, who teaches in the Philadelphia schools, has created new courses for teenage mothers on children’s literature and on the role of women in history.

Bonnie M. Davis, a St. Louis teacher, has helped write the black-history section of her school district’s curriculum.

And in Los Angeles, Neil Anstead has helped develop an interdisciplinary curriculum on human rights and genocide.

At a time when many are calling for more direct teacher involvement in school decisionmaking, these teachers offer one example of how that can happen.

All three are part of a national network known as chart, or Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching.

The five-year-old program, created by the Rockefeller Foundation, represents a multimillion-dollar investment in curriculum reform and in the professional development of educators.

As its basic mission, chart attempts to broaden participants’ exposure to the arts and humanities, so that they in turn can enrich their students’ learning.

Through chart, teachers study with scholars, attend summer institutes, write about topics that interest them, and design lecture series and workshops. In addition, many chart teachers write curricula and design courses for their students.

In addition to chart, a handful of national philanthropies, such as the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, have also created teacher collaboratives that strengthen educators’ knowledge of such disciplines as mathematics and science.

According to Dennis R. Lubeck, executive director of the International Education Consortium in St. Louis, one of 11 chart programs, “Teachers are really starved for the kind of intellectual growth that comes from these projects.”

“They’re also starved for the kind of intellectual community that develops,” he says.

The chart network is currently operating in nine urban school districts and in the rural areas of two states. It involves approximately 8,000 teachers, primarily at the high-school level.

Since 1983, the Rockefeller Foundation has awarded some $4.3 million to the network--a sum that has been augmented by contributions from local sources.

All chart programs are shaped in consultation with participating teachers. In addition, each affiliate works to involve local schools, businesses, universities, and cultural agencies in support of its efforts.

While some programs focus on a single subject area, others are concerned with a number of arts and humanities disciplines.

The International Education Consortium in St. Louis, for instance, helps teachers like Ms. Davis present students with a more coherent view of international issues and of foreign cultures in all subjects.

The humanitas project in Los Angeles allows teachers like Mr. Anstead to form schoolwide interdisciplinary teams that promote the teaching of themes across subjects.

And Arts propel in Pittsburgh ties the study of music, the visual arts, and imaginative writing to an experiment to improve the assessment of artistic skills and knowledge.

According to chart participants, the programs offer teachers a chance to become re-engaged with their disciplines and to revive their professional lives.

“Particularly in a context where most of your teaching responsibilities are obligated by either state or district mandates, it’s really refreshing for teachers to find themselves working in a network with other teachers and college faculty in order to develop some original projects,” says Jack C. Blodgett, director of the Rural Education Alliance for Collaborative Humanities in South Carolina.

The alliance, which is one of chart’s newest projects, tries to provide students and teachers in isolated rural communities with a more extensive exposure to the arts and humanities than would be typical.

In St. Louis, Ms. Davis, an English teacher at Oakville Senior High School, says chart “has completely turned my life around.”

“I had always enjoyed teaching,” she explains, “but I did not think of teaching as a profession. I thought of it as a good job.”

Since becoming involved with chart, however, Ms. Davis has visited Africa with a group of 15 other teachers, worked to introduce African literature into the curriculum, and become active in nearly a dozen professional associations.

Ms. Brown says the chart network in her community, known as paths, or the Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching Humanities in the Schools, has changed her professional life “100 percent.”

“I loved having the independence to design and administer a program that I thought was important and to do it in a way which I thought was appropriate,” she says.

“It’s very validating to be able to do that,” she adds. “It makes teachers feel like the professionals they are: We can have a voice in what goes on in the classroom in a very meaningful way. We can design programs that we think will have an impact and test whether or not they do.”

To celebrate chart’s fifth anniversary, the Rockfeller Foundation last month published a booklet called “Helping Schools Work.” The pamphlet outlines what foundation officials have learned from the program and makes recommendations about the role of teachers in school reform more generally.

According to the booklet, teachers must play a major role in any program that is to have an impact on teaching and learning.

“Programs conceived and planned by others and then handed down to teachers ignore insights that teachers can offer about the realities of life in the classroom,” it states.

In addition, the booklet recommends:

A “team approach” to teacher renewal to overcome isolation and build networks that sustain teachers.

Recognition to help teachers feel better about what they do and reach their highest level of performance.

The infusion of rich and challenging intellectual content into inservice training programs.

Chart participants also stress that teachers have a particularly strong role to play in the development of curriculum.

“What we are best at is curriculum and how to teach it,” says Mr. Anstead, academic director of humanitas and coordinator of the Cleveland Humanities High School in Los Angeles. “That’s where teachers should really be participating in the management of schools.”

Those involved with chart admit that they are a self-selected group. Teachers volunteer for the program and contribute countless hours to make it work. But the same teachers claim that they are starting to have a “ripple effect” throughout their school systems.

In Philadelphia, for example, every school in the system now has some type of paths/prism program focused on the humanities, science, or mathematics.

And in Pittsburgh, critical-thinking skills and arts curricula that were developed as part of the chart network are being implemented districtwide.

“You’re not going to persuade every teacher to take something like this on,” says Ms. Brown of Philadelphia.

But other people will be encouraged to participate, led by those in the vanguard, she asserts, explaining that “there’s a certain amount of contagious enthusiasm.”

The projects are also changing instruction within the classroom on an ongoing basis.

Most of the chart programs focus on the education of disadvantaged youngsters in particular, says Judith Renyi, director of chart.

“We are trying to make a statement about what it is possible to do in large urban settings or in rural settings where, traditionally, we’ve allowed too many of the kids to fail academically,” she says.

Her participation in the program, Ms. Brown says, has enabled her to “personalize” her teaching, by focusing more on students’ writing and on discussion than on “purely academic discourse.”

And Ms. Davis says her teaching has gone from a “lecture format to a student-centered format.”

In addition, she says, “I am always excited. I feel so good about myself, because of all the things that have come to me, that I take that back to my students, and they see me in a completely different light.”

In Los Angeles, says Mr. Anstead, evaluations have found that student attendance, test scores, writing, and attitudes all have improved as a result of the humanitas program.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Feeding the Hunger’For Intellectual Growth’