10:33 a.m., June 29, 2009----Deborah Bieler's Spring 2009 course on Women and Educational Reform was not just about doing the reading and writing papers; it also was about the students leaving their own imprint on local schools through hands-on team projects.
During the first part of the course, the students studied a wide variety of women educational reformers. They learned about women from Alice Dunbar Nelson, an early 20th-century activist in Delaware who taught at Howard High School and later founded the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Marshallton, to Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools.
“As the students learned about these women, they began to recognize that they, too, could make a difference and help improve education,” Bieler said. Because it was a small class of 10, the students got to know each other well and in the second part of the semester divided into teams and developed different projects that matched their skills and interests.
“The women reformers we studied used diverse methods to effect change, and so we viewed their films; read their poetry, novels, and blogs; and studied the educational policies they wrote. A turning point in the course was, I think, when we studied Gloria Ladson-Billings' work, and the students really wrestled with the idea of culturally relevant teaching as they began planning their own projects,” Bieler said. “At this point, they really had to decide, for example, if it is better for a potential reformer to come in from the outside and impose her views from the top down, or for her to listen and learn from the bottom up, from the community members themselves, about what is going on and what is needed.”
Bieler added, “I was proud of the students in this class because they made the decision to put in an extraordinary amount of time and thought to learn from the community what was needed, rather than just acting on the assumption that they already knew what was needed.”
One group collected art supply donations, and filled a previously-empty supply closet at Lake Forest High School with everyday recyclable items that can be used for creating art and increasing the diversity of media that art students need to demonstrate in college admission portfolios. These materials were donated by restaurant patrons, bingo players and UD students, Bieler said. This group's work was sustainable in that it inspired the Lake Forest High School community to continue to save these items and donate them to appreciative art students.
Another group worked with an Urban Promise after-school center in Wilmington to establish a multicultural library for the children. They got to know the children during read-aloud sessions that they held (with snacks), evaluated the kids' reading levels, and researched positive multicultural books. “This group of students were creative fundraisers. They held a 50/50 raffle and raised an amazing $800 to buy new books for the Urban Promise library,” Bieler said.
A third group met with students at William Penn High School to help them start to plan for their futures. This group made a PowerPoint presentation on motivation, setting goals, and considering college as an option.
When the students discovered that they could bring about educational change, they found it life-changing, Bieler said.
Bieler, who is an assistant professor of English and coordinator of the English education program, received UD's Excellence in Advising Award this year. She has her bachelor's and master's degrees from UD and her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and joined the UD faculty in 2005.
More information about the class projects is available online at a special Web site developed by one of the class members.
Article by Sue Moncure
Photo by Maggie Simeone