A press conference was staged recently in the Dana Hills High School social studies classroom of teacher Ronald Buchheim. The date was July 5, 1776. There were reporters from London, Paris, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Richmond. The politicians being interviewed were named Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Subject: a document signed the day before called the American Declaration of Independence.
The exchanges were tough. The reporters had to know enough about the issues to ask pointed questions, and Jefferson and Franklin frequently had to defend themselves. It was a good show for the observers, too. They were all students--reporters, observers and Founding Fathers. And they were all participants in a learning process that sent them from the classroom knowing a great deal more about the dynamics behind the beginnings of this country than they probably would have learned from reading or the most eloquent of lectures.
Buchheim was telling some of his fellow Orange County teachers about his classroom press conference a few weeks ago, and they were listening and taking notes before sharing some of their own experiences. The setting was a large conference room at UCI. The occasion was a convocation of the graduates of the second annual summer session of UCI's National Endowment for the Humanities Institute. And the prevailing feeling in this group of 60 mostly Orange County high school teachers was a melding of excitement, enthusiasm and creative energy.
There was Monty Armstrong from Cerritos High talking about the advantages of group teaching to catch the kids who "slide through the cracks." There was Eileen Springer from Foothill High deprecating "little educational modules that move around within a school." And Cheryl Swarner of Anaheim High standing up for the remedial readers "who can understand world problems, too, and don't have to be treated simplistically just because they can't read very well yet."
Feeling of Accomplishment
Watching, dipping in and out, and feeling very good about what they had wrought were UCI teachers Tom Wilson and Richard Regosin, who set all this energy in motion two years ago. Wilson is UCI's director of Instructional Development Services, and Regosin is a professor of French literature and former faculty chairman of the School of Humanities. Three years ago, both of them taught UCI's Humanities Core Course (Regosin was also the director), designed to improve new students' competence in English and introduce them to multi-disciplinary studies in literature, history and philosophy.
Both Regosin and Wilson were appalled to realize that their freshman students were "inadequately prepared to examine the material put before them analytically and critically, to determine its historical significance, to make reasoned aesthetic or moral judgments about it. They also lacked sophistication in their awareness of the uses of language."
What to do?
To Regosin and Wilson, the logical starting point had to be at the high school level. Wilson said:"We thought that if we could help high school teachers think continually and creatively about their own subject matter and how they teach it, their students might be better prepared."
They were also concerned--as Regosin explained--that high schools "were addressing the literacy crisis through a narrowly defined return to basics that sacrificed humanistic concerns." So the two UCI instructors designed a program "to help secondary teachers understand and apply in their teaching the modes of thought and analysis employed in the humanistic disciplines." Regosin put it this way: "We wanted to help teachers to generate thoughtful discussion, not just tell students facts they should be memorizing."
The National Endowment for the Humanities liked the idea and agreed to fund it for three years. Regosin and Wilson were off and running.
Message to Schools
Calling their creation the NEH Institute, the two took their message to Orange County high schools, where they recruited 50 teachers--mostly in English and the social sciences--for their first class, taught in the summer of 1984. Last summer, more students than they could take sought them out. And next year--the final session of the pilot program when the group will include some math and physical science teachers--Wilson and Regosin expect demand to exceed supply by an even greater margin as the word gets around among high school teachers who have observed their NEH peers in action.