Bonding Through Books

A superintendent’s unique approach to forging a shared understanding among staff through group discussions of great literature by TERRANCE L. FURIN

"Why do I have to go to school today?"


This is a question asked recently by an energetic 12-year-old as he explained how he had a report due soon and believed he could do it better working at home than at school. At home, he noted, he had access to the Internet as well as special cable TV programs. At school he had to sit in disjointed classes listening to disconnected lectures.

As America’s educational leaders, we need to ask ourselves the same question if we hope to shape the powerful forces affecting public education into a vision for the new millennium.

If schools are to remain viable, then classrooms must be transformed into learning communities wherein deep ideas are developed in the richest sense. In such communities, technology needs to support a diverse curriculum that passionately challenges and excites the intellect of every student.

Learning Communities
In the Owen J. Roberts School District we are trying to build such communities by pursuing four design principles:

learning is the cultivation of intelligence;
  • the interaction between teacher and learner should be positive and symbiotic;
  • diverse resources should be utilized; and
  • flexible scheduling is necessary to achieve success.

Board members, administrators and teachers have formed learning communities in which we explore works of great literature containing important ideas and issues related to these principles. By so doing, we hope to continuously build a common philosophy that defines our mission as public educators.

A Curious Assignment
Our collective reading and discussion groups around literature began in 1990. Shortly after I assumed the superintendency, I asked the district’s 18 administrators to read--and be prepared to discuss--a book many had last encountered in senior high, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Naturally, such an assignment by a new superintendent raised considerable curiosity among staff who were not accustomed to this type of a meeting.

This was the birth of our "community of learners" as we explored the deep meanings of Hemingway’s novel. I asked the nine members of our school board to read the same work after a somewhat divisive election in 1992. This easily readable yet deeply symbolic novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author permitted us to develop a common focus rather than dwell upon highly divergent political and philosophical differences.

After a spirited discussion on topics such as the religious symbolism of the novel, we developed effective ground rules for future interaction among members of the board and administrative team. These included the need for advanced preparation, respect for differences of opinion, open mindedness, a focus on ideas rather than individuals, good listening skills and a willingness to accept the majority view.

In the years since, we have turned to group discussions of great literature on many occasions. Some of these, such as the design of new schools or the creation of a vision for integrating technology, have maximized the teachable moment to develop and manifest our common philosophy.

Another example is the induction of new teachers. As part of a districtwide program, 36 new teachers met with administrators prior to the start of the year to read and consider H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, an up-close account of a small Texas town dominated by the fortunes of its high school football team. The book was a powerful stimulus for a discussion on the role of public education in a democracy.

At another session, the board members and administrators digested Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man to illuminate the role of educational testing. The participants also completed a 1950s’ version of an IQ test. Subsequently, board members and professional staff continued their examination of testing by reading Grant Wiggins’ Assessing Student Performance. Wiggins himself led the discussion that moved us to develop a shared philosophy before adopting the school district’s new standardized testing program.

The newly hired teachers will complete their first-year induction program by discussing some of the key concepts in Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency. We also asked our board members and administrators to read this work along with Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Together, these books formed the basis for a spirited discussion on current autocratic practices in our schools.

As we read Foucault’s work, which deals with visible and invisible power structures, we arranged for our administrators to visit an historic prison similar to Foucault’s "panopticon." This was done in preparation for the designing of two new schools in our district, which is located 45 miles northwest of Philadelphia. We asked 50 high school students and elementary teachers to contribute to the design process after suggesting they read books by Witold Rybczynski (The Most Beautiful House in the World and Home) and Thomas Markus (Buildings and Power).

Interdisciplinary Themes
Teachers from all levels helped develop the district’s strategic plan by participating in discussion groups over the past several years. Some of these discussions focused on political and educational philosophy and used John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile and John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Other discussions concentrated on contemporary issues and used works such as Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, Richard Gibboney’s The Stone Trumpet and John Goodlad’s A Place Called School.

An especially effective dialogue group occurred when high school teachers explored interdisciplinary and thematic learning. The theme, suggested by a staff member, was racial bigotry. They turned to Stanley Elkin’s book Slavery, which contains a powerful comparison between American slavery and Nazi concentration camps. Schindler’s List--both the book by Thomas Keneally and the film by Stephen Spielberg--along with Elie Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy provided background for a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Anne Van Dyck, director of Pennsylvania’s Human Rights Commission, led a discussion in our schools on the current recruitment of youth by neo-Nazi organizations in the United States. This was followed by a potent public seminar led by a former propaganda chief of the Aryan Nations, Floyd Cochran.

This model helped teachers understand the value of an interdisciplinary curriculum, and some have since designed their own units called MAC (Making a Connection).

The emphasis of administrative discussions this year is the role of technology in our schools. We are reading and discussing works by Mark Twain and Maxine Greene, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn reaches its climax in chapter 16 when a monstrous steamboat crashes into Huck and Jim’s handcrafted raft. This conflict between the brutal forces of technology and the idyllic peacefulness of a pastoral society is examined further in Greene’s essay "Steamboats and Critiques."

Later this month administrators, board members and eight members of the district’s technology group will contrast Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, with Joel A. Barker’s popular video "Discovering the Future" that has made Kuhn’s term "paradigm" a favorite among educators. We also will re-examine William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as this work provides penetrating insight into the dynamics of change--something we must understand and appreciate if we are to build a 21st-century technology-rich curriculum.

Superintendent’s Prerogative
The choice of books for our group reading and discussion has come from many sources.

Some, such as 7 Kinds of Smart by Thomas Armstrong, Assessing Student Performance by Grant Wiggins, There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and The Shopping Mall High School by Arthur G. Powell and others were suggested by members of the staff. A session last year that focused on Laurence Steinberg’s Beyond the Classroom was recommended by some board members after they heard the author speak at the University of Pennsylvania.

As superintendent, I have chosen many of the books that, in my view, help define our culture and push our thinking beyond the commonplace. For example, the opening sentence of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract ("Man was/is born free, and everywhere he is in chains") formed the basis for several lively philosophic discussions regarding the current tension in public education between democratic and autocratic forces.

Honoring Intelligence
By actively discussing profound ideas, we are, I believe, creating a school district that values learning in the truest sense for all 3,795 of our students, as well as among our administrators, teachers and governing board members. These discussion groups have become part of our school culture, and staff development dollars to purchase the reading materials for all participants now are part of our annual budget. Compared to many less substantive staff development programs, we think this is a good expenditure.

By honoring intelligence in the richest sense we hope to find what Albert Schweitzer referred to as "the cathedral within each human being." Perhaps we also someday will find the answer to the question: "Why do I have to go to school today?"

Terry Furin is superintendent of the Owen J. Roberts School District, 901 Ridge Road, Pottstown, Pa. 19465. E-mail: tfurin@ojr.k12.pa.us