MHC Hosts Teaching, Learning, Leading Conference

Posted: October 15, 2008

Nearly 100 Mount Holyoke women spanning five decades of graduating classes gathered on campus over the Columbus Day weekend for an "education summit" convened by the Alumnae Association and the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts to share ideas, perspectives, and experiences from their lives as teachers.

The conference, titled Teaching, Learning, Leading, was a chance for alumnae to reconnect with the College and at the same time forge personal and professional bonds with other generations of graduates. Among the dozens of connections made during the gathering was that between Marcia Webb '87, who teaches Spanish to eighth graders at an independent school in Hartford, Connecticut, and Susan Geller Ettenheim '75, who has built a career out of her passion for using new media and the Internet to promote learning and to create virtual communities. After one of the panel discussions, when Gamble Auditorium had cleared, the pair sat together behind the podium.

Ettenheim knows a Spanish teacher at the New York City public school where she teaches media technology and art who wants to connect students to counterparts in other parts of the country and the world. "I've been trying for two years to get a Spanish group together," Ettenheim said. Each had their respective laptops open as Ettenheim guided Webb through the process of creating an interactive discussion group on a platform Ettenheim helped develop. Webb agreed to be the administrator and together they crafted language for the mission, "to bring together and connect students and teachers to broaden their understanding of Spanish language and culture."

Other connections at the conference spanned international borders. Two of the invited presenters, Beatriz Gutierrez and Fernando Soberanes, related their experiences as leaders in the Oaxacan Coalition of Indigenous Teachers and Promoters (CMPIO). Their organization has been at the forefront of a decades-long struggle to fight efforts by the Mexican government to suppress indigenous communities. They spoke of the how the role of teachers goes beyond instructing pupils, extending to preserving endangered cultures. A film, Granito de Arena(A Grain of Sand), documents the often violent responses the Mexican government has been launching against teachers who organize to resist assaults on public education. The filmmaker, Jill Friedberg, showed her work and participated in a panel where the discussion revealed that educators in the United States are chafing against the homogenizing effects of standardized exams in much the same way as are their counterparts around the world.

Mount Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton opened the conference invoking the mission of the College as articulated by its founder, Mary Lyon, in 1837. The institution was to be "principally devoted to the preparing of female teachers," Creighton relayed, remarking on the expansive ideals embedded in Lyon's words. The school was to give an "extensive and well-balanced English education connected to that general improvement, that moral culture, and those enlarged views of duty, which will prepare ladies to be educators of children and youth, rather than to fit them to be mere teachers." That vision, said Creighton, "was persuasive and influential at the time and into the present." Today, fully 20 percent of Mount Holyoke alumnae work in pedagogy or in a field related to education.

Paulette Thompson '85, who moderated a panel discussion on Diversity and Equality: Local Communities and Global Implications, said that she viewed the conference as "a time to reflect" and an opportunity for educators to "talk to one another and to share ideas." Thompson, who teaches history and French studies at a high school in Seattle, believes in sharing stories in the classroom. "It is important for all students to get to know who they are and that they don't live in a vacuum," she said.

Sonia Nieto, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of several books, including the 1992 classic Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, gave the keynote address. She noted that 85 percent of teachers in the United States are white monolingual English speakers, whereas almost a third of the population is African American or Latino and nearly one in five people speak a language other than English at home.

Nieto also spoke of what it takes to be a caring and committed teacher. She believes that "a passion for social justice" should be at the heart of education. Nieto wants teachers to "think about the power relations in the classroom, in the school, and in society." Teachers, said Nieto, should "have a sense of mission," which she defined as displaying "solidarity and empathy with their students," and having "the courage to challenge mainstream knowledge and conventional wisdom."

Presenters in another panel discussion, called Curricular Reform: Who Owns the Curriculum?, raised questions, as laid out in the program, about "how to enfranchise and empower students within a market-based political economy." Webb told the conference that she "strives to build a classroom where kids have some ownership" of the curriculum. Stephanie Mackler '98 prefaced her comments by saying that she wanted to connect the discussion of primary and secondary education with concerns that are voiced in higher education. At the heart of the topic the panel was asked to consider, she said, is an inquiry into "how we want students to turn out" and, in an even broader sense, what kind of society we are aiming for. "The national discourse has strayed from questions of purpose and questions of meaning," Mackler said. "We need to start bringing that conversation out into the light." Students spend about 20,000 hours in the classroom by the time they graduate from high school, according to Mackler, who is a professor at Cornell College in Iowa, but rarely do they get the opportunity to think about the meaning of education.

The conference was conceived as the beginning of a longer conversation within the Mount Holyoke community and beyond. Most of the sessions were streamed live over the Internet through a Wiki Web site created especially for the event. They are archived for others to see at their convenience. Some people who wanted to be at the conference but couldn't travel to South Hadley participated online and their comments to a moderated chat room were projected on a screen above the panelists in real time.

Lenore Reilly Carlisle, a professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke who participated in a panel on MHC and Its Educational Mission, framed the conference as "a vehicle to begin important and compelling conversations." Participants are striving to harness the Internet in a way that will allow them to stay engaged with each other and with the issues they are grappling with individually and collectively. "This is not a one-shot deal," Carlisle said. "Our aim is with the use of technology--to establish a number of communities of inquiry and practice that can continue addressing critical questions and issues ... [because] everyone here has a vested interest in quality reform in education."

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