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Notes from the CFT Library: Books on Expanding the Borders of the Classroom

This article was originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

By Dave Jensen

The Center for Teaching has a growing library of materials related to teaching, including books, videotapes, journals, and articles. These materials are available to any teacher at Vanderbilt; you may browse while in the library or check materials out. The library is located at the Center for Teaching, Calhoun 116.

Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life . Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Best described as an “itinerant teacher,” Parker Palmer leads workshops and writes on the interconnections between teaching, social change, and spirituality. True to its title, The Courage to Teach focuses its attention on the “inner life” of the teacher, something which Palmer claims has been neglected in an age more concerned with tricks of the trade and products of the profession. Contrary to many prevailing winds that would blame teachers for a host of educational ills, Palmer claims that most attempts at educational reform have bypassed the central agents for meaningful change: teachers who give heart to their students.

Written with conviction and elegance, Palmer’s book is part motivational text, part spiritual autobiography. He writes, “I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover unchartered territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us…then teaching is the finest work I know. But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused-and I am so powerless to do anything about it-that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham.” Peppered with references to his own trials and struggles as a teacher, The Courage to Teach may strike some readers as self-indulgent. Glimpsed as a whole, however, the book has a clear purpose: to encourage teachers who have lost heart (and at times, this includes all of us) to recover the passion that brought them to the profession. By focusing on the “who” of teaching, rather than the “what” and “how,” Palmer’s work is a refreshing read and a compelling piece of pedagogical self-discovery.

Janet Eyler, Dwight E. Giles, and Angela Schmiede, A Practitioner’s Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning , Vanderbilt, 1996.

Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles are professors at Peabody who are currently teaching a seminar on service-learning in higher education. Both have done extensive research on the theory and practice of service-learning. What makes their recent guidebook unique-and accessible–is its focus on student reflection. The purpose of their work is clear: “to draw upon student testimony of successful reflection and to translate their stories into practice.”

Interactive by design, A Practitioner’s Guide can be used as teachers plan courses with a service-learning component, or in the middle of the semester as a means of assessing course design and content. Eyler and Giles encourage educators to get as much feedback from students as possible: the more time teachers provide for student reflection throughout the semester, the greater the benefits of service-learning. Chapters three and four are especially helpful in this regard, and offer several examples of reflective exercises. As a book that draws on actual student experiences of service-learning in practice, this guide is unparalleled.

Jane Tompkins, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned . Addison-Wesley, 1996.

In this memoir, Tompkins maps out the experiences which have led her to see the shortcomings in our educational system, from grade school through university education. She argues that school should-but generally does not-teach us how to live as people and how to understand ourselves. “A holistic approach to education,” she argues, “would recognize that a person must learn how to be with other people, how to love, how to take criticism, how to grieve, how to have fun, as well as how to add and subtract, multiply and divide. It would address the need for purpose and for connectedness to ourselves and one another.” This is the approach she endorses and calls for.

Tompkins addresses her background as a literary critic and professor of English at Duke University, which she calls “a tale of success shadowed by ignorance.” Although she made great strides in her field, becoming a well-known figure, she explains that her work taught her very little about the things that really mattered. In her striving to achieve as much as possible in school and then in her career, she bought into a system that cares little for the individual human being. She then discusses the events that led her to a new perspective.

Tompkins writes in a personal and impassioned tone. She has harsh criticism for academia, arguing, “The university has come to resemble an assembly line, a mode of production that it professes to disdain. Each professor gets to turn one little screw–his specialty–and the student comes to him to get that screw turned. Then on to the next. The integrating function is left entirely to the student…. It would be more helpful to students if, as a starting point, universities conceived education less as training for a career than as the introduction to a life.” Her reflections also offer hope, however, and provide validation for the powerful role teachers can play in the lives of their students-and the profound impact students can have on their teachers.

Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices . Jossey-Bass, 1996.

This recent work offers an excellent introduction to the concept of service-learning: that higher education needs to focus not only on the life of the mind, but also on pressing human needs, offering a campus voice to the social problems of our day. Organized in the form of short essays, the book is designed as a resource for teachers unfamiliar with the idea of service-learning, and as a handbook for educators who want to implement service-learning in their own classrooms. Each essay concludes with a comprehensive bibliography, offering a wealth of current research and examples of service-learning in practice.

The value of this book is that it combines the latest in theory with numerous concrete examples for implementing service-learning in course design, class activities, and extended immersion experiences (such as alternative spring break explorations). A further strength of the volume is an appendix that lists the addresses, phone numbers, and websites of national organizations that support service-learning. Teachers who consult this book will soon find out that they are not alone in building bridges between academe and the communities in which we live.