On a grey-black, Friday afternoon
in December, the wind blew across the prairie scattering the
remainder of the fall leaves. My attention kept skittering
from my computer screen to gaze out my fourth-story office window
to watch winter begin. I couldn't capture the tone of
the article I was writing on the Echoes Project. "Surely,"
I told my resistant self, "I can capture this Project.
The tenth Echoes will roll off the presses early next year."
While I cajoled, bargained, and pleaded with my computer screen,
I searched for the voice that was hiding under a granite writer's
block, when my phone began to ring.
The first call swirled lyrical cadences,
as Jane, one of my students in the Advanced Composition class
who were writing the current Echoes book, began to describe
an e-mail message she had just received, "FROM AFRICA .
. ." She had chosen for her topic on local history
a woman for whom a prestigious lecture series is named.
Her search for primary sources to document the achievements
of the first American female to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics
from a European institution had led her to locate a mathematics
professor on the east coast who was currently on a sabbatical
leave in Africa. The professor's response to Jane's request
for information was more than positive: it was enthusiastically
affirmative as she asked the student to co-author a book on
this woman pioneer in mathematics.
Curiosity, tenacity, and research had
melded to lead this one student to contact university archives,
family members, acquaintances, and colleagues to discover the
essence as well as the facts on her topic. Indeed, her
assignment had become hers. I was only an interested bystander
now, an occasional source for information and someone with whom
to share such delightful news. Jane's sense of ownership
of her topic, her research, and her writing exemplifies the
best of the Echoes Project and why I persist in using this project
as a vehicle to teach students how to think, to research, and
A brief overview of the Echoes Project's
history may reveal this project's adaptability and applicability
to diverse teaching situations. I began this project out
of the determined exigency I experienced in 1977 when I returned
to high school teaching in a small, rural western Kentucky town.
Neither the school nor the surrounding community provided enough
research materials to fuel the intellectual curiosity I wanted
my students to develop in research writing. What this
area did have was a rich history, which was virtually unpreserved
in written form.
What I did at that juncture in my teaching
career is what Mina Shaughnessy labeled as "Diving In"
(238). I knew from my experience in originating and directing
a regional university's Writing Center what was NOT working
in many of the area high schools: the students neither understood
the research and writing processes nor did they have any particular
interest in acquiring them. Since I've always enjoyed
conducting research and writing, I tried to analyze The Why
and The How of my learning such activities and then to apply
the same experiences from my student-days to my teacher-days.
Two ideas emerged: I liked to "discover" information
and then to "share" it. So writing about the
local community and for the local community seemed reasonable.
The community itself could provide the research base from which
to work. It could also provide the audience for whom to
write. Having made these two decisions, I announced to
my senior English students that "we" were going to
write a book. And then we muddled through my inexperience
of knowing what producing a student-researched and written book
meant to produce the first Echoes. The experience with
this book was a huge success--with the students and with the
members of that community. I eventually conducted the
Echoes Project six times with my high school students, and each
time the teaching process became a little more organized and
a little more refined.
I then decided to conduct the project
as a formal research study with a freshmen-level, required writing
class at a nearby community college to attempt to analyze the
project's value as a pedagogical approach to teaching research
writing. I expected more from my college students than
I had from my high school students, both in quantity and quality.
And once again I realized, this time through careful ethnographical
analysis of the project and through case studies of five students,
that the Echoes Project fulfills, and often exceeds, my professional
objectives for research writing and that the students generally
become engaged in the processes and in the production of a good
final product. This duality of importance of stressing
"process and . . . product" (Lunsford
159) fulfills the immediate and the long-term goals I have for
When I accepted a position at Eureka
College, a liberal arts college with a campus-wide emphasis
in writing, I knew that I would attempt to conduct the Echoes
Project in yet another academic environment. I was, however,
concerned about the relationships between our students and members
of the local community. Unlike the first seven Echoes,
the eighth one was going to be researched by individuals who
were, for the most part, cultural outsiders. These students
were not the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren
of the local citizens--rather they came from around the world
to live in the dorms and to attend classes. Recognizing
the potential caveat, I, nevertheless, began another Echoes
Project. My initial fears were negated entirely when a
young woman from Japan conducted eight local interviews to elicit
the material she needed to write about Eureka College's mascot,
the Red Devil. She, like all of the students, had been
welcomed and encouraged by the members of the local community.
Now, the tenth Echoes (the third volume
at Eureka College) has been written and will be back from the
printers early this spring. From high school students,
to beginning college-level writers, to upper-level undergraduate
writers, the Echoes Project has proven to be effective.
The three essential components of the project that transcend
locality and current writing level of the students are (1) having
students choose a topic about the local community, (2) encouraging
the students to work collaboratively with each other and other
members of the academic community and the cultural community,
and (3) publishing the students' writing for a public audience.
The first of these components, having
the students choose a topic about the local community, is not
a new idea. Most notably, Eliot Wigginton opened the national
dialogue in this area in 1966 when he began his Foxfire approach
to teaching research writing to his high school students in
Rabun, Georgia, by having them leave the classroom and interview
local individuals to glean and to preserve the wisdom of how
to perform time-honored tasks. He found that by having
his students write on local topics the experience added "a
real dimension to those skills in the language arts that had
not been taught in a real way before [his emphasis]" ("Using"
30). Thomas Denton also found that his community college
students in Poughkeepsie, New York, were committed "to
a writing project in which the content derives from their own
purposeful investigation of subjects with their local community"
(iii). Wigginton's and Denton's experiences are neither
isolated nor idiosyncratic; Johnston, working with upper-level
college students in China; Simons, teaching high school students
to become folklorists; Haynes, documenting college students'
family histories in Saskatchewan; and others have had similar
positive teaching experiences in framing writing topics in the
lives and cultures of the communities of their students.
From Rabun to Poughkeepsie, from high schools to colleges, instructors
have confirmed that teaching composition and research skills
by having students write about their local community is a powerful
The Echoes' students have chosen an
incredible range of topics from their local communities; they
have researched and recorded the histories of all-black grade
schools and high schools which were prevalent prior to the desegregation
laws, studied the Tobacco War, recorded how to cure country
hams, learned about the institution of slavery and the underground
railroad, and documented the origins of churches, banks, radio
stations, a railroad, and an electrical company. The students
have also written about numerous individuals, and again the
range of their interests has been extensive from the "seventh
son of the seventh son" who could remove warts by the "laying
on" of hands to the first woman sheriff in Kentucky, and
from President Ronald Reagan during his college years (as my
current school's most famous alumnus) to "Big Six"
Henderson, a retired "revenooer" in the Golden Pond
area during Prohibition. Regardless of the academic community,
I've noticed that students have questions about their surrounding
community. This spark of curiosity is legitimized by the
classroom assignment. By providing a formal context to
guide the students' curiosity, they are granted permission to
begin to dig for the shards of uncontextualized information
which exist in attics, courthouse documents, archives, and memories.
After determining a topic on "local
history," which my students have defined to include any
event which happened last year or before and relates to anyone
who ever existed in "this" community, they begin their
researching and writing. I require multiple drafts throughout
this process so that the sheer weight of the resultant information
does not totally enervate the student-writers. Students
are encouraged to help each other and to tap the much larger
communities of the college and the cultural area.
This sense of, and use of, community
to work collaboratively is a second major dimension of the Echoes
Project. The second phone call that gray Friday illustrates
this dimension. Remy began her call with "I just
had to tell you what happened." She had chosen to
research a beloved English professor at Eureka College, who
because of Retinitous Pigmentosa had the unique challenge of
teaching without the benefit of notes or texts visibly prompting
her lectures: she was blind. During Remy's research on
this remarkable woman, she contacted the woman's sister, who
was also blind as a result of the same disease. The relationship
between the student and the sister was created by a single voice-thread
over the phone. Remy's news was that she had contacted
Heart of Illinois Talking Books which was going to copy her
final article in braille so that Remy's new phone-friend could
read about her sister for herself.
The sense of community had started
in a single classroom as the students collaboratively discovered
and shared facts from the college's archives or photos unearthed
while browsing through old newspapers or the names of "someone
who might know someone" on a classmate's topic. The
classroom boundaries began to blur as the class members overcame
shyness to interview coaches, classmates, friends, and family
members to glean every possible memory about Eureka College's
national basketball championship, an evolving theatre program,
the origins of the local radio station, and even citizens whose
ancestors had fought in the Civil War.
When the students left the perimeters
of the campus to climb the bell tower of the Woodford County
Courthouse and to scour surrounding communities' libraries and
historical societies, the boundaries separating academia and
its surrounding cultural contexts were mere mists. And
as the students picked up the phone and dialed long distance
information to search an entire area code for a possible family
member, even the mists vanished, and the community for these
students began to encompass the whole world.
Working together as a community, the
Echoes' students incorporate collaborative learning that has
been advocated by so many composition researchers; Bruffee,
Spear, LeFevre, Bissex and Bullock, Knox-Quinn, and many others
have all written in support of the concept. Isenberg also
noted that such group work is most like what college faculty
members do when they publish jointly in "collaborative
authorship" (12). Even research outside the composition
field has revealed significant support of collaboration; researchers
in the field of psychology in analyzing industrial productivity
found that "group-level feedback increased productivity
an average of 50%" (Prichard 337). Both academia
and industry share the realization that increased productivity
results from group effort to solve shared problems.
This venture of sharing, sense of community,
enhances the very objective of learning which is inherent in
every classroom. Bruner notes that the very process of
a person internalizing language "depends upon interaction
with others" (Beyond 350). To allow students
to know that the search for knowledge does not exist solely
in a classroom or a textbook but rather it reaches as far as
their imaginations can dream is the ultimate goal of this project.
Of course, it is idealistic--education can never be less.
Of course, it is scary, for the students because they seldom
have been given permission, let alone expectation, to reach
so far and to risk being totally rejected and by total strangers
at that, and for this professor because I neither have all the
answers nor do I have all the solutions. But together
as a community of learners bound by a common goal, we can start
their projects in a very traditional classroom and dare to communicate
with someone in Africa or someone who cannot see the eventual
words inked on the page.
The community is also the nameless,
faceless "other" of the public audience who will eventually
read the articles printed in an Echoes book. This is the
community who transcends not only this place but also this time.
This part of community is also the third essential part of an
Echoes Project: having students write for a public audience.
So as articles are being written, and re-written, a public audience
is constantly kept in mind. Composition research generally
supports the idea that students' grasp of audience as a rhetorical
consideration is very important for the quality of the final
written product (Roen and Willey; Pfister and Petrick; Black).
Students with a clear sense of audience have a stronger sense
of plans and goals (Glassner) as well as an awareness and use
of revision strategies (Monahan). Yet few students, particularly
high school students, are writing for a public audience; Applebee's
1986 Writing Report Card reveals that "only about 6 percent
[of the eleventh graders in the U.S.] have had work printed"
(65). My experiences suggest that this percentage may
be even lower in certain academic settings and that few of my
students have written for a truly public audience in that their
prior publications have been nearly exclusively for the high
school or college newspaper, which often has a somewhat narrow
vision of who "the public" is.
So my students and I are often entering
a totally new area when they write for the public. This
awareness does seem to focus their efforts to be accurate in
their research and to be careful in their editing. Of
course, the articles are constantly being polished for the public.
Our collective goal is writing perfection but always there are
glitches: missed commas, even omitted words such as a last draft
where "-ship lists" was somehow left out so that the
"members [omitted information] were placed in the cornerstone
for future generations." That slip we caught, thank
goodness; the elders of this town may have unearthed the courthouse
cornerstone over that error, or at least jokingly commented
on considering it. A major part of the relevance of writing
for a public audience is that students must constantly "re-vision"
(Gere 93) their papers from another's perspective in order to
communicate with clarity and accuracy, using those upper level
cognitive skills so sought after in composition teaching (Flower
and Hayes; Kutz and Roskelly). The students also willingly
go over their finished and, as in the "cornerstone"
example, even graded papers "one more time."
Together we struggle to create a paper artifact of which the
students-writers will be proud enough to share with their grandchildren.
Because the topics lead to research,
and research is both the result of and the context for community,
and community circles back to embrace research which allows
the students to discover their topics more completely, I find
it difficult to describe this project in the linear constraints
of writing. The process of describing what students do
as they proceed through what they initially perceived in their
writing journals as "impossible" is similar to trying
to describe eighteen novel plots simultaneously: each student's
progress as a researcher and a writer is a story and a story
which evolves over a semester. But from the first day
of class until after the deadline for their final drafts of
their articles, the students delve into an extended research
project and locate for themselves the voice their data demands
and the tone which only they know can capture their topics.
And eventually, as one student wrote in his journal the day
he handed in his final paper, "I feel like I can conquer
the world--I can't wipe the smile off my face."
Over 277 students from a high school,
a community college, and now at a four-year liberal arts college
have completed an article for one of the ten Echoes books.
Telling parts of two of their stories has allowed my computer
screen to keep scrolling away the lines I've finally been able
to knock loose from under my writer's block to relate a way
to teach students to not only write a twenty-page, primary sources
research paper but also to want to write it.
As I paused to think how to conclude
this paper and noticed the afternoon had grown calm and crimson
in the rays of the setting sun, I heard a gentle knock on my
office door. "Just a minute," I muttered to
the unseen person, and then I knew I had to type just a couple
of more sentences before I could stop. Whoever is
on the other side of the door (and only a student still working
on an Echoes' article would come to my office late on a Friday
afternoon), whatever the hurdle we have to overcome or whatever
the shared joy we are about to celebrate, I know that this mutual
search for facts, for processes, for possibilities is exciting
as a teaching assignment and that I must share it with my teaching
colleagues. Being excited by a research writing assignment
after conducting it ten times may be the secret joy of this
project that makes it so valuable for this English professor.
The rewards for my students lie in the academic realization
that they can conduct research on a local topic, that they can
work collaboratively within a community within a community within
a community, that they can write publishable papers, and they
can do what they had initially perceived as impossible.
And knowing all of that for myself and for my students is not
bad for a grey-black Friday afternoon. Not bad at all.
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