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Harwood teacher makes civics a community lesson for students

Susan Notes:

The excellent new video Democracy Left Behind features Harwood teacher Jean Berthiaume, on the job, teaching his curriculum Creating Sustainable Community. In Berthiaume's words, "That banking concept of education--where you'll use this in ten years-- is not good enough for me."

By Mel Huff

Harwood teacher Jean Berthiaume has been named educator of the year by the Vermont Council on the Humanities.

SOUTH DUXBURY ΓΆ€“ Among oversized cut-outs of autumn leaves, three placards line a wall of the classroom at Harwood Union School where Jean Berthiaume teaches a course called Creating Sustainable Communities.

The placards bear the words Justice, Service and Dignity. Beneath them hang posters of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and a Native American woman.

Those words reflect a philosophy Berthiaume brings to his teaching, which was honored recently with his choice as humanities educator of the year by the Vermont Humanities Council. A slight, dark-haired man whose mobile face readily breaks into a smile, he is the fifth recipient of the annual Victor R. Swenson Humanities Educator Award.

Berthiaume was teaching a last-period sophomore civics class on a recent warm afternoon and his students, seated in a half circle, were planning a "service-learning" project.

"Kids look at real-life problems and they work with community members to solve them," Berthiaume explained to visitors. "The focus for this class is food issues and our connections to the environment. If there's economic justice, environmental justice and social justice, then we've achieved sustainability." Berthiaume tells the students how other sections have approached the topic. One is trying to make it easier for people to buy local farm products by getting stores in the area to carry more local products. Another wants to bring back the stainless steel "milk cow" and reusable cups so the school can buy locally produced milk. Another section is looking into where Little Debbies snacks come from and how much carbon is produced in getting them to the Harwood cafeteria.

The project eventually coalesced around collecting recipes from community members that use local foods. The class plans to make a recipe book that includes biographies of the contributors and a map of where local ingredients can be purchased. It will also include a section on preserving food. Berthiaume noted that preserving food had a lot to do with how Vermonters weathered the Great Depression.

After class, Berthiaume admitted that departing from the traditional model of teacher-controlled activities to one in which students direct the curriculum "makes me a little uncomfortable, because it ventures into the realm of chaos sometimes." But it's his mastery of service-learning, embodied in Creating Sustainable Communities, that commands his colleagues' respect.

Berthiaume, a native Vermonter who grew up in North Troy, has a B.S. from Lyndon State College and a Masters in Education from the University of Vermont. He came to Harwood 13 years ago as the assistant to the dean of students ΓΆ€“ the school disciplinarian. He says he had two choices in dealing with troublemakers: "to play the 'heavy' or to work on building community."

He chose the latter course, and that has continued to be his choice.

"There's a theory that if someone belongs to something, they strive to protect it. So if students didn't find themselves in the school and felt like they didn't belong to the school, they weren't going to be a benefit to the learning communities we're trying to construct," he noted.

It was a short distance from incorporating alienated students into the life of the school to developing a hands-on civics course.

When Berthiaume asked parents about their experience in civics courses, they said it was meaningless. They learned about the three branches of government, but they knew they weren't going to use what they learned.

"I felt like there was a disconnect between the students and what they were learning," he said. "Creating Sustainable Communities allows students to be learning something so they can participate in the vitality of their communities. It's a very different approach to civics."

Gabriela Meade, now a junior, was among those who nominated Berthiaume for the Vermont Humanities Council award. A student in his civics class last year, Meade and a partner did a service learning project on lighting and energy efficiency that included a presentation to the school board about retrofitting the entire school. Berthiaume said the board is very interested in the $70,000 project.

"I'll never forget the first day of class when he asked why we chose to take the class," Meade said. "My response was it was something that it was relevant, something that I could learn about and then share with my family."

When Meade wrote her letter, she said, she was thinking that "it's not Mr. B. telling us what to think or telling us what to say. It's a classroom discussion ΓΆ€“ we're discussing with each other. It changes the atmosphere. You have to speak up and involve yourself with the discussion. It's not the same people dominating the conversation."

"Which happens a lot in our modern democracy," Berthiaume replied. "There are some loud voices."

What Meade was talking about is "the practice of citizenship, the practice of democracy," he said. "We need to practice democracy right now. A vocal few speak for the many, and the status of our democracy is certainly in jeopardy in my mind, because we don't do enough to facilitate conversation and dialogue."

Maureen Charron-Shea, a speech pathologist who works with special education students, also wrote a nominating letter. Berthiaume "finds ways to motivate and make education relevant for all the students, no matter what their academic level," she said.

"In any population, there's always going to be some people who are natural leaders and rise to the top and get involved. But what about the others?" she asked. "Those are the kids who really need to be taught how to participate and how to be citizens, and they need opportunities to practice citizenship."

Service learning projects empower and motivate them, she maintains.

She cited what happened two years ago when Berthiaume taught a unit on human rights. As the students discussed the issue, some of them noted that there were members of their own school who suffered discrimination. Berthiaume, an openly gay faculty member, made the argument that "we all have a discrimination story" and recounted his own high school experience.

Students then began talking about instances of discrimination, to the stunned response of their peers. The class concluded that one of the most powerful ways to change people's behavior was through telling personal stories. What emerged was the "Kaleidoscope project," four framed prints that hang in the halls of the school.

The pictures combine photographs of students from the class, now seniors, with a few lines of text telling what their peers think they know about them and what they don't know: One has a sibling who is mentally ill and who is hurt by people using the word "retard;" another lives in a trailer and feels demeaned when people talk about "trailer trash." Charron-Shea observed, "It's very succinct and very clear and powerful."

Kathy Cadwell, a co-founder of Project Harmony, returned to teaching at Harwood this fall after being away for some 20 years. Although Berthiaume started teaching at Harwood after she left, she knew him from bringing exchange students to the school. "He took part in one of the most challenging experiences," she said.

Several years ago, a group of Bosnian Muslim, Serb and Croat teenagers with a Project Harmony exchange wanted to see what an American classroom looked like, and Berthiaume invited them to his class. The day before, he talked with his students about life in the former Yugoslavia and asked them to ask the visitors about their lives, past and present.

"Not many people would take the risk ... but Jean really rose to that occasion," Cadwell said. "He brings the world into his classroom and his classroom into the world."

— Mel Huff
Times Argus



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