Bloodlines: A Case Study of Educational Empowerment

By Jay MacLeod

Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 7-9

THE RURAL ORGANIZING AND CULTURAL CENTER (ROCC) is a county-wide membership organization serving Holmes County, Miss., one of the nation's poorest counties. Through community organizing, ROCC strives to bring about changes in the social-economic-political fabric of the county that address the causes of poverty.

As its name implies, the Rural Organizing and Cultural Center is founded on the premise that community organizing and local culture should reinforce each other. Personal and collective empowerment require an awareness of our culture and history but this awareness doesn't happen automatically. Appreciation of culture needs to be nurtured and this ROCC has endeavored to do.

The year 1988 marked the birth of a new ROCC project designed to recover and explore local history. As part of a summer educational program serving sixty youngsters, a class of eighth and ninth graders produced Bloodlines, a seventy-page magazine based on interviews with elderly residents of the county.

We were aided that first summer by a $975 mini-grant from Foxfire Teacher Outreach. In return, we agreed to critique a draft of Eliot Wigginton's magazine course guide. The course guide proved indispensable.

Consisting of classroom exercises Wigginton has refined over twenty-five years of teaching, it became our map to the magazine production process. We altered many of the specific techniques and exercises to fit our circumstances but stuck to the underlying Foxfire philosophy of democratic, experiential education.

How disorienting it can be for students when they realize that they are in charge. In a school where the switch is still the sanction, the kids were flabbergasted and excited at the prospect of making up their own rules. I always get a kick out of how students chafe against teacher discipline but, given the opportunity, set a strict disciplinary code for themselves. Initially bewildered and even resistant to taking responsibility for their own learning, the students soon embraced the idea.

By the end of the first week the class enrollment had doubled and the students had planned the steps ahead of them: selecting people to interview, drawing up the interview guide, conducting the interview, transcribing, editing, acing a follow-up interview, writing the introduction, drawing the illustrations, typing the interview into columns, and laying out the final copy for the printer.

Interviewing is the crux of the whole project and the students spent countless hours honing their questioning techniques. Instead of writing out the questions, the students learned to construct an interview guide--a series of prompts to guide the interview. This ensures that the students listen to their sources as they speak and can follow up on what's being said, taking the interview into new territory.

Next, the students began to practice their interviewing. They learned to avoid asking yes/no questions and to exhaust a subject by asking follow-up questions before moving on to another topic. They practiced on their parents, on other teachers, on me, and on each other. After several days of drills and mock interviews, most students were beginning to get a feel of how to test out experiences, stories, and information from their sources. They were developing listening skills, concentration, and poise required for a good interview.

The first interview was a collective effort. Three students conducted the interview in class so that we could all critique it afterwards. By the end of the hour-and-a-half session, the entire class was standing around Mrs. Alice Rule and her interrogators pitching in asking questions. The next day, we transcribed in class the first bits of the Alice Rule interview. It was slow going, but the lessons learned were strong ones. We worked through plenty of snags as we considered how to handle spellings and apostrophes to reflect pronunciation.

It is absolutely crucial that the students be firmly ensconced in the driver's seat throughout this whole process. Having the students work through and democratically resolve questions and problems as they come


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up can be tedious and time consuming, but there is no substitute. As Eliot Wigginton paints out in his course guide, the creation of a final product is a means to motivate and educate students. The extent to which I lay my hands on tat product and supply those skills necessary for its creation is the extent to which I diminish not only the project's power to motivate, but also its ability to educate and excite anyone but me.

Bloodlines demonstrates the extent to which oral history can serve as a bridge between oral and written language. Otherwise defeated by a blank piece of paper, many students positively enjoyed transcribing their tapes. Some of their efforts were superhuman. Joseph went home to his three-bedroom house that accommodated twenty-one people last summer and returned the next day with fifty-one pages of transcription. Another student who had failed seventh grade two years running went home with his taped interview and came to class the next day with a twenty-five page transcription, written by flashlight in the bed he shares with two nephews. Because those hours of labor were perceived as personally relevant and as a step in the creation of a tangible product of value to the community, motivation was not an issue.

Almost all of my students had real difficulty understanding, let alone developing, a rationale or criteria for what should be moved where. My questioning met with a lot of blank faces. "Which way would make it flow better?" "What would be the logical order here?" "What sequence will the reader most easily follow?" At the beginning of the session, much to my chagrin, I'd end up answering most of my own questions. But a few pages into it, most would begin to catch on.... As students edit their interviews, they engage in a process very similar to that which will be used in their own writing. Rearranging the interview so that it runs smoothly and logically from beginning to end, they


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learn to organize, group, sequence, and paragraph--to make sense of the written word.

This task, like those of interviewing, taking photos, and drawing pictures, tends to break down the hierarchy of competence among the students. "High academic achievers" often become impatient and frustrated trying to cut and paste their interviews so that the margins are uniform and straight while those who struggled with editing and writing their introductions often turn out to be natural paste-up artists. This reshuffling of the hierarchy works wonders for student's confidence, often inflating and deflating in just the right proportion.

By this time the summer program had long since ended, and the students were feverishly working at my house in small groups after school and on weekends.,.. [D]ebate raged on two issues: what to call the magazine and what price to charge for it. In order to make the book affordable locally, they decided on $2.50, and "Bloodlines" emerged a narrow victor over "Hard Times" and "Struggling to Survive."

We all traveled in a van down to Jackson to pick Bloodlines up at the print shop. Here were seventh, eighth, and ninth grade students, some of whom had almost a fear of the written word, picking up their book. Excitement and emotion ran so high that almost no one paid the least bit of attention to the owner's explanation of the printing process. The students emerged from visits to newspaper and television stations jumping in the air, shouting that the media had agreed to do a story on them. In the end, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger did a feature article on Bloodlines and a television news program awarded their weekly "Spirit of Mississippi" award to the Bloodlines staff.

Students involved in the Bloodlines project went on to compile a history of the civil rights movement in Holmes County, Minds Stayed on Freedom, published by Westview Press. With S.V. Marshall High School, they also produced a videotape. "Struggle for Equality in Holmes County: 1860-1960." All are available from the Rural Organizing and Cultural Center, 103 Swinney Lane, Lexington, MS 39095.

This account of the Bloodlines project was condensed from a report prepared by Jay MacLeod, who after three years with the Rural Organizing and Cultural Center, is studying theology in England. Bloodlines is among several efforts for democratic education described in the forth coming Crossing the Tracks: Alternatives to Tracking and Ability Grouping in the Middle Grades, by Anne Wheelock, senior policy analyst of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, with support from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, to be published in January 1992.