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What happens when teachers of writing from around the world get together?

posted: 7.31.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Good things happen.  Big things.  Small things.  Things that will help students happen—and keep on happening.

At least that’s been my experience working over the last 15 years with Bread Loaf International Conferences.  The first one occurred in Karachi in 2000, and the one next month in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince will be followed by one in Mumbai in August 2015.  These conferences are modeled on, and inspired by, the Andover/Bread Loaf Program (ABL), begun 27 years ago by Bread Loaf graduate and Phillips Academy teacher Lou Bernieri.

Every summer, ABL—a partnership between Phillips Academy, the Bread Loaf School of English, and the public schools of Lawrence, MA—offers a two to three week series of writing workshops for teachers and another series for students.  The students prepare to become junior writing leaders, then writing leaders in their schools, which is something you almost have to see to believe as they take on greater agency, autonomy, and leadership roles.  ABL has been saving students, and lives, for a long time—and now it’s being replicated in other parts of the world.

In early July, I had the good fortune to attend an International Bread Loaf Forum on Bread Loaf’s home campus in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  We  heard from Jennifer Brown, who works with Paul Farmer with Partners in Health, about their plans to collaborate with Navajo leaders and students to help teach students about food security and justice—and eventually to build a teaching hospital at Navajo.  We also heard from Mohsin Tejani, who runs The School of Writing in Karachi, Pakistan, resolutely bringing education to young people, in spite of the Taliban and other hostile forces  And from Chantal Kenors from Haiti, Patricia Echessa-Kariuke from Nairobi, and  Lee Krishnan from Mumbai.  All have student-driven projects related to writing, food, and health, and all are using their Bread Loaf connections to expand this important work.

Rex Lee Jim (center) and Mohsin Tejani (right)

One of the most exciting reports of the day came from Rex Lee Jim, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, who told us about the “Navajo Kentuckian” food literacy program.  As Rex told us, the Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles and has 300,000 members, not all of them living on Navajo.  So it’s a vast country, much of it desert, and health issues (such as diabetes and obesity) are huge concerns.  Rex’s long-time goal is to train 1,000 Navajo doctors, and to keep at least 25% of them in the Nation.  In the short run, Rex and students from Navajo public schools have teamed up with Brent Peters of Fern Creek High School in Lexington, KY.  Fern Creek has been a pretty tough school, with lots of dropouts and failures.  But Brent, a Bread Loafer, convinced the administration to let him teach a course on food justice, and in just a few years that class has expanded to four and the students have turned themselves around—gardening, shopping, cooking, and investigating pressing issues related to food in their community.

Now the Navajo students have their own program going in partnership with the Fern Creek students; in fact, they have visited Kentucky—and the Kentucky students have visited Navajo.  Together they study local foods, the techniques for growing (and over-fertilizing) and harvesting food, and food distribution systems, all with an eye for inequities and injustices—and possibilities for positive change.  In the last year, the Navajo Kentuckians have taken their show on the road, speaking with policy makers and leaders in local communities and presenting the results of their work at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian and at the National Council of Teachers of English annual meeting.  Perhaps more important, they are taking their show home, teaching their parents and relatives about healthy foods and healthy eating habits (no more three-soda-meals in the Navajo Nation, for instance).  I came away wishing that every elementary and secondary school in the country had a food literacy program that partnered with an undergraduate or graduate program at a college or university (as the Navajo Kentuckians do with the Bread Loaf School of English).  And if you know of similar programs around the country (or world), I’d love to hear about them.

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