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Melissa Borgmann

© 2001

Action Research

Student Collaboration through E-mail

(Article on this project from The Christian Science Monitor)

"What happens in partnership? What does student learning look like in collaborative ventures? How do conversations with people from outside the students' immediate community challenge or facilitate their learning? What are student reactions or resistances to outside agents based on? What are their biases? Can we dispel any of their fears or stereotypes through critical response and dialogue or discussion?" These are the initial questions that come to mind when I consider what has driven my teaching this past five years and reflect on what it is that I have learned. Essentially, teaching in partnership is the most powerful, engaging method that I know. Collaborations that draw on the experience and knowledge of artists, writers, business professionals, colleagues, and students from outside the community have proven to not only challenge and shape my teaching, but engage students in the most authentic learning that I can hope to facilitate.

Usry Alleyne, Cynthia Berger, April Sellers, Ellen Debe, David Mann, T. Mychael Rambo, Dudley Voigt, Roberta Carvalho-Puzon, Tiffany Ingham, Allen Glenn, Doug Dally, and Lisa McDonagh, are the names of my most recent arts partners at Minneapolis North High School. With all of these people, I have written and designed curriculum that draws on each individual's expertise and challenges my students to engage in authentic dialogue and meaningful learning. Included in this list is one partner that lives outside the Minneapolis area. Lisa McDonagh is a middle school Language Arts teacher in Watertown, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. She was my roommate last summer at the Folger Shakespeare Library Teaching Institute in Washington, D.C. Following our work at the Institute, Lisa and I attended a writing and performing workshop, and decided we needed to get our students talking to one another. Seventh graders in a predominantly White, middle-class suburb of Boston talking with sophomores in a predominantly African American classroom in North Minneapolis. She and I wanted to continue the discussions we had started at the Shakespeare Institute and apply our learning in our classrooms simultaneously, engaging the students in a joint performance curriculum. What ensued was a powerful partnership of writing curriculum and exchanging ideas about Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream via email, and then having our students correspond through letters and video about their performances of individual scenes. In the spring of this year, Lisa and I both received separate Educational Leadership grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to continue our collaboration and document our findings.

My proposal for the Minnesota Writing Project is to do something similar. Working with Joy Hanson of Eastview High School, in the Apple Valley school district, I am going to examine what student engagement and learning looks like when students dialogue with those outside their immediate learning community through email literature response journals.

Blasé, Dean Woodring. "A New Sort of Writing: E-Mail in the E-nglish Classroom." English Journal 90.2 (2000): 47-51.
Describes a project which used email to link the author's English classroom with classrooms in three others states so that students could discuss Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Discusses email as a distinct genre of writing with rules, characteristics, and even an aesthetic of its own. Offers a student-generated list describing effective electronic academic discourse.

Glasgow, Jacqueline N. "Recognizing Students' Multiple Intelligences in Cross-Age Buddy Journals." English Journal 88.6 (1999): 88-96.
Describes a project in which students in a college survey class on young adult literature were paired with students in a high school English class in a "buddy journal" project. Shows examples of this writing and of the assignements which used Howard Gardner's concept of multiple intelligences to offer students multiple paths for responding to literature.

Schoorman, Dilys and Barbara Camarillo. "Increasing Multicultural Awareness through Correspondence: A University-School Partnership Project." New Orleans: American Educational Research Association, 2000.
This paper provides a description of an e-mail based correspondence project between two sections of a college multicultural education course and students in two language arts classes in a middle school. Undertaken within the framework of critical action research, the purpose of the project was to offer the undergraduates an opportunity of interacting with students of diverse cultural backgrounds in a rural, economically underprivileged community and to provide the middle school students an interesting way to engage in literacy development. Paper shows analysis of student letters, post-project feedback, classroom discussions and observations, as well as advantages and disadvantages of technologically mediated communication.

Shimkin, David. "Telling Tales: Bridging the Gap Between Narrative Acts and Critical Insights." San Diego: 44th Conference on College Composition and Communication, 1993.
Author describes ways to tap the potential of journal entries in which students tell stories about their own experience in response to literature as a way to yield useful connections between narrative and critical sensibilities. Practice in developing their narrative abilities contributes to student's ability to develop critical insights and helps them bridge the gap between their own stories and those of recognized authors.

Van Wyhe, Tamara L.C. "A Passion for Poetry: Breaking Rules and Boundaries with Online Relationships." English Journal 90.2 (2000): 60-67.
Describes a project that connected a ninth-grade English classroom in Colorado with English classes grades 7-12 in remote, rural Alaska and a poet in Vermont in an online poetry exchange. Describes how it has changed the entire atmosphere of the rural Alaskan school, and turned into a life-altering event for students, staff members, parents, and communities.

Joy Hanson and I plan on teaching Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God to our respective English classes. Through this collaboration we hope to engage our very diverse student populations in this mulit-cultural American literature unit. Beginning with a pre-unit survey, we will gather data about the students' attitudes and ideas prior to the partnership. Students will correspond via e-mail in a dialogue journal format about the text and respond artistically and according to their various learning styles in our separate classrooms. At the end of the unit, we will travel to each other's schools to meet and share our final projects. To conclude, students will reflect on their experience, learning, level of engagement, and self-assess their final work using their critical response skills.

Creative Writing

Scotch Sundays

It all depended on the amount of liquor in her glass as to how hearty she would laugh. Pouring scotch straight up at noon on Sunday, you knew Aunt Viv would be chuckling fierce by a quarter of one. Right alongside my momma’s mash potatoes and pork roast there’d be a crystal glass pulled from the bar cabinet. This was the cabinet above my head, where I wasn’t allowed and could only reach standing on top of a telephone book, on top of a chair. Into that magic crystal highball glass, Aunt Viv would pour from her J&B bottle - and an afternoon of entertainment would begin. Her head would tilt sideways, her eyes would glaze a pinkish yellow, and her capped off white teeth would open to release a guttural sound thick with a sorrow and ache that seemed as apparent to me at 8 years old as grandpa Charlie’s cigar smoke swirling grey and blue and filling the living room air.

“Now Joan,” she’d say to my momma, “you remember that boy Pete– called him ‘Pistol Pete’ back at school?”

And a story would begin. Always with a memory, always directed to my mother, and always seven or eight sips into her scotch.

“Peter McCoy,” Aunt Viv persisted. “Hung around with McCafferty and Ray-Bob Hutchins. He was a year ahead of me in high school, so you musta been workin’ on about the 7th grade.”

“Hmmmm…” Momma would reflect, easing into her afternoons and her older sister’s stories with the same energy and enthusiasm as she had taking a bite of the mash potatoes she’d prepared. It was familiar food that provided her comfort and confidence in the routine preparation and consumption. She counted on Viv’s questions and journeys to the past as much as she did on the whipped starchy Idahos she made every Sunday with a little too much butter and salt.

“Yes. I do recall Pete,” momma said after a long swallow. “His sister Alice was in my grade. ‘Fever McCoy’ is what Mrs. Henry called her. She was out sick all of the time. Every time she’d return from being gone more than a week or so – she’d immediately get herself into trouble…” Momma began to chuckle underneath her breath. “Well, I remember one time she took Jenny Abel’s jump rope one time and whipped her pink and blue with it swearing Jenny called her a bad name. We all knew Jenny Abel couldn’t curse to hurt a flea.”

“Oh my God! Yes! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” And she had us. We were a captive audience. Momma. Daddy. Grandpa Charlie. Me. “Those McCoys had some hot blood in them. You should have seen Pete in Father James’ religion class. Father always excused him, despite that boy’s atrocious manners! Why, Pete’d pose all sorts of questions that turned that priest so red, I swear his head might pop off: ‘Why is masturbation a sin? What’s a clitoris? Have you ever lusted after a farm animal, father?’ Goodness!”

Viv’s chuckling would begin. There was always something a little off color, a little rude or inappropriate in her stories that my father would be taken aback by. But I knew him. He’d want to laugh, join in with Viv. Nevertheless, as he announced in a too loud, too stern of voice every Sunday:

“Honestly Viv! Someone in the family needs to be modeling a moral, upstanding disposition for the younger generation at the table.” Of course that was me. He’d look square at Viv and squeeze his eyebrows together at her, pursing his lips in what seemed the most serious, condemning expression he could muster. He was not about to condone the use of such apparently inappropriate words as ‘clitoris’ or ‘masturbation’ at the Sunday table.

They thought they all talked over my heads with their ‘moral’ and ‘immoral dispositions’ and other interesting terminology. But I was taking notes. I quickly figured out the meaning of my father’s right eye winks, which followed his stern looks, and verbal chastisement of my aunt only seconds later. These were lessons in contradiction. Say one thing, do another. That was a clear and ever-present message of Sunday noon gatherings at my house growing up. Worship the Lord. Take his name in vain. Celebrate mass, down some scotch with your potatoes. It was never more than 25 minutes after the last AMEN! and closing hymn of the 10:30am service at Blessed Sacrament that we’d be gathered around that oak table in our dining room and the next homily of sorts would begin. Viv’s tales and my father’s responses just sort of highlighted those Sunday lessons of my upbringing. Speak loudly of one thing, have another feeling altogether in your heart. Contradiction became etched in my brain with the same vividness of my father’s squeezed pink to white lips and his winking eyes at my cackling Aunt Vivian.

My mother would be the one to pick up the story again, spotting the inconsistencies, or tensions in Viv’s tales.

“Why, I ask, why on earth would Fr. James allow such talk in class? And, what Viv, what were you doing in the first place in the Senior Religion class with Pistol Pete and that lot?” My mom had an interesting way of repeating her question words. Just in case we didn’t catch her curiosity and desire for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Viv would need to replenish her drink at this point. She’d tap Grandpa Charlie’s hand, which was undoubtedly engaged in the cutting of his pork roast and - without ever looking at her, he’d drop his knife, grab the green bottle in front of him and pour her a double shot. Two inches of cool golden liquor in the clear glass. No more, no less. I don’t know why Grandpa did this, but he was part of the story and action every week in this same resigned, silent way.

“Well Joooaaaan,” Aunt Viv retorted, elongating momma’s one-syllable name into two or three, “first of all, if you remember, Sister Patrice and I went round and round in the eighth grade over those confirmation names. I knew I wanted to take Mary as my name as long as I could remember. But Sister insisted I do more research, that maybe the Virgin Mary wasn’t the best choice for me. Well, I had a fit and called in Momma and Monsignor Burns – and by the end of it, they all just figured the best thing would be for me to go ahead a year and get confirmed with the ninth graders. I think they must have just wanted me out of Patrice’s hair. So that, Ms. Joan, is why I was in the older kids’ religion class…And as far as Fr. James and Pistol Pete went-” She just kept going. Pointing at momma one minute with her fork, the next at daddy with her highball glass. She was all about emphasizing the details her mind held onto, clung to after all those years and all that liquor. “Don’t you remember the fortune those McCoy’s had? The McCoy Manufacturing money was Father James’ bread and butter, not to mention the school’s foundation. When they put that science lab wing on the building – well don’t you remember that dedication ceremony they had honoring the McCoy family? They had that gold plaque all made up and Mr. McCoy got all decked out and had his hot-headed children next to him during the whole deal...” She took a deep breath and swirled the remaining scotch in her glass. “So sure, it made perfect sense that Father was all about taking Pete’s shit in class…”

That’s when she’d slip. About the time Viv started using curse words in her stories, is about the time her sadness surfaced for me. It would peek out in the edge of her eyes; the little creases momma called laugh lines seemed more like sorrow folds to me. She may have earned them laughing the way she did, but it was an underlying salty ache, a question, a yearning for something she didn’t have that pressed her skin permanently into those ironed lines.

“Why did you want Mary’s name?” I asked.


“Why did you want to take Mary’s name so badly Aunt Viv?” It was a rare question on my part. Speaking or interacting with the adults at the table was about as uncommon for me as climbing up to the liquor cabinet - by getting on top of the chair and phone book - and grabbing the scotch. It didn’t really happen, unless people weren’t looking. My question caught Aunt Viv and momma off guard. At first, they reacted like they would have had I been busted red handed with the J&B in one hand and a poured cocktail for myself in the other. Shame. The “no-no” response reigned down on me, but I guess curiosity about Catholicism had gotten the best of my eight year old instincts, and I went ahead with my question.

Viv took a breath and her look softened a bit.

“Well, pipsqueak, I’ll tell ya…I thought Mary was good. Pure. Ever-lovin – sayin’ ‘Yes’ to the Lord at 14. Trustin’ Him…Damn it! She was amazin’! My whole life that Blessed Virgin had me in awe. Givin’ birth to the Savior. Bringin’ into the world a child that would be so powerful.”

She drifted a bit, seemed as if she was staring at my momma’s macramé plant hanger next to the dining room window like it was made of diamonds. Her eyes, intent, focused. Lips still. She tilted her head a bit and raised her glass to her mouth and sipped.

“Yes. I took the name Mary cuz I wanted to be good like her. A yes daughter of God. Someone who trusted her father. Someone who could overcome odds because of the truth of her soul, because of the simplicity of love. Someone who lived without fear and shame, who -” She stopped then. Mid-thought, mouth open, gulping air. I saw her throat move like she was swallowing some stinging liquor, choking hard on a word. And then her fingers started tapping. Manicured nails on the dining room table. It was a rapping sound like raindrops on a tin roof that swelled to fill the room in her silence.

My eyes moved around the table, searching for clues. For what was going on, what I was missing. Momma picked at the hem of her apron. A tiny black thread was coming out in a zig-zagged line, unraveling in a tangled mess in her hand. Daddy chewed the inside of his lower lip and looked straight out the window into space, like he was following some wild dog walking down the road.

Grandpa Charlie pushed his plate back. Not cleaned. Green beans left in their too much butter sauce, drowning in their butter sauce at the edge of the china dish. He shifted in his chair, easing himself back to an angle where his stomach had more room. He folded his hands on top of his belly and examined his fingernails. He was pushing back at the cuticles when she said it. Whispered it. Mouthed the words.

“I should have had that baby.” It came pouring out of the clicking, rain-drops-on- tin silence like a clap of thunder.

“I should have had that baby.”

No one said a word. Not momma. Not daddy. Not grandpa. There was no chewing, no tapping, no movement. Just this crazy sunlight pouring in through the window and hovering over Viv’s face, and her words floating, swaying, dancing in the air, moving into the next room and out onto the porch. I didn’t know if they would ever come back, or if they were even real. I thought if I focused real hard, if I was intent, if she had truly spoken them, they would be stirring on the porch. They would make the copper wind chimes ring. They would make sense. They’d come back and press into my ears and I would finally understand. Her. The scotch. The sorrow.
I waited. We all waited.

“That McCoy boy wasn’t so bad. He told the truth. He asked questions. He made me laugh, Poppa.”

She downed the last inch of scotch in her drink and set the glass square on the table. Her eyes were piercing down, penetrating every solid object. Her gaze owned the white china, the silver laid next to it, the deep gold of the oak table. Absent-mindedly, she arranged everything in front of her. Fork on the left of her plate, knife, spoon on the right. All parallel lines, balance, order.

And that was it. Maybe she had spoken them. Words of a child. Of something she had. Something she didn’t have. Something of truth. Something of love. Something lost. Unknown. Unnamed. Unborn.

Or maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe I imagined it, lost in the crystal and golden and light dancing moment of a chimeless Sunday afternoon.

I looked hard at the salt shaker. I focused on the blue flowers painted on the edge of the butter plate that had been chipped to expose an off-white interior.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the slightest move, the simplest gesture. Grandpa’s weathered fingers, palm side down, left his examination and traveled to Aunt Viv’s. In one subtle motion, he placed his hand on top of hers and gently took hold. And then the moment was done.

Momma cleared her throat. “Well, who wants dessert? I’ve got chocolate cake. Ice cold milk.”

“Sounds delicious, Joan,” Daddy answered. He tapped my arm. “Why don’t you help your mother clear these dishes, huh?”

And that was it. Sunday dinner. My Aunt Viv. Not-so-simple. Not-so-silly. Full of sorrow. Secrets. Sipping her scotch, taking us back to the past with her “do-you-remembers?” all in an attempt at a little entertainment and comfort in light of the pork roast and the potatoes. Through her golden liquor journeys back, I learned more about our family’s intentions and contradictions, their sins and their stories – and that moving forward in faith and forgiveness would be necessary to survive.