Taking teaching one step deeper

The bread Loaf School of English is not the fastest way to get a master's degree. But it's exactly what some afficionados of the English language are looking for.

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2000

Professor Bruce Smith arrives at his poetry classroom at the Bread Loaf School of English, takes off his white cowboy hat and starts in briskly, choking off the pre-class chatter.

It doesn't take long for the volume to rise again. These are interested students.

Student Erika Drezner offers her interpretation of a Yeats poem. Another student challenges it with a line of poetry.

``I'll see you and I'm going to raise you,'' says Drezner, who comes from Brooklyn.

Soon, it is dueling stanzas.

Before the 2-hour class is over, students will have discussed why poetic styles change through the centuries, argued about the discomfort some felt at a black-dialect poem, wondered if Frost's ``The Death of a Hired Man'' really was a poem -- and what did Yeats mean anyway by saying Love ``hid his face amid a crowd of stars?''

Smith is one of eight faculty members at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English on the University of Alaska Southeast campus. He teaches mostly Shakespeare at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the rest of the year.

Bread Loaf, using professors from Ivy League and other prominent universities, offers master's degrees in English at three sites in the United States and at Oxford, England.


This is the second year in Juneau for the full six-week program, following two years as a three-week institute to test the waters. The school, which was looking for a Northwest presence, pays UAS about $175,000 to use the campus.

About 75 students from around the country, including some Juneau residents and other Alaskans, are enrolled. Some of the courses are tailored to local interests, such as literature and nature, sustaining indigenous languages and Native American literature.

Many of the Bread Loaf students are teachers, especially at high schools. Bread Loaf offers classes only in the summer, and earning a degree takes five summers, at nearly $5,000 a pop with room and board. Some states pay their teachers' tuition and there are college grants and foundation fellowships.

If teachers just want to move up the salary schedule, it's not the quickest, cheapest or easiest way. Students usually take two courses at a time, reading seven to 10 books and writing several papers per course.

Other ways to learn: Actors Barry Press (left) and Anne Scurria (right rear) and Bread Loaf students Seth Potter and Tracy Masonis read parts of a Chekhov story during a Thursday evening session, which was open to the public at the Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Brenda Shrum, a recent UAS graduate who teaches a reading workshop there, said one person she knows thought Bread Loafers were a bunch of prigs who couldn't get their heads out of the clouds and be normal. But she wanted the intellectual challenge.

``Bread Loaf gave me the opportunity to do what I really want to, that my undergraduate work has just whetted my taste for,'' she said.

Part of what keeps Professor Smith coming back to Bread Loaf is the students, many of them rural teachers, he said.

``For some people, it's the most exciting time of the year for them,'' Smith said. ``It's a chance to be part of an intellectual community.''

Graduate students who are teachers said Bread Loaf reminds them what it's like to be on the other side of the teacher's desk, renews their love for literature through demanding classes, and lets them share ideas with other teachers.

During the school year, teachers live from one bell to another and have no time to share or commiserate, said suburban Ohio teacher Colleen Ruggieri.


But at Bread Loaf they room and dine together, for the most part.

``The intellectual and the social is combined in a very gentle way here,'' said Seth Potter, a theater teacher at a private school in Princeton, N.J. ``You play volleyball with your professors. You get spiked in the head by a teacher or vice versa, but it's no problem.''

What do teachers who enroll in Bread Loaf bring back to their classrooms?

``Rigor,'' quickly responded Maria Roberts, a high school teacher in Peetz, Colo. ``We tend to baby kids. We really do.''

Hugh Dyment, who teaches at a largely Yup'ik boarding school in Bethel, is in his fourth summer at Bread Loaf.

``You're getting a master's degree in English literature, which means you know your content,'' he said. ``I could go to any state school to take teacher education courses.''

The literature he studies at Bread Loaf addresses human constants, such as love, hate, desire and hope, Dyment said. When he teaches ``Macbeth'' to his students in Bethel, he pulls in a similar Yup'ik story of a man who wanted too much.

The school encourages teachers to stray from the usual texts.

``It gives you the power to teach on your own,'' Ruggieri said.

Teachers can continue their Bread Loaf friendships through the year with Internet-style exchanges between their classrooms over the college's own network, BreadNet. At any given time in the academic year, about 150 exchanges are going on, said Bread Loaf director Jim Maddox.

Classrooms as distant from each other as Alaska and Mississippi read books at the same time and share their writing with each other.

Karen Mitchell, a Bread Loaf student and Juneau teacher, has used BreadNet in the classes she teaches. Mitchell's grade school class exchanged stories with a class in Baltimore. And her education students at UAS have corresponded over BreadNet with bilingual children in Lawrence.

Bread Loaf is still feeling its way to a role in the broader Juneau community. This summer the school held a series of readings, lectures and workshops, and it sponsored an outdoor play by local playwright and screenwriter Dave Hunsaker.

``I think that anything we can do to beef up a university life in Juneau is going to tremendously enhance Juneau,'' Hunsaker said. ``We lack an academic theater of any kind.''

The school is open to suggestions about more community involvement, said Juneau Bread Loaf director Lucy Maddox, who is married to Jim Maddox, overall director of Bread Loaf.

Bread Loaf and UAS operate year to year on a sort of gentlemen's agreement, said UAS Chancellor John Pugh. The only limits are on the number of students, about 100, because of available dormitory space and food service.

``We hope to be here a long time,'' Jim Maddox said.

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