University and community partners write about their collaborations around the reading of Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. When an urban university received a National Endowment of the Arts Big Read Grant, they immediately began making connections to existing key initiatives within the university and in the surrounding community. As the partners collaborated within and among the university and community programs and events created for the Big Read they made multiple discoveries regarding the importance of planning together, analyzing the intended audience for each program and event, including multiple ways to access the text, and considering the ways that readers can personalize the issues, synthesize what they have learned and apply it in discussion or action.

Key Take Away Points

  • We urge readers to seek others who are interested in learning and working across sites and centering collaborative power in expanding ideas about literacy.
  • When we listen to one another, when we identify and develop a theme that is authentic and meaningful to us, and when we include multiple recursive opportunities for participants to experience all aspects of literacy, we experience synergy and success!

What We learned

  • Ensure the planning process involves the designated partners, remaining flexible as the project evolves
  • Reflect on previous experiences, successful and unsuccessful, to prepare for programmatic challenges
  • Analyze intended audiences to select the most effective strategies for connecting them with the text and fostering expanded literacy among Houston residents
  • Personalize the issues
  • Identify and/or construct resources with your audience in mind
  • Include multiple ways to access the text or texts
  • Consider ways that readers can synthesize what they have learned and apply it in discussion or action

Author Biography

Chris Birchak, PhD, is a professor of English and the dean of University College at the University of Houston-Downtown. She oversees academic support services, the Honors Program, the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, and two degrees - the Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies and the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences in Applied Administration. A native Houstonian and successful grant writer for student success programming, she has a history of building partnerships in support of interdisciplinary initiatives.

Keri Bell is the Director of Secondary English Language Arts and Reading at Harmony Public Schools, a Texas public charter school system based out of Houston. She has taught ninth through twelfth grade English courses in both traditional I.S.D. and charter school settings.

Rachel Dickson, MFA¬ is a Lecturer of Theater in the College of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Houston – Downtown. She is also a Licensed Master of Social Work. Her creative focus is on works that are issue-driven which she explores as the Artistic and Founding Director of Driven Theater Company (Driventheater.org) and through conference dramatizations. She serves the artistic community primarily as an actor, director, writer, and artistic consultant. An upcoming project involves an exploration of race relations in America.

Vida Robertson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English and serves as the Director of the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown. He teaches a wide range of Critical Race Theory and African American literature courses. His primary research and teaching interests are in late nineteenth and twentieth century African American literature, the Africana Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Disability Studies. Dr. Robertson is deeply committed to community engagement and service opportunities related to equality, education, and empowerment.

Leigh Van Horn, Ed.D. is a professor of language and literacy and the interim dean of the College of Public Service at the University of Houston – Downtown which includes Criminal Justice, Social Work, and Urban Education. Her research and service to the community is centered in literacy and issues related to empathy, empowerment, and resilience. Current projects include collaboration with urban educators on curriculum for empathetic citizenry and identity and an oral history/poetry project with members of the community.