Course Co-Created by Rich Purcell Now in Pittsburgh Schools
This fall, many Pittsburgh high schools began a new African American literature course. This core curricular course for seniors was designed by a four-person team which included Rich Purcell, Assistant Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.
In spring 2009, Purcell agreed to be a consultant for the course, never having written a curriculum and not fully knowing what he was getting himself into. Despite facing "a steep learning curve," he became highly involved in shaping the course, writing four of the ten curriculum units.
While creating the course, the group visited high schools to talk with students about the class, allowing Purcell to further understand his audience. The group also met with the instructors who would teach the class. "Because this was new to everyone, we were unsure how people would react, but the teachers' and the students' enthusiasm about our ideas made us excited to move forward."
The course features African American novels and authors tied to the Pittsburgh area. Purcell explains, "We are engaging students by rooting the class in the rich literary and cultural history of the region, teaching them to understand the importance of the area in a global perspective and broad historical scale."
The focus on such literature has attracted interest from places such as the August Wilson Center, which hopes students will explore the communities they read about and discover an understanding of texts outside of the classroom.
Purcell found such direct connections inspiring and says the experience transformed his relationship with literature. "This process changed my perspective on how I teach, understand, and interact with literature. It challenged me to make books more fun, to make reading more interactive."
Looking back, Purcell calls the project an "incredible experience," one he hopes to replicate in similar projects in the future. He plans to soon visit a class, where he can observe first-hand students' reactions to the material on which he devoted so much time planning.
"Professors have a great impact on the world, but it is often limited to their students or their publications and talks. This experience has allowed me to reach a larger base-students, high school teachers, parents, board members. It required that I use the same skills but that I communicate my thoughts in new ways for a more public audience," he says.
Currently, he is working with the rest of the team to apply for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a government grant agency, to hold a post-course seminar for teachers nationwide.
Purcell explains, "The hope is that more Pittsburgh schools will adopt the course and eventually that schools across the country will use this course as an example to implement their own African American literature classes that use innovative techniques to allow students to understand and engage in each text."