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Book Examines International Effort to
Build Learning and Living Skills

Posted February 1, 2001

HOLLAND -- Dr. David J. Klooster of the Hope College English faculty and his wife Dr. Patricia L. Bloem are among the three co-editors of a book that examines an international effort to use reading and writing to help students become better democratic citizens.

The book, "Ideas Without Boundaries: International Education Reform Through Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking," has been published by the International Reading Association. Klooster and Bloem, who is an assistant professor of English education at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, co-edited the book with Dr. Jeannie Steele, a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

"The story this book tells is that students and teachers who have participated in the program feel that this is a powerful tool for preparing for democratic life," said Klooster, who is an associate professor of English at Hope.

According to Klooster, the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking (RWCT) Project began as educators in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe determined that their students needed to learn new skills as members of democratic societies. Through the program, U.S. educators conduct workshops with teachers in 24 formerly Communist nations to help them learn how to teach such skills by creating more democratic classrooms. Such classrooms stress discussion, debate, cooperative learning and independent writing assignments.

Since the program started in 1997, some 25,000 teachers in 24 countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia have participated.

Klooster noted that the program doesn't focus on how to teach politics. Instead, the emphasis is on helping students learn how to learn. As the book's preface notes, "the characteristics of students who are successfully engaged in lifelong learning, as well as the applications of knowledge and understanding to their daily lives and work, parallel those characteristics and behaviors that sustain a civil and productive democratic society."

According to the preface, these characteristics include "the capacity to listen with caring and respect to the perspectives and opinions of others; skill in constructive problem solving; ability to form independent opinions and to reflect; the capacity to integrate multiple sources of information; the ability to work collaboratively; the skills to articulate alternate points of view; and the recognition of the essential importance of sharing opinions and participating in the communal construction of knowledge, understanding and governance."

For Klooster, the project has provided an opportunity to link multiple personal and professional interests. Prior to joining the Hope faculty this fall, he was a member of the English faculty at John Carroll University in Ohio, where his responsibilities included directing the writing program for 11 years. During the 1992-93 school year, was a Fulbright Lecturer in American literature at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. The country was in the early days of its transition from decades of communist rule.

"We developed a real affection for Slovakia," he said. "It was a rewarding year, and we felt privileged to be there at such a historic time."

When they learned about the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking Project, he and Bloem volunteered immediately. They worked in the Czech Republic initially. Since last year, Klooster has also been working with teachers in Armenia. Klooster visited the country this past November and December, and will return during Hope's spring break in March.

The book reviews the content, approach and origins of the project, and features insights from educators concerning the program's impact. U.S. educators and the teachers with whom they have worked abroad co-authored several of the chapters.

Klooster took on co-editing the book because he thought that the successful program's story deserved to be told. For his own part, he has developed a greater appreciation for how much impact education can have, not only individually, but collectively.

"This project has helped me to see that education is instrumental in forming the kind of culture that a society aspires to be," he said. "In the States, we usually emphasize that education is first of all about individual development. This program has helped me to take a larger view."

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