Even in the time of COVID-19, nothing brings people together quite like a good book. This past semester, in virtual classrooms across the Portland area, the Maine Humanities Council and Portland Adult Education (PAE) teamed up to read and discuss the classic novel “Things Fall Apart” by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. As messy spring weather and the pandemic kept many inside, students, teachers, and discussion facilitators logged on to Zoom classrooms to share their thoughts on Achebe’s literary masterpiece.
This project was the outgrowth of a long-standing community partnership. “Maine Humanities Council has been a really strong collaborative partner with PAE for years,” said Alison Perkins, PAE Language Arts teacher and Language Acquisition Specialist for PPS Multilingual Department. “Hundreds of PAE students and teachers have benefited from participation in the Maine Humanities Council Discussion Project, which was formerly New Books, New Readers.”
That partnership moved to a new level this year when Portland Adult Education joined the Maine Humanities Council’s Reader’s Retreat, where groups from all around the state read the same book and then gather for a weekend of lively discussion.
Working together with Maine Humanities Council, Perkins created an expanded collaboration that pulled in over 70 Portland Adult Education students, 6 PAE teachers, a handful of HS seniors, and Portland Public Schools Community specialists Monique Mutumwinka and Betsy Paz-Gyimesi.
“Maine Humanities supported the full collaboration,” Perkins said. “They provided a book for every student as well as leaders for two discussions for each of the six classes that PAE ran. They also provided full scholarships for any students who choose to participate in the Reader’s Retreat weekend, held May 6-8 virtually this year.”
In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic helped these big plans come to fruition. Meetings on Zoom helped bring participants to the table, and Google Classroom connected students from the different high schools. "It was so wonderful to have PAE students with us at the Reader's Retreat. Because the PAE students had already spent classroom time studying and discussing Things Fall Apart, they were able to participate in small group discussions in such meaningful ways. We all benefited from having them there," said Maine Humanities Council Associate Director, Samaa Abdurraqib.
To provide the framework for this collaboration, Portland Adult Education created a curriculum to support the instructors who taught the book in both credit-bearing high school classes and college transitions English classes. In addition, they were able to put bilingual books in students’ hands in Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Spanish for those that required bilingual support.
For Perkins, this collaboration between high school and adult education, and between Portland Adult Education and the Maine Humanities Council, is a passion project. “I see so many connections between high school and adult education,” Perkins said, “and I want our community to see education as a lifelong continuum: Pre-K through adult education.”
For many of the Portland Adult Education students in that continuum, English is their second, third, or fourth language, so tackling Achebe’s classic novel was not always easy. “It was challenging at first since English is not my first language,” said Malachie Makilimba, a Portland Adult Education student from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, the novel itself helped to pull Makilimba into the class. “When I finished reading the first chapter I had taken the pleasure of reading it,” Makilimba continued. “I kept reading because each end of chapter the desire returned to know how the story should end, and one good thing was that this reading opened my way of thinking in English.”
Perkins plans to repeat this winter’s collaboration with the Maine Humanities Council next year.