Curriculum Study Commission

The Life and Times of the Curriculum Study Commission Central California Council of Teachers of English 1949-2000

When you enter your group at an Asilomar Conference, you will be continuing a conversation that started in 1949 by participants at the first Asilomar Conference convened by the Curriculum Study Commission. It is a conversation that has deepened over the decades.

From its inception, the Commission has always prized the sharing of practical knowledge, and the annual Asilomar conference was originally designed to provide a forum for the ideas and knowledge that arise from practical experience. Generally undervalued in an age dominated by faith in so-called “objective” or scientific knowledge, the kind of practical knowledge exchanged at Asilomar conferences is rich in content, tied to specific contexts, and tested under fire.

Over the last five decades, many changes have occurred in the language arts curriculum, in teacher accountability, in students’ rights, in legislative controls, and in community politics. We have attempted to meet such challenges and improve language arts instruction by pooling our intelligence and capitalizing on our professional wisdom through a unique collaborative conference format which has become the “Asilomar model.” On the last weekend of September for fifty years, teachers from all levels of English instruction have convened at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, meeting in small groups to identify problems, propose remedies, and share resources. In the democratic spirit of our groups, every learner is a teacher, and every teacher is also a learner. We have modeled the processes of mutual learning — teachers teaching teachers — using group discussion as the matrix of our professional activities. The special value of the Asilomar approach has been identified by James Squire, formerly Executive Secretary of the National Council of Teachers of English and a founder of the Curriculum Study Commission:“The original Asilomar conference idea — using small groups, with adequate resources, to explore a single topic together in depth — was and still is a unique experience among professional conferences….”

The Original Vision
Through the inspired collaboration of a small group of socially-concerned, professionally committed English/language arts teachers, the annual Asilomar conference was conceived and brought to life. Myrtle Gustafson (Oakland Public Schools) recalled its birth:

I remember the original planning meeting [for Asilomar 1] in Eason Monroe’s office [at SF State] as if it were yesterday. I wonder if at 94 I am the only living member of the original planning committee.We met on a Saturday morning….A professor from Stanford, whose name I do not remember [Al Grommon], and Margaret Heaton [San Francisco Public Schools] were there. The Stanford professor advocated and insisted on a structured meeting whose purpose was publication. I remember that Walter [Loban, U.C., Berkeley] and I objected. We wanted the purpose to be sharing and inspiration — an informal type of meeting. Fortunately, we prevailed. In Oakland, I requested that teachers be excused on hour early to allow time to arrive at Asilomar for the dinner hour and evening planning session. Saturday was devoted to group meetings with free time Saturday evening. On Sunday morning there was a summary of group sessions and recommendations for future conferences. I am happy to hear reports on the Asilomar conference, and that the original purpose of sharing and inspiration has prevailed. (Hawaii, April 6, 1992)

This historic exploratory conference attracted 130 teachers to Asilomar, all paying their own way, in October 1949. The conference structure was determined on Friday night after dinner as groups of 15-20 people met to identify problems for consideration. On Saturday, participants again divided into groups, this time according to the particular problem that interested them. The groups met four times, and the conference ended on Sunday with a general assembly at which a representative from each group gave a report of its work. Margaret Heaton and Henry Meckel (San Jose State College) co-chaired this first meeting and Asilomar 2 as well. The ideals of both meetings were set forth in the Conference Report for 1950:

The Asilomar Language Arts Conferences of 1949 and 1950 were built around one central idea: that language arts teachers have within themselves as a group the capacity to solve their own classroom and curricular problems.Consequently, neither conference was a meeting at which teachers sat and listened to speeches by “experts” on How to Teach English. The basic method employed at both conferences was workshop discussion. It was the conviction of the members of the Curriculum Study Commission that by (1) exchanging ideas that had worked, (2) exchanging materials, (3) sharing approaches to common problems, and (4) thinking together in group discussions, teachers could formulate many practical ideas and techniques.

The Origins of Asilomar Traditions
The conference planners believed that the development of good discussion skills was essential not only to the success of this weekend workshop approach but also to a student-centered classroom. This approach to conferences and classrooms was a particularly radical idea at mid-century when teachers usually sat at the feet of lecturers and there was no dialogue between them. It was an era when the classroom was teacher-centered and recitation a dominant practice. Thus, from Asilomar 2 to 7, the Commission engaged Hilda Taba (University of Chicago/SF State), a nationally prominent authority on human relations and group process, to observe meetings and assist in the refinement of conference procedures. After each Asilomar weekend, the Curriculum Study Commission examined and evaluated various aspects of the conference in order to understand better how the dynamics of meetings and conferences could affect the whole process of curriculum improvement. The most important organizational practices forged in the experience of the early conferences include the following:

I. Composition of Groups
A. Chairs In the early days, when the conferences were smaller, the chairs met together early Friday afternoon for a briefing on recommended practices in group processes. Today the Commission seeks chairs who have already developed skills in group discussion and other leadership techniques. Nowadays, such skilled teacher-leaders are more readily available, having used key elements of the Asilomar model to conduct inservice programs under the auspices of the Bay Area Writing Project, the State Department of Education’s English Teacher Specialist Program, and many local district offices where teacher leadership is fostered.

B. Resource Persons Evaluations from early conferences reported occasions when resource people, despite good intentions, often “over-dominated” a group. Sometimes discussion was even halted because participants, deferring to these resource persons, were reluctant to express good ideas of their own. In subsequent conferences, resource people have been encouraged to be less obtrusive. Additionally, to focus attention on workshop topics and descriptions, the names of resource persons are never listed in announcements and programs.

II. Participant Responsibility: Staying with the Same Group
One essential stipulation has governed all conferences: No “shopping around” — or movement from group to group — is permitted. Connection and flow are important to the dynamics of discussion from the point of view of human relations, the thinking processes, and the results achieved. Fruitful results from such discussion depend on continuity.

III. Conference Structure
A. The Five-Group Sequence The fourth Asilomar Conference was given a more definite structure with the addition of a theme, Thinking and the Language Arts. By this time the Commission had concluded from the evaluations of previous conferences that a sequence of five discussion sessions — one on Friday evening, three on Saturday, one on Sunday morning — would allow enough time for the development of a community sense among group members, for a statement of a problem or a description of practices, for adequate analysis and raising of issues, and for reaching productive conclusions.

B. General Sessions When Asilomar began, there were no main speakers, and only one general session, comprised of group reports on Sunday. Then, at Asilomar 4, Lou LaBrant, President of NCTE, offered a Sunday morning address, and so the speaker tradition began. Current Asilomar conferences usually include three general sessions: Friday evening, Saturday morning or evening, and Sunday morning

C. Around the Hearth Sessions Because Asilomar was originally a YWCA property and no liquor was allowed, Saturday evening was left open for participants to attend an off-grounds reception and then disperse for dinner. When Asilomar entered the State Park System, the rules changed, and the Commission was able to sponsor the Saturday reception on-grounds, followed by dinner, and an evening program consisting of two one-hour sequences of four or five optional “Around the Hearth” sessions each.

D. Bookstore on Site At Asilomar 7 in 1957, the Commission presented a “Display and Sale of Teaching Aids” which offered specially selected conference leaflets and books. Commission members continued to select, order, and manage the sale of teaching materials at the conference until the task became so overwhelming that in 1966 they requested help from Books Unlimited, an independent bookseller affiliated with the Berkeley Co-op, to organize and conduct the on-site bookstore. Books Unlimited served the conference for more than a decade, but the Commission continued to monitor book selection to make sure the stock fulfilled the needs of the groups and of each year’s conference theme. Books Unlimited was succeeded by Bookplace (SF), Books Plus (SF), Cover to Cover (SF) A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books (Larkspur), Artist’s Proof Bookstore (Larkspur), and Bookworks (Pacific Grove). Commission policy has always prohibited the exhibition of commercial textbooks and selling by individuals.

E. Scholarships The practice of offering conference scholarships (registration, lodging, and meals) began in 1960 with the Margaret Heaton Award. The scholarship program aims to honor the special contributions of deceased Commission members and to support the attendance by new teachers and student teachers. At Asilomar 50 there are ten such scholarship recipients. In addition, in years when the Commission enjoyed a surplus from the conference, it was able to fund several one-year scholarships for teachers in training at various Bay Area colleges and universities.

Curriculum Study Commission Role

An examination of past programs and internal documents reveals ten major issues that have claimed the attention of the Commission over the years:

1. the preparation of teachers for English language arts
2. the nature of our subject and its scope as a discipline
3.the particular character of literature and its teaching
4. the structure of language and reading and its teaching
5. the appropriate assessment of instruction
6. the organization of classrooms and the structure of English departments
7. the changing nature of school populations with emphasis on those most “at risk”
8. the effective uses of media and technology in teaching
9. the strengthening of our professional “voice”
10. the effects of misguided legislative mandates and “reforms.”

A. Asilomar Planning To allow enough time for exploration and discussion of ideas and themes, the Commission established the practice of engaging in a weekend organizing session early in January so that sustained attention could be given to problems, procedures, and plans for the next Asilomar conference. The method employed for selecting general session speakers and topics for groups has always depended on achieving consensus among the members of the Commission acting as a committee of the whole. Over the years the Commission has grown adept at identifying the current interests and most pressing problems of the teachers it serves.

B. Commission Membership Another important principle established at its beginning was the idea of an extended term of membership on the Commission. Most professional organizations have a Board of Directors whose members are elected for specific terms. This means that within four or five years, there is often a complete turn-over of membership and, in consequence, a loss of the necessary continuity and collective memory that contribute to the maturity of an organization. In order for the lessons learned from any one conference to be applied in future years and assure the ongoing evolution of the Asilomar experience, continuity of Commission membership was deemed essential. Thus Commission members do not have fixed terms of office and may serve as long as they are able to devote the considerable amount of time and energy required. In this way, the Commission is able to take up and explore issues of the profession over time. Its challenge is to avoid the handicaps that

C. Commission Incorporation In May 1991, the Commission completed the steps to be recognized as a “California public benefit corporation” and since then has operated under the more formal rules established for such entities. It developed a series of by-laws, and its members are now called “directors.”

D. Commission Renewal Usually every other year, the Commission sponsors an invitational spring conference, described below. In the alternate years, the Commission plans a spring conference for its own members in order to reflect on its practices and to strengthen the members’ own knowledge about curriculum and professional issues. Over the years, the Commission has informed itself about current state reform directives, literature-based reading, the influence of standardized tests on curriculum, multicultural classrooms, teacher training, and so forth. From 1986 to 1990, the Commission undertook a comprehensive self-study with the guidance of Jon Wagner, UC Davis. Professor Wagner, an educator with a sociological perspective, functioned as a participant-observer and commentator during these years. In a half-dozen formal reports, he examined group process in the Commission, its recruitment and orientation of members, and its approaches toward attainment of its goals of improving English instruction and strengthening the profession.

Curriculum Study Commission Highlights

From the long list of Commission involvement in professional concerns, the following is a selection of the significant activities and projects undertaken:

1951: Role in Establishing CCCTE Regional Conferences
As each conference attracted an increasing number of participants, the Commission realized, after the third year, that attendance would have to be curtailed — for two reasons. One was that the number of spaces allocated at the conference grounds was limited; another was that the integrity of the small group discussions that were becoming so popular had be to protected. Seeking to make other provisions, the Commission and the CCCTE Board of Directors devised a plan to hold four one-day regional conferences in different parts of central California during the spring of each year. Although geographical distribution was a consideration in the selection of locations for such meetings, they were often held in those places where English teachers expressed interest in organizing one. Regional meetings also offered an opportunity to capitalize on the leadership emerging from Asilomar conferences, providing new venues for the talents of teachers who had developed skills in group discussion and other leadership techniques at Asilomar. In turn, regional conferences became places for the discovery of talented teachers with potential for the Asilomar conference and Commission membership.

1959-60: Role in the Founding of CATE
In 1959 there existed statewide only a loose confederation of affiliate organizations called the California Association of English Councils (CAEC). One of these was the Central California Council of Teachers of English, which had originated in the 1930s as the California Association of Teachers of English, Central Section. The so-called state level organization consisted only of a group of officers nominated and elected by the various affiliates. They had no unified membership behind them, no authority to act for the state as a whole, and no financial resources to tackle problems. Richard Worthen, a member of the Commission, was President of CAEC in 1959, and he spearheaded a move toward the consolidation of Councils. When the new California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) was created at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on Friday, February 12, 1960, by delegates from affiliates of the old CAEC, Dick Worthen was its founding president. The Commission even underwrote part of the cost of the constitutional convention. Henry Meckel and a representative from Southern California co-chaired the drafting of the original CATE constitution. One year after the adoption of the new constitution, each person joining or renewing membership in a regional affiliate automatically became a member of the new CATE. Thus, CATE became a truly statewide organization, giving a unified voice to the profession for the first time.

1958-2000: Spring Asilomar Conferences
The invitational Spring Asilomar for a limited number of participants was conceived by the Commission as a means of providing leaders in English in central California with up-to-date knowledge in a particular field. These conferences have focused on diverse areas of new scholarship or on professional issues. Complete coverage of a given field in a single weekend has never been the goal; rather, the Commission hopes that intensive exposure to the dimensions of problems and to important new scholarship might reduce the lag time between what is known and what could be used in classrooms. The general structure of these conferences consists of small discussion groups working from the same information provided through three or four general session presentations.

1960s: Special Sub-Conferences
As important issues arose on the professional horizon, the Commission provided opportunities for their consideration in special meetings separate but adjunct to the fall Asilomar conference. Participants followed their own sequence of group meetings and general sessions. In 1961, the Commission met with five members of the Commission on English of the College Entrance Examination Board and their Executive Secretary in consideration of its recently publishedFreedom and Discipline in English. In 1966, the Commission presented a sub-conference on Developing Better English Departments. A condition of attending required the participating English department chair to bring along an administrator from the same school. Then in 1967, the Commission sponsored a major invitational sub-conference on the preparation of teachers of English for California elementary and secondary schools, co-sponsored with the California Association of Teachers of English, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Association of Departments of English, the national organization that represents college departments of English. Albert H. Marquardt, President of NCTE, Michael F. Shugrue, Assistant Secretary for English of the Modern Language Association, and Robert W. Daniel, Chairman of ADE, made presentations for an audience comprised of about 100 representatives from college and university departments of English and Education.

Responses to State Mandates
In the mid-1960s, in an “Open Letter” to the editor of the California English Journal, Dick Worthen described the tenor of the times as he saw it:

English teaching in California stands especially vulnerable to the creeping force of public
figures outside the schools. Decisions inimical to our subject, to the students who study it,
and to those who teach it are multiplying at an alarming rate As we look around us we witness
decision making that by-passes the profession and profoundly affects local control over the
building of curriculum, the professional training of teachers, and our autonomy as teachers.
When one reviews the nature of the discourse leading to these changes, he cannot help being
discouraged over the prospects of our achieving truly professional status in this culture. What
truly bothers me, though, is that these matters have not been and are not being
communicated to the English teachers of the state. We deserve to be made aware of our
diminishing prospects in California.
From time to time Commission members have given testimony before legislative committees, State Curriculum Commission hearings, and State Board meetings, and they have written letters in opposition to or in favor of particular legislative measures. Many Commission members have served on State Department of Education task forces and curriculum committees. One member, Kate Blickhahn, was chief writ er for the English Language Framework for California Public Schools (1968). Other members played prominent roles in the development of the widely acclaimed and forward-looking English Language Arts Framework for Grades K-12 (1987). Still other Commission members made significant contributions to the development of the California Assessment Program (CAP Tests) in the 1970s and 1980s, and later to the innovative California Learning Assessment System (CLAS Tests). Throughout most of its 50-year history, the Commission enjoyed a good working relationship with the California State Board of Education, but this relationship no longer exists. Today, federal and state mandates have increasingly replaced practitioner knowledge and educational research as the main forces guiding school program development, and the current climate harkens back to the Worthen statement in the mid-sixties.

Commission Influences and Notable Connections of Members
A striking number of Commission members have moved on to assume national leadership roles in the profession of English language arts. In fact, for nearly half of its fifty year history, Commission members have held the position of Executive Director/Secretary of the National Council of Teachers of English. As members fanned out into the professional world beyond Central California, they often attempted to introduce elements of the Asilomar model at their new jurisdictions. When interviewed at Asilomar in 1987, James Squire described how he attempted to establish Asilomar-type conferences at the National Council through its pre-convention institutes and spring conferences: “I kept wishing that there was something like this [Asilomar conference] everywhere. I still do for all English teachers.” Jesse Perry, while President -Elect of NCTE in the early 1990s, succeeded in having an Asilomar-like strand at two national conferences.
Another long-time member of the Commission, James Gray, was instrumental in developing the two Training Sessions of the English Teacher Specialist Program in 1968 and 1969 along with George Nemetz, Consultant in English for the California State Department of Education. These were weekend Asilomar conferences built upon the familiar small-group discussion model. James Gray also convened the first Bay Area Writing Project teacher consultant training program in the summer of 1974. A program designed to enable teachers to teach teachers, BAWP was the beginning of what was to become the world-renowned National Writing Project.
Many Commission members have distinguished themselves and strengthened the profession through their service as CATE presidents, CCCTE presidents, and in other leadership roles, often while continuing as active members of the Commission and as classroom teachers. Space limitations permit listing below only a sampling of those who served in NCTE offices.

Executive Secretary/Director of NCTE
James Squire
Robert Hogan
Miles Myers
Associate Executive Secretary
Edmund Farrell
Director of the Two-Year College English Program for NCTE
Richard Worthen
President of NCTE
Virginia Reid
Jesse Perry
Vice-President of NCTE
Robert Shafer
Editor of NCTE journals
Iris Tiedt, Elementary English (later titled Language Arts)
Mary K. Healy, English Education
Local Chairman, NCTE Convention
Leo Ruth, San Francisco, 1963

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What is the Asilomar Tradition?

The Asilomar English Conference has been held annually for 60 years. This unique conference is based on sustained group discussions following the teachers-teaching-teachers collaborative learning philosophy. The chair and one or more resource persons in each group do not function as lecturers. Rather, participants share information and insights as the discussions evolve. The emphasis is on good conversation and the pursuit of intellectual interests. Participants select one group to remain with for the entire weekend. Group members often prepare for the weekend by reading suggested books for the session they choose. This opportunity to delve into a topic of interest, paired with rich discussion, forms the foundation of the Asilomar conference tradition.

The Asilomar Conference is also known for its diverse session offerings. In many cases a participant may choose his or her session for both personal and professional growth. Regardless of the reason for choosing a particular group to join, attendees expect to participate in lively discussion in the Asilomar tradition. This guide is designed to inform group chairs and resource people of the unique requirements for facilitating group process in the Asilomar tradition.

Types of Sessions at Asilomar

Some sessions lend themselves to group process in the Asilomar tradition better than others. For example, a group focusing on the work of a specific author can collaborate to develop new understandings of the author’s work. These participants can discuss their thoughts as they read shared selections. However, other groups are designed more for the resource person to impart information to attendees and less time is spent in group discussion. A recent such session was titled, Opera for Beginners and Opera Lovers. In this session time was spent learning about opera while watching and listening to selections from various opera.

Instead of involving participants in exploratory discussions, other groups focus on participants writing across a range of genres or exploring various drama activities for the classroom. These groups often operate with a great deal of participant collaborative involvement in the activity itself.

While a group studying an author’s work may include more discussion, it is important to note that both types of groups follow the Asilomar tradition of group process because the participants helped determine the direction the group would follow. This is the essence of the group process. It is the role of the group chair and resource to facilitate this group process.

Roles of Chairpersons and Resource People

Organizer – A Curriculum Study Commission member organizes a group in the early planning stages, identifying a resource person and chairperson, and assesses evaluation of groups after the conference.

Chairperson – The chairperson facilitates the planning prior to the conference. The chair is usually a Curriculum Study Commission member and often also the original organizer. The chairperson also participates in the group and facilitates discussion to ensure all voices are heard.

Resource person – The resource person is someone who has expertise in the session topic. The resource person imparts information, but also uses his or her knowledge of the topic to further the discussion. The resource person plans with the chairperson for the discussion and organizes the weekend’s study with later input from the group itself.

Chairs, resource people and other group members take on and change stances toward content of the group’s discussion and nature of the group’s interpersonal dynamics as well as toward individual group members. Being aware of and valuing the different contribution of each group member, even seemingly negative ones is a step in achieving group consensus and objectives. At times, group members may attempt to satisfy individual needs and act in individual-centered as opposed to group-centered ways. Should an individual threaten the overall health and activity of the group the resource person or chair should contact the conference co-chairs.

Chairpersons and resource people should study the following guidelines and collaborate to achieve positive group processing. When participating in discussion, group members are encouraged to provide or seek a problem, information, a position, an opinion, more meaning, as suggestion, or definite action.