Harvard Educational Review
  1. Touching Eternity

    The Enduring Outcomes of Teaching

    By Tom Barone

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2001. 216 pp. $50.00, $22.95 (paper).

    In Touching Eternity: The Enduring Outcomes of Teaching, Tom Barone seeks to examine fundamental questions about education through a qualitative study of a high school art teacher and the impact he has on his students. Through an in-depth longitudinal exploration of the work of Donald Forrister, the sole art teacher at Swain County High School in North Carolina, Barone hopes to better understand the nature of teaching, of what is and is not learned, and the impact and value of the educational process for teachers and students. Written with the evocative language and aesthetic form that are characteristic of imaginative literature, Touching Eternity is a work of arts-based research. The book is organized in five parts. Barone presents his case study of the teacher and several of his students in the first four parts and discusses methodological and epistemological issues in the final part. Barone’s aim with this study is to challenge his readers to rethink their beliefs about education. In his words, "This is a book that is meant to disturb and puzzle. It is designed, in both content and style, to challenge the reader, to raise important questions about educational issues — indeed, it aims to provoke the reader into asking questions about the nature of truth itself" (pp. 2–3).

    Barone first became familiar with the work of Donald Forrister in the early 1980s, when Barone was asked by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to write an evaluation of the Swain County High School Arts Program, which had received an Award for Excellence in Arts Education from the fund in 1982. Part One of Touching Eternity, Things of Use and Things of Beauty: The Swain Community High School Arts Program, is an abbreviated version of the evaluation. With its overarching theme of tension between aesthetics and utility, this section of the book introduces readers to the key players in the study: the community of Swain County, the arts program at Swain County, several students, and their teacher, Donald Forrister. Contrasting the care with which local artists create their handiworks — a sign of the aesthetic pleasure that is part of the artistic process — with the pragmatism and self-sufficient lifestyle of the local community — which prioritizes function above form — Barone highlights the tension between the aesthetic and the utilitarian in the craft heritage of Swain County. This tension also colors Barone’s description of the Swain County High School Arts Program. He describes the program as navigating among various purposes that can be broadly categorized as aesthetic or utilitarian. These purposes include providing students with the opportunity to take pride in their artistic creations, encouraging students to express themselves in their work, and promoting students’ career development in arts- or crafts-related fields.

    Part Two, What Do Former Students Believe They Learned? Traces of a Teacher in the Life Stories of His Former Students, draws on interviews that Barone conducted with several Swain County High School alumni who were students of Forrister’s at the time the original essay was published. Barone employs a range of presentational forms in this section, including direct transcriptions of interviews and storytelling where he blends elements from the interviews with his own contributions. In one section, The Magician and the Parole Officer, Barone’s unique use of the medium of print provides another unusual mode of presentation, as he uses multiple fonts — italic, bold, and roman — to correspond to three perspectives that are brought to bear on the story of Forrister’s relationship with two high school friends. When quoting or paraphrasing the two students, Barone uses italic and bold fonts; when presenting aspects of the story that were common across both interviews, Barone uses a roman font. While the stories that comprise this section of the book differ in content and style, they converge in the refrain that emerges: Donald Forrister had a profoundly positive impact on his students, which some of them continue to feel years later.

    Drawing on extensive interviews with Forrister, Barone composes Part Three, What Do Students Teach? Traces of Students in the Life Story of a Teacher. This section presents Forrister as a person, an artist, and a teacher. Readers learn about Forrister’s childhood, about his artistic development, and about what led him to teaching. Part Three concludes with an extended section entitled "Learning from His Students," which underscores what Forrister says earlier about the impact his students had on him. Barone describes the enduring impact that teaching has on a teacher by illustrating ways that particular students influenced Donald Forrister. As Barone describes it, Forrister found himself intrigued by certain students, often because of their personal attributes. For example, a student referred to as Carolyn judged others’ artistic work with high standards and would turn that gaze upon herself as well. Getting to know Carolyn and to appreciate what he saw as her courage and honesty reinforced Forrister’s commitment to living with integrity. The restlessness of another student, Barry, threatened the superb artistry that shone in his moments of focus. As Forrister came to know Barry, he reacquainted himself with the importance of holding fast to one project or one medium at a time. For Forrister, then, the enduring outcomes of teaching refer to both the impact a teacher has on his students and the impact that students have on their teachers.

    In Part Four, Barone analyzes the case study. Hoping to provoke conversation and raise questions, he employs two contrasting analytical lenses. In the first, which he calls a phenomenological reading of the evidence from the research, Barone portrays Forrister as a dedicated, talented, and exceptional teacher who profoundly and positively influences the lives of his students. Using the phenomenological lens, Barone presents the case study at face value and celebrates Forrister as the heroic teacher who "touches eternity" with his students. In his second analysis, Barone draws from critical theory by identifying social and cultural forces that may have stood in the way of or lessened Forrister’s influence on his students. These forces include what Barone calls cultural scripts — the ways of living and thinking that are valued by a culture. For example, in the United States, devoting one’s life to corporate work may be more highly valued than committing oneself to aesthetic work, or achieving affluence may be considered more desirable than maintaining moral integrity. Barone argues that social and cultural forces like these may influence the role that artistic endeavors continue to play in the lives of Forrister’s former students. Barone reminds his readers that teachers must be aware that their work takes place within a social and cultural context that includes certain forces that may have deleterious effects on the outcomes of their teaching. For example, the work of art teachers in the United States takes place within a social and cultural context that encourages students to seek high salaries rather than aesthetic fulfillment. Barone argues that the impact of art teachers’ teaching may be diminished if their students abandon the arts in search of competitive salaries. Barone does not choose one interpretation as he concludes Part Four, instead allowing both analyses to compete for the reader’s consideration and provoke conversation.

    Barone devotes Part Five to the methodological and epistemological aspects of his study. He discusses the strategies he employed during the interviews, including eliciting childhood memories, asking participants to summarize the ways that Forrister influenced them, if at all, and looking for a central theme that would help him to structure an interviewee’s story. He also addresses aspects of the writing process, such as soliciting participants’ feedback on drafts of their stories. In terms of epistemology, Barone argues that the purpose of educational inquiry in general, and of this study in particular, is to enhance meaning rather than to reduce uncertainty. To support this claim he draws on a postmodernist perspective. According to Barone, postmodernists "opt for an epistemology of ambiguity that seeks out and celebrates meanings that are partial, tentative, incomplete, sometimes even contradictory, and originating from multiple vantage points" (pp. 152-153). Barone thus asserts that the ambiguity he creates in his presentation of multiple voices and interpretations is consistent with postmodern perspectives on research and on knowledge.

    Touching Eternity: The Enduring Outcomes of Teaching offers a multilayered exploration of teaching and learning, their outcomes, and their contexts through a unique blend of perspectives and presentational styles. Barone’s inquiry into the enduring outcomes of Donald Forrister’s teaching departs from traditional case study research in a number of respects; however, one crucial departure may diminish the effectiveness of his study. Barone does not address the reasons for selecting Donald Forrister for a case study of the larger educational issues of what it means to touch eternity by having an impact on one’s students. Why is Donald Forrister’s work a particularly apt, rich, or instructive example of teaching that is worthy of this form of investigation? Still, Barone’s elegant writing — regardless of the voice he presents or the style he employs — and the questions that Touching Eternity provoke make it an engaging read for a number of audiences. For instance, qualitative researchers will enjoy the presentational forms Barone uses and the methodological and epistemological issues he addresses. Educators of all kinds, regardless of the subject area they teach or the nature of their student populations, will enjoy grappling with the questions that Barone raises about what it means to teach and to learn, what teachers can learn from their students, and how social and cultural forces can influence the educational process.
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    Book Notes

    Crossing Over to Canaan
    By Gloria Ladson-Billings

    Touching Eternity
    By Tom Barone