Andover Bread Loaf: Nurturing Literacy & Building Community for Social Change

January 30, 2017
By Educator Innovator

Andover Bread Loaf facilitates writing workshops in Lawrence, MA, creating space for youth and adults to come together, tell their stories, and become the authors of their community.

In 2017, Andover Bread Loaf, an outreach program of Phillips Academy Andover in partnership with the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, will hold its thirtieth anniversary celebration. It has a great deal to celebrate.

Andover Bread Loaf (ABL) is a place-based education initiative in Lawrence, MA, a mid-sized deindustrialized immigrant city that in 2012 Boston Magazine labeled “city of the damned… where crime is soaring, schools are failing, and government has lost control.” Through its unique approach to writing and literacy, ABL is working with an array of educators and community leaders to transform the Lawrence narrative.

When ABL celebrates its 30th anniversary in summer 2017, it will be marking the accomplishments of multiple organizations and individuals mobilized to bring literacy learning to ever widening groups of youth and adults in Lawrence. ABL has been setting the scene for the celebration through expanding the network of community partnerships carrying out writing workshops.

For example, in August 2016, one partner sponsored six writing workshops in different community-based settings—from a senior center to a youth development arts program. Community members of all ages participated and wrote to the prompt “What is your Lawrence story?” Participants later gathered at a local park for an open mic and to share their love of community building and writing.

Subsequently, City Council President Kendrys Vasquez, joined by all city councilors, signed a proclamation declaring that the last Saturday in August henceforth be known as Lawrence’s Day of Writing—an official day that recognizes the power of the pen, the voices it awakens, and the healing it brings to communities. Everyone in the community will be encouraged to share their stories on August 26, 2017!

Another example of ABL’s community outreach are Family Literacy Nights, which bring parents, siblings and other community adults, including some teachers, into the schools to engage with children in writing workshops. As a strategy for parent and community engagement, these Family Literacy Nights are distinctive in that they affirm the culture, language and background of the diverse participants, as the video linked here shows.

Many close to ABL believed it was having an important influence in Lawrence, but until 2015 there was no systematic research that could demonstrate the nature of its sway. ABL asked us to respond to this need. As part of a community of researchers who have studied the relationship between community, families, and schools, with a special interest in community and youth organizing, we designed a study that would document its impact by revealing its “theory of change.” We immersed ourselves in the work of ABL through site visits, telephone interviews and review of the program’s website, news articles and program documents. Analysis of our fieldwork and interview data revealed the pathway between ABL’s program activities and its outcomes.

With the current, nation-wide interest in strategies that link education and community renewal, ABL’s focus on expressive writing and public sharing which validates the language, culture and experiences of Lawrence residents is an important example. Its dual focus on schools and community-based groups is making education a community-wide endeavor. Our report, City of Promise: Andover Bread Loaf in Lawrence and Beyond, describes how ABL evolved from a singular focus on teacher professional development to an adult and youth development project with a community-wide strategy for authentic school and community improvement. ABL is a model for place-based education and community renewal. ABL shows that it is possible to unleash the power of the school-community relationship and demonstrates the influence organizing can have.

ABL’s Theory of Change

In partnership with community based organizations and school educators, ABL is building an engaged citizenry. It supports teachers and community-based adult educators, as well as youth writing leaders, many of whom have come up through its ranks, to engage children and youth, parents and other community members to develop a set of shared literacy practices as they tell their stories through writing and share their writing orally. The process entailed in writing and sharing in school and community settings enables participants to reduce their sense of isolation and identify mutual joys and problems, building a sense of community and common ground for social action.

The theory of change identifies four phases that describe the program’s work and impacts.

  1. The program’s institutional base—the Bread Loaf School of English/Phillips Academy Andover partnership—allows it to mobilize the resources it needs to spawn and support its educator and youth development initiative. Its guiding principles—based on democratic pedagogy—encourage an approach to literacy that develops the voice of Lawrence residents, creates a shared social agenda, and a value in making change.
  2. ABL, therefore, is an intentional community formed in the context of place-based social action strategies.1 Participants, often multi-generational and cross-sectoral (students, parents, teachers), attend workshops and other in- and out-of- school events and programs, where they are encouraged to draw on their own experiences and heritage as they write in response to a “prompt.” They share their writing orally in public, yet supportive, settings. The wide array of settings—including coffee houses, art centers, community organizations, and schools—makes literacy learning into a community-wide initiative. The network formed by these varied settings keeps teachers, community educators, parents, and others working in collaboration across their institutional boundaries.
  3. Program outcomes lead to dual level change: individual and collective. Inherent to the change process is the heart of ABL’s social action agenda: young people and adults become the authors of their lives and collectively, of their communities. Having built strong community and school based partnerships, ABL is empowering educators, youth and community adults with the kinds of communication and presentation skills needed to be academically successful and to be productive, active citizens in the years ahead.
  4. Change also takes the form of greater capacity for civic engagement and equity. Collectively, participants are reframing the city’s narrative, building awareness of its positive heritage as a gateway immigrant city. With this recognition, ABL and its partners are growing the capacity for civic engagement that can revitalize education and renew Lawrence.

1Heath, S.B. 1982. “What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school”. Language in Society 11, pp 49-76.

By Eva Gold and Elaine Simon