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The real-life lessons about the plight of migrant farm workers

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002


Great teaching is a subversive activity, a revolution that transforms lives. It takes students to new places and introduces them to experiences they otherwise would never encounter.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a great teacher.

About 15 years ago, University of Tampa English and drama Professor Frank Gillen watched Harvest of Shame, Edward R. Murrow's landmark documentary about the plight of farm workers. Two years ago, he watched the film again and was haunted by the images of human degradation.

At the same time, he was teaching a Wendy Wasserstein play depicting life during the 1960s and remembered how students were committed to serious causes during that turbulent decade.

"I asked my students: "What if you were the U.S. president of if you could be in some intellectual position, what cause would you take up?' " Gillen said. "I tried to get them back into the 1960s where we took up causes. Nobody could think of anything. It bothered the hell out of me. How do you get people interested and roused?

"So I begin to think. How can I change this? One of the ways is to use a course, such as English 102, that everybody takes and turn that research into something that wouldn't just result in a term being given back to me. Like one of my students said, it just gets tossed away. I wanted the research to be dedicated and committed to trying to change some things in society."

The result is an English 102 course named Researching and Learning to Serve: The Migrant Worker Experience.

Gillen advertised the course, and many students signed up because they were curious about farm workers. In addition to requiring students in the two classes to a long paper, he invited special guests to speak. The guests included a scholar, a farm worker advocate, a social service worker, a lawyer and a journalist specializing in farm worker affairs.

I spoke to both classes. The most effective speaker, however, was a woman who toils in the fields each day. Using rich detail and unadorned language, she created a world that gave students a vicarious experience many will remember for a long time, some forever.

Best of all, students took field trips, visiting the fields and seeing where farm workers live and play.

"I have learned about people who have it worse than me," said Kendra Theise. "My problems just don't seem as big anymore. I never knew how bad farm workers' lifestyles are. I never even took a second glance at them. Being able to meet some workers, see their homes and hear their voices are images I'll never forget."

Sarah Bender, who grew up around farm workers who picked apples in Upstate New York, also gained a different view of field hands. Until taking Gillen's course, she was mostly indifferent to the workers and their problems:

"I focused mainly on farm-worker health issues. I now have a great amount of sympathy for migrant workers and their families. Learning what really goes on in their lives makes the problem realistic. I will support the migrant workers in the future and stick up for them when they are stereotyped. The world really is not a fair place.

"More people need to open their eyes and realize the inhuman conditions farm workers are forced to live under. Just a little support will make a difference. If all I can do for now is educate my peers and stick up for the migrant workers, that's what I will do."

Because of their new experiences, several students have committed themselves to specific efforts after graduation. One student, who is a public school teacher, has decided to concentrate on English as a second language and will help Spanish-speaking students. A physician taking the course said she now will help migrant workers gain access to health care.

The classes hit the sidewalks and collected 500 signatures supporting a farm-worker bill in Tallahassee. They also are establishing a Web site dedicated to farm-worker issues.

After a semester, how does Gillen grade himself, his students and their efforts?

"I think I was way too optimistic," he said with no reluctance. "I thought I was going to change a lot of kids. I think I'm changing a lot of kids a little bit. But I think I'm changing a couple of kids very deeply. I think we will do some practical things and, therefore, some good."

What about the future? I asked Gillen.

He wants to make Researching and Learning to Serve: The Migrant Worker Experience a model for classes in other academic disciplines.

"We take in roughly 1,000 freshmen students in English 102," he said. "If every year, we could get 250 students involved in some kind of social issues that really important, turn that research toward those issues, and this could be a model statewide where thousands of students taking English 102 could have a big impact. Next year, I'm going to take this idea to conferences and talk about it."

If Laura Fisher's new commitment to the plight of farm workers is an indication of Gillen's influence on his students, I applaud his efforts:

"When this class started, I didn't know anything about migrant farm workers. I didn't know they had any problems. I have learned about many of the problems they face -- low wages, housing, education, exposure to pesticides. I will stay involved with migrant farm workers and will continue to try to make changes that will improve their lives."

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