Center for Community Engagement

How Learning Happens

Education on Fire
January 2012—story by Jenny Morgan, photo by Katherine Berry '12

First ever TedxPioneerValley 'cracks open' assumptions about education

In December of 1940, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon—a small, agricultural village in southern France— began a rescue mission of heroic proportions.

Led by the village’s pastor, André Trocmé, residents took in Jewish refugees from internment camps and hid them in Le Chambon and neighboring communities. By September of 1944, the month of France’s liberation, the village had saved the lives of nearly 5,000 individuals, including around 3,000 non-French Jewish refugees. Years later, villagers who spoke of the community’s mission expressed that they weren’t being heroic: they explained that it was simply the right thing to do.

Lifelong community-based learning advocate Nadinne Cruz believes that higher education in the twenty-first century can learn a lot from the powerful story of Le Chambon.


Last month, Cruz delivered the talk, “Education on Fire with Heart, Hope, and Engagement” as part of How Learning Happens, the first ever TEDxPioneerValley, held in Amherst College’s Stirn Theater.  Cruz explained that the villagers of Le Chambon exemplified “moral brilliance,” or “the capacity to know the good thing to do and an equal capacity to do it.” Cruz, who has spent over 25 years facilitating educational partnerships between higher education and communities, argued that academic knowledge is only part of what should be valued, and taught, in higher education.  After first hearing the story of Le Chambon, Cruz felt haunted by a single question—a question she posed to the Tedx participants. “What if we designed colleges and universities in such a way that campus communities would be capable of doing what Le Chambon did?” The villagers of Le Chambon didn’t need college degrees to know what the right thing to do was—but what if you could reshape higher education to purposefully encourage students to seek out the morally brilliant in their communities?

Questions like the one raised by Cruz—those that challenge how we might reconsider traditional learning, teaching, and education—were very much at the heart of TEDxPioneerValley. The day-long event, a collaboration between the Adult Learning Center at Holyoke Community College and Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, was designed to “cracks open peoples’ ideas and assumptions about learning and how [it] happens,” explained Molly Mead, Director of Amherst College’s Center for Community Engagement and TEDxPioneerValley curator. TED, short for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, was founded in 1984 as a nonprofit “devoted to ideas worth spreading.” TED began organizing public TEDTalks to share these ideas, eventually creating TEDx to enable communities the opportunity to “stimulate dialogue at the local level” as independently organized events.

Introducing TEDx to the Pioneer Valley was the brainchild of Aliza (Zizi) Ansell, Program Coordinator at Holyoke Community College’s Adult Learning Center and co-producer of TEDxPioneerValley. An early adaptor to all things TED, Ansell’s mission was to create a space to explore “the plasticity of the adult brain” from a breadth of perspectives on learning and education. It was deeply important to Ansell that the event prominently feature the joys and struggles of adult learners. “Nobody understands who adult learners are—[people] don’t understand [adult] illiteracy, and the profound number of adults who are illiterate in Holyoke and in the United States.” Together with Mead, co-producer Linda O’Connell, and a small cadre of other organizers from each of the participating schools, Ansell spent nine months developing the program for January’s event.

Each of the 14 talks at TEDxPioneerValley helped to shape an inclusive and dynamic presentation of what learning can—or should—look like. Like Cruz, many speakers addressed the urgency of reimagining classrooms, curricula, and broadening the scope of who we consider to be educators. Others shared stories of unexpected moments of learning and self-discovery, like Susan Barry in her talk, “Fixing My Gaze.”  A neurobiologist and Professor of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College, Barry recounted her journey into vision therapy at the age of 48 to correct being cross-eyed. Even Barry, as a neurobiologist, was surprised when she was able to retrain her brain to see in 3D, commenting that while the adult brain is capable of “significant plasticity,” it requires “the conscious abandonment of entrenched habits.” Yet it was “A Person with a Dream: Inside Adult Basic Education”—a presentation that revealed with raw honesty the realities of adult education today—that brought the audience to its feet. In a powerful spoken word performance, an ensemble of students portrayed the painful challenges adult learners often have to overcome and the hopes and dreams that help them to push through these obstacles. The performance included an essay read by Amherst College junior Ruben Sepulveda ’13, who, in 2011, transferred to Amherst from Holyoke Community College and had also tutored in the Adult Learning Center for many years. “Think of the bravery that it takes to believe, in spite of everything you’ve been told, that it’s still possible you could accomplish something meaningful,” he said.

Even before the day was over, audience members were already raving about TEDxPioneerValley. “I would see people at breaks [between talks] and they were just glowing,” Ansell said. “We were at what could have looked like a conference all day, but people paid attention.” Ansell partially attributes the TEDTalk format to this success: each speaker has only 18 minutes to present and there are no question and answer sessions, a frequent drain of energy at public events. Participant and Professor of Black Studies and English Rhonda Cobham-Sander described feeling both “inspired and invigorated,” adding that part of TEDx’s staying power was its localness. “I really like the fact that these were all people from my immediate community. I didn’t know all of them, but I knew the towns they mentioned, and I knew the organizations they were associated with. You could imagine yourself as part of a community.” Mead observed the palpable excitement of community leaders to “self-identify” as morally brilliant. “How liberating is it to [define] this concept, and to name it with such vigor? Here’s this thing that the world really needs and [it] is not exclusively owned by people in higher education.” While plans for a second TEDxPioneerValley are only in the initial stages, Mead, Ansell, and O’Connell plan to keep the spirit of January’s event alive through TEDSalon. “We’ll select a germane TEDTalk, and then watch it and discuss it together,” Mead explained. “What a simple and powerful way to continue to promote dialogue.”

PHOTOS, top to bottom: 1) Nadinne Cruz delivering "Education on Fire with Heart, Hope and Engagement," photo by Katherine Berry. 2) Susan Berry demonstrating vision therapy in "Fixing My Gaze," photo by Katherine Berry. 3) Zizi Ansell and students from the Adult Learning Center in their performance, "A Person with a Dream," photo by Samuel Masinter. View all of the day's photos on the TEDxPioneerValley's Flickr page.

To learn more about the event, including biographies of the organizers and speakers, visit the TEDxPioneerValley website. Don't forget to check back for videos of the talks.

Jenny Morgan is a CCE staff writer. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.