Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nora F. Murphy and Jennifer Tonko - How Do You Understand the Impact of the Humanities?

Nora Murphy, co-founder of TerraLuna Collaborative, has a broad set of experiences as an evaluator and researcher. She earned a Ph.D. in Evaluation Studies from the University of Minnesota, an M.A. in Research Methodology from the University of Pittsburgh, and has her B.A. in Education from Earlham College. With strong quantitative and qualitative skills she has conducted evaluation and research in schools, school districts, local community organizations, national non-profits,  and government entities. Murphy’s primary approach to evaluation is to view programs and people as fundamentally interrelated, applying systems theory as a framework for evaluation planning, design, implementation, analysis, and reporting. She’s been working with the Humanities Center since January 2013.

Jennifer Tonko is the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Senior Project Coordinator for Omaha Public Schools.

The Minnesota Humanities Center and TerraLuna Collaborative have been partnering since January 2013 to evaluate the Humanities Center’s Education Strategy with the Omaha [Nebraska] Public Schools (OPS). This relationship-based and partnership-driven strategy is based on the premise that strong relationships between students and educators are essential in increasing student engagement and ultimately their academic success. The Strategy is not a pre-determined model but rather guided by four core values: 1) Build and strengthen relationships; 2) Recognize the power of story and the danger of absence; 3) Learn from and with multiple voices; and 4) Amplify community solutions for change.

A values-driven, relationship-based approach requires different kinds of evaluation. Rather than reducing the evaluation plan to inputs and outputs it calls on us to pay deep attention to educators—their experiences and their relationships. Their stories matter.
TerraLuna Collaborative – a cooperative research and evaluation firm based in Minneapolis, MN – has worked in partnership with the Humanities Center to create a developmental evaluation that supports program development by identifying what is and what is not working, and bringing attention to emerging information. Key elements of the evaluation are:

View Schools as Human Systems. Rhetoric around public education sometimes makes it sound as though teachers are robots delivering pre-determined lessons to passive recipients in an attempt to raise test scores. We justify this by saying that students need to hit certain academic milestones for success. But educators and students are people—people who have relationships, hopes, joys, and fears. Our evaluative process does not reduce people to numbers, describe a single “average” experience, or view the educational system as one that’s static and separate from the people in it. 

Collecting Stories. We use story-based methods to find powerful narratives of change and look for voices that might be missing. Having the stories of learning, implementation, challenge, and success are what help us truly understand what is going on in the offerings.

Reflect the Core Values. We commit to working in and through the core values and principles of the Strategy so participants have a consistent experience when they are working with TerraLuna and the Humanities Center. Because the Strategy is so committed to building relationships, it is absolutely critical that all partners treat participants as the whole people that they are at all times; participants are never just data-points.

Make Meaning Together. We commit to reflective practice and meet regularly both as whole teams and as smaller teams to create a space for shared meaning-making. With project staff spread across multiple states and the quick pace of adaptation, it is critical to convene people to engage in reflective practice. This allows the Humanities Center to continually refine our shared vision and move forward with coherence.

This evaluation approach allows us to learn what this work means for educators and for their relationships with students and with each other. By making sense of stories and experiences together the Humanities Center and OPS can decide how to move forward and a way that best meets the needs of educators, students, family members, community members, and the school district. Through the evaluation process relationships are formed, voices are heard, and solutions are amplified.

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