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Gore teaches on family, community

It's easy to tell when professor Al Gore is teaching: There's a motorcade, Secret Service agents and students asking for autographs.

The former vice president has embarked on a new career as an educator, and he's pushing a pet idea at two Tennessee universities: the connection between families and communities. He calls the subject family-centered community building, but even the professor himself is looking for a snappier name.

What's it all about? In laymen's terms, it's the ways families help their hometowns and the way those towns help families. Or, as Gore describes it: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts applies to families and communities."

In the classroom, Gore's lectures seem like a variation of the town meetings he frequently led on the presidential campaign trail last year.

At Fisk University on Monday, he faced a semicircle of students as he spoke on the day's topic, "Education and Learning."

Dressed in a blue shirt and bright blue tie and holding a microphone, an animated Gore smiled at his students as he lectured, pointing out the need for schools to get families more involved in children's education.

He opened the two-hour class by introducing a video of youngsters talking about how they learn, followed by two guest speakers, before making his own remarks and taking questions.

Gore repeated the entire presentation an hour later at sprawling Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro _ traveling the 35 miles between the schools with a state trooper's patrol car ahead of him and the Secret Service trailing behind.

Students at both schools were respectful of Gore, perhaps even in awe of him. Still, at Middle Tennessee State, students posed for pictures with Gore after class and requested autographs. One got him to sign a baseball.

While Gore is still mapping out his course's subject matter, he and others think similar classes might someday be offered across the country.

Many colleges already find communities highly educational. They go off campus for research, dispatch students on service-learning programs and provide help such as legal aid.

This is different, Gore said.

"The entire course is about the connections in the community, and how the community can be centered on the families that live there," he explained.

Gore seems committed to the course, even though he only turned to teaching back in his home state after conceding the presidency to George W. Bush last December. He plans to offer the classes again next fall, and a national conference on the subject is planned in May.

There's no question Gore's students take him seriously.

Delores Brazzel, a 48-year-old substitute teacher earning a master's at MTSU in mass communication, signed up for the former vice president's course because it seemed relevant. She already was deep into a project examining investment in a black Nashville neighborhood.

"The kernel of my thesis: It's necessary to revitalize the residents if you're going to revitalize the neighborhood," Brazzel said.

Seventeen universities calling themselves the National Community and Academic Consortium already are working to turn Gore's course into a full-fledged college program.

It would merge the study of the family's inner workings _ usually left to fields like social work and psychology _ with that of big-picture departments that study communities, such as sociology and economics.

Seeds for the curriculum were planted two years ago at Gore's Family Re-Union, an annual meeting of academics and experts he and his wife, Tipper, have convened since 1992.

The 1999 Family Re-Union agenda was family and community. A St. Louis developer of mixed-income housing named Richard Baron said at the meeting that he learned on his own what communities need _ job training, education, useful architectural design, health care.

Baron added that no college teaches that kind of community building.

After Gore challenged the assembled to get cracking, that's just what they did. The consortium was formed, and last October held its first big meeting at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Two months later, enter ex-candidate, ex-Vice President Gore.

Gore's ultimate ambition for his course is that one day it will produce professional "community builders" trained to see their work through the family's lens, whether for corporations, government or even journalism.

"Maybe by then it'll have a shorter title," he joked.