"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Eng. 992: Week 3 Response

Anything that includes Paul Gruchow, I'm automatically going to be predisposed to. It's so rare to find anybody--let alone anybody outside Minnesota--who knows his work that when I read Sharon Bishop quoting him, I already figured that I would like the rest of what she had to say. (I'm teaching Grass Roots myself this semester and we read "Home is a Place in Time" as one of our first readings.) As I'm very interested in forming my own pedagogy of place, reading how hers functioned within the context of rural education struck a chord.

When Bishop argues that if a "community loses a school, it may also lose its identity," I can bear first-hand knowledge of that. When the great Consolidation/Open Enrollment happened in Minnesota in the 1990s, the goal was to close down as many small schools as possible. Students could go to any school in the area they wanted. Politicians thought that students from places like Nevis would go to Park Rapids, just as students from Akeley went the other way to Walker. As a result, Akeley lost its school and as a result, its economy has been terrible. Nevis, on the other hand, did just fine. And it's still the place, as Bishop describes, where the community gathers.

As I considered Sobel's practical advice for setting up place-conscious education in rural schools, I thought about how such a thing might work in the high school that I graduated from, but realized almost immediately that while his ideas were sound and exciting, since I'm not a public school teacher, there was little I could implement myself. It did remind me of a failed experiment when I was in high school, a student-run business. We called our pizza restaurant Tigerelli's (after our mascot, the tiger) and I worked there during the two-ish years it was open. It was great fun, but even as we were aware of the financial problems it was creating and the community issues it was raising, we students were powerless to do anything about it. The business was seen as competing with "legitimate" business in town and some community members were upset that tax dollars were paying for it (though it was privately financed by investors). Had we had Sobel's advice back then, Tigerelli's might still be in business. And it really was good pizza.

The differences between the rural (Bishop and Sobel), the urban/suburban (Brooke) and what deficiencies each of them faces in terms of place education were the most interesting to explore. I come from a rural background, but my professional life has been in urban areas of varying size (Fargo/Moorhead, Spokane, Bowling Green, Lincoln). Because I grew up in a town of 300, anything bigger than Park Rapids, the next town over (2000 people), strikes me as urban. I have, as I mentioned in a previous post, that everywhere I've lived has felt transitory, complicating my sense of belonging--something that Brooke identifies as crucial to any sort of place-consciousness: "Both aspects of belonging--a robust sense of history and a vision for the future--are at present missing in the contemporary suburban landscape." My students, as first-year college writers (in my 100-level courses) could rephrase this observation to include the bubble of college. Somewhere along the line, my rural students have been taught that their places don't matter (or don't matter to anyone else) and my urban students have no idea how they've been shaped by their environment. And, perhaps most importantly, they have no idea why any of it matters, why we're wasting our time talking about such inconsequential stuff.

Part of my goals for changing these modes of thinking in my students is wrapped up in Bishop's commitment to regional literature. I'm not teaching literature; I'm teaching composition--but the premise still stands. We're reading Paul Gruchow for this first writing project because I want them to understand that places matter, even urban places. Even though Brooke identifies an established history--and continuing history--as a problem of suburbia, there's still opportunities for students. Last semester, in Fran Kaye's Great Plains Lit class, we read William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, about Chicago, and the far-reaching effects of that city were just plain astounding to me. From there, I speculated that the demand for white pine that Chicago started was the reason why my hometown, tiny little Nevis, was settled--because the Crow Wing Lake chain led directly to the Mississippi. There are little pieces of wonder and connection like that everywhere, even in the suburbs, I think. At least I hope so. When Gruchow wonders if you can call a place home if you don't know the names of the plants and such--that applies to my urban students as well as the rural ones. We've talked about place in class in the last two weeks, how we come to form attachments, what we attach to, and why that might be valuable to share with someone else--and how we do that is the composition part of the class.

I get the feeling that my students--perhaps it has to do with their millennial status--don't feel grounded in many places and that complicates their belonging, because they either don't recognize their own history or they don't want to be the next link in the chain. Or, they recognize both their history and do want to be the next link, but they don't know why. That's a tremendous opportunity for me as a teacher. And when they write on their reading responses "I never realized that essays could be anything besides boring!"--because I'm teaching them a more Montaignian idea of essay, rather than 5-paragraph argument--my little teacher-heart goes pitty pat. Teaching them that history isn't boring either is a great accomplishment for me, when it happens. If they can see value in things that never held value for them before, that's the beginning of some great conversations.


  1. Karen: Sharon Bishop just retired from Henderson and I'm awaiting her new non-school e-mail, but once she has it I'll post in inside our class shell --she'd love to talk with you about your teaching. For your school consolidation idea, I'd love to have her brag about her class inquiry project the year Henderson consolidated with Bradshaw. Her sophomores collected oral histories about the town's first school consolidation, back in the 1960s, when a set of even smaller Mennonite schools surrounding Henderson became Henderson schools. The students learned about the different flavors of Mennonite that had to be blended together, about the financial and civic reasons for the consolidation, and about the deep feuds it brought (one old-timer explained which families took how long before they'd shop at the town grocery again, for instance). At the end of the project, her class presented to the combining school boards -- a mix of what the history they'd collected said to them, along with what recommendations they now had for managing the consolidation about to take place. Sharon has a gift for making these connections between a local civic issue and community history -- other years, her classes looked at the aquifer and the town's place in developing center pivot irrigation; the charity canning of local meat and vegetables that the community has been doing since it was founded; etc. I think she was always on the look out for what community issues were being discussed in her town of 999 -- and then finding a way to center her ongoing curriculum around that year's hot topic.

  2. Hi, Karen. I like that you focus on Bishop’s idea that if a “community loses a school, it may also lose its identity. It got me to thinking about how she uses “identity.” In one sense it speaks to the entire community and how people view the accumulation of people and development that forms around a school. But that also brings to mind that how people feel about themselves is often tied to how they perceive their community. What message is being sent if you tell a community that they don’t need a school based on certain regional factors? There is a lot to unpack in the idea and your response acknowledges some important points.

    I also think you are selling yourself short when you mention that you might not be able to implement some of Sobel’s ideas. I think you already are doing so in your classes. You might not be able to create a hirable position for someone, but you certainly do plan courses that have your students engaging in their community of different levels. Your post mentions books you are using and how you discuss place with your students, but I also know from our previous conversations that these issues help form your courses. This isn’t meant as merely a put-up for you. Rather, I think it gets to what Sobel is arguing in the paper, however imbedded it may be. Each of us can take placed-based curriculum and attempt to incorporate it in our classrooms. I definitely see you doing that.

    (BTW, a group of you and your peers opening Tigerelli’s Pizza made me think of like 4 different “Saved by the Bell” episodes. I was waiting for you to say that one of the guys “borrowed” money from the business to buy tickets to a concert, or something like that. Just a side note.)

  3. Karen,

    We should get together for coffee/beer whatever and talk about what we can do to bring Place conscious teaching to our classrooms next semester. I'm really hoping I can get a chance to work with another group of WHT students and use some of this stuff with them. I was also drawn to the idea of schools being the center of a community because I have no personal connection to a school or community in that way. My father worked as a foreman on a farm for a portion of my life and after that he invested in some land and tried to make a go of his own business. For me the center of my communities have always been keyed into our work spaces. My father all but lived in the potato fields during seed and harvest, my mother ran the food truck, my aunts and uncles traveled from Texas every year to work during the busy seasons and "our community" gathered on Sundays to eat, dance and talk about the job. So for me my community was wherever the work was. It's interesting to think of something like a school being the center of a community and to think about how it acts as a stabilizing center where people get together and get to know each other.

  4. Robert: I would LOVE to talk to Sharon. I love the consolidation project (I have stories I could tell about my grandfather's hometown, which had three of everything (car and tractor dealers, grocery stores, etc), and you could tell what religion somebody was by which color of tractor they owned)--and I love the idea of finding the years' hot topic. Doing so makes students feel (I imagine) that they have some agency, rather than being overlooked by the rest of the community as not knowing anything. Students then feel a part of the community, empowered. Which feels like it would go a long way to keeping the intellectual capital of the young people in the town.

    Bret: Oh, I have Tigerelli's stories, though there wouldn't have been any concerts to go to, even if somebody had "borrowed" money from the business...

    Bernice: Yes, let's. I'm intrigued by the idea of work and place and movement being so intertwined for you, because I'm used to farming being a permanent thing. My grandparents' families farmed land that had been in their families for a hundred years or more and that applied to the people where I grew up too. The movement/stationary idea is very interesting to me.