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.