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

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Eng. 150: The 1888 Children's Blizzard, Day 1

It's been a while since I've posted about my English 150 class, mostly because the last two weeks were a whirlwind of rough drafts, conferencing about said rough drafts, workshopping, and final drafts. On Monday, my students turned in their final drafts, I'm in the midst of grading them, and we started our second Writing Project. Quite serendipitous though, that we had a really great snowstorm over the weekend, before we start reading excerpts from David Laskin's awesome book The Children's Blizzard.

Here's the goals of WP2: Use primary and secondary research to investigate a local disaster where you come from. You will use all tools available to you to complete this project, which will include doing personal interviews with people from your community who witnessed this disaster first-hand or have another sort of primary knowledge. You will also investigate other texts like photographs and artwork, personal artifacts, and more to consider all possible angles of how this event affected this community. You will put together a digital space (a blog) that details what you've discovered, one that allows your community (as well as other digital communities) to share in the knowledge.

So. On Monday, each student created a blog, where they will post their Think Pieces, their interviews, their interpretations of those interviews, videos and articles they find, videos they may choose to make, etc. This will be capped with a five page paper that takes all they've learned and puts it together. They don't have topics yet, but they will by the end of next week. They seem kind of skeptical about it--even strangely hostile--but I hope that will change soon. Otherwise it's going to be an uncomfortable few weeks.

Today was the first day of WP2 and we had our Author Presentation on David Laskin and the Children's Blizzard. Like the presentation on Jonis Agee a couple of weeks ago, it was great. Great information on the author, great information about the disaster itself.

Then, we wrote: as I mentioned earlier, we had a great snowstorm this weekend, which left behind 12+ inches of snow on its way. It started Friday night, ended Saturday. Gorgeous. Of course, there were plowing issues (as always happens in Lincoln), as well as some power outages. So here's the prompt I gave them: How did you handle this storm? What did you do, what did you think, what did you see when you looked outside? I said that I'd gotten self-righteous about my four-wheel drive, which made them laugh. And then, after I'd given them a good chunk of time to write, I asked them How was what you did, what you didn't do, what you thought, etc. influenced by the community you come from?

We talked for a while about their writings, what they did, what they feared about the storm, what they didn't fear, and more. What was particularly interesting, though, was the connections they were able to make about their community's influence and the place they come from. I said that when I went out on Sunday to dig out my Jeep, a guy had gone into the snowbank across the street and was stuck. So I lent him my shovel, because I was using the brush. He was grateful. But the place where I grew up valued winter survival kits--extensive ones--with kitty litter, shovels, and more. Our communities are where we learn how to look at the world, how to stay safe in it. For this particular Wednesday, the wheels were turning, but it was slow. Hopefully this gives them something new to think about as we continue with this project.

Then we shifted to Laskin. I started with a little bit about why we're doing this, why it's so important to find these connections--that this blizzard and this book is not just about snow and people who died. It's a lot more complicated than that. It rubs up against the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism--even to the myth of the Great Plains and how that was sold to immigrants who didn't know any differently. We considered how we define tragedy.

I showed them a clip of Galloping Gertie, which collapsed in 1940 as the beginning of the storm system that would become the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard in Minnesota, then would go on to wreak havoc over the Great Lakes. Most of them had never heard of either event, but I didn't expect that they would have, so I showed them the video clip of Galloping Gertie. It elicited the reaction I wanted from them.

We worked our way through the first 26 pages of Laskin, I gave them some things to think about as they continue to read, complications they might not have considered, reminded them of the Think Piece they have due on Friday, and sent them on their merry way. Unfortunately, I did also have to remind them about reading the assignment and even if they choose not to print it off, they still need to have a good enough grasp to discuss it in class. I hate it when I have to give that speech. But all in all, a great start to WP2.

Dear Students, the world is a much more fascinating place than you could ever imagine.

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