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

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): First Day of Class!

My MWF classes (two of them) will be my Natural Disaster Narratives (NDN) classes; the TR class will be my Place and Community.  So, I met with my first class this morning, bright and early in a classroom where the digital thermometer on the clock read 63 degrees; the second was at 11:50 in another classroom that wasn't much warmer.  Hard to be professional when you're trying not to shiver and turn blue.  There are only 13 people in that class, eleven of whom where there (the others had Polar Vortex-related travel delays) and already they're talkative and at least beginning to be interested in what we're doing.  The later class is at capacity and it has a noticeably different energy and chemistry.  (Part of it I think is the time of day and the character of student who signs up for an 11:50 class and I actually think the physical make up of the room, which is long and narrow, is partly to blame.  I anticipate moving the desks around a lot in there.)

I warned them that I get irrationally excited about this stuff, so beware, and both classes laughed. Better to weird them out on the first day of class than save it for later.  And I did get excited.  And it was excitement, more than anything else, when my students didn't know where New Madrid was--or who Mitch McConnell is.  Ah, the field is wide open!  Much learning will happen!  (I also gave them my standard speech about checking the news as they left.)

In addition to our Moodle site, I pulled up the spectacular maps by John Nelson of tornado tracks over the last 56 years and left that on the projector as we went through the general First Day of Class housekeeping.  (I'm also fond of his other maps, so you should definitely follow the links to see them.  Gorgeous.)

But then as I scrolled through the F0, the F1, F2, F3, F4, and then stopped on the F5 map, I asked them what they saw.

And then I made circling motions around the northernmost line, that horizontal line that crosses the North Dakota-Minnesota border, and somebody said it:  that looks close to here.  I nodded.  That's Fargo, I said.  Something sparked behind their eyes--they were not expecting that.  Fargo was the tornado (system, as it was a supercell system) that provoked Dr. Theodore Fujita into creating his scale of measuring tornados--and that 1957 Fargo tornado was an F5.

What this map represents, I told them, is more than a record of destruction.  If you could find somebody to tell you about the 1957 Fargo tornado, they'd tell you a story--they probably wouldn't tell you the wind speeds.  If you asked somebody about the 1997 Red River Flood (which I immediately thought of through this Polar Vortex, because the last time that happened, it was January 1997 and we know what happened two months later...), they might tell you how deep the river got, but you're more likely to get a story.  Stories like this matter.  The historical record of them matters.  It's important to know, if you live in Missouri, about the New Madrid fault line, and know its history of a major shake every two hundred years, and know that we are now overdue.  (I said this to the later class and when I said "every two hundred years," 3/4 of them looked down at the syllabus to make sure that I did write that the last one happened in 1811.)  It's important to know that the Red River floods.  We have to know what it means to live here, as opposed to any other place, because the difference matters.

I didn't mention much about Storm Christine wreaking havoc on Ireland, but here's a link to some of the truly awe-inspiring photographs of what that storm did:  click here.
Then we did some free writing as a way to do some introductions:  I introduced free writing to them, as the concept and method, and then I asked them to write (and follow their tangents) about what does it mean to live in this place on this day?  After about 5 minutes, I asked them to write about how they learned what they were writing about.  Some grew up knowing, taught by parents or grandparents or even bad experiences.  I told the story about my friend E. and I taking our friend L. shopping for winter gear early last semester, because L. hasn't ever had a real winter, and as we kept loading her down with a good jacket, snow pants (she insisted on them), boots, hats and mittens, we had to teach her that she needed to dress in layers, not just one thick sweater.  We picked up a little pink shovel for her car (which, we learned later, was appropriated by her daughter) and we taught her that she needed to pick up kitty litter--and the cheap stuff, not the Tidy Cats.  At this point in my story, the majority of my later class looked lost, so I asked how many of them had kitty litter in their car--and one person raised his hand.  So we had a mini-discussion about it.
All in all, an excellent first day of the semester.  I've about got my housekeeping for the day done, so I'm ready to take off my heels (which always makes me feel like a badass teacher) and put on my Sorel Snow Lion boots (which make me feel equally badass) and head out into the -7 (-20 windchill).  This, a trick I learned from watching my mother put on her boots with her Sunday finery to walk to church and then put her shoes on once she got there.  But also this knowledge that after this weekend and the windchills of nearly -50, -20 doesn't seem so bad.

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