Having recently taken a class at Plymouth State University, I was reminded how much I love being a student. I did my homework and projects and asked questions throughout the class. However, unlike high school, I actually read the assigned readings because they were engaging and relevant to me as an individual. It was awesome. I learned a lot about how to use place to teach students to write and grow as a community. I also learned about myself as a writer and teacher. The teacher was great, modeling the best teaching practices while allowing us to explore writing and ourselves. I can’t wait to take another class and I highly suggest every teacher take a class at their local university. Not only is it a great learning experience, but it allows you to put yourself in the shoes of your students for a brief moment.
Below is the Process Paper I crafted for the class.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire were at one time one of the world’s largest mountain ranges. So, what happened, you ask? What caused this dramatic change to take place? Weathering and erosion wore down the mountain range to its present-day size. It’s crazy to think that the mountains we see as we drive through Plymouth and places up north are so old and ancient, yet have become smaller in size as they grew, unlike humans who grow in size as they mature and age. Like the White Mountains, I have been carved and shaped over the years as a person and educator. It started out slowly at first, but as time wore on, ineffective teaching strategies eroded from my repertoire while more meaningful and important tools were weathered and shared from other great teachers and resources and settled onto my mountain, forming new hills and valleys. I continued to grow and develop as the old and no longer useful pebbles and rocks drifted away like the face of the Old Man in the Mountain while new particles and rocks were deposited. I was living and changing before my very eyes.
It wasn’t until I started talking and working with new and different educators that I really started to take off and swell up underneath like a magma chamber waiting to explode. When Alexis and I began teaching sixth grade together about four years ago, I thought I was at the pinnacle of my teaching career. I believed I was a polished mineral and had created a solid and sturdy sixth grade bedrock program. Little did I know, how like the White Mountains, much change was in store, and needed, for me.
Alexis and I created a small yet tight-knit community in the sixth grade. Our curriculum changed and evolved like early humans and their need for public restrooms. We completed lesson planning and unit planning together. We bounced ideas of one another. We used the nucleus of one idea to generate another, even more brilliant idea for a lesson or project. We became a small community of teachers. We were carving and changing each other while allowing ourselves to be shaped and formed by one another. Epic teacher building was taking place in the small town of Canaan, New Hampshire. It was amazing.
Much like the mountains I see from the windows in the sixth grade classroom, I know that change is not done with me yet. I have much to learn and much knowledge to impart on others. My journey is far from over and taking part in the Writing Our Communities Institute this summer taught me just that.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any expectations going into this class. I was hoping to learn a lot and do some writing. I was excited, but unaware of the transformation and mountain building that was going to take place. A colleague from my school had taken this class a few years ago and raved about it. So, Alexis and I, being the strong community of two that we are, decided to jump in head-first. Good thing I was wearing my helmet.
Prior to completing this course, I thought I knew what place was all about. I believed what the Five Themes of Geography posters plastered on our wall preached: Place is the human and physical characteristics of a location. That made sense to me. It was simple, yet complex. However, I now realize that place is so much more than just that. While place is complex and does have to do with the physical and human aspects of the location, it’s also about one’s interactions with the location and perspective they bring to a place. Place is a mixture of many different qualities and characteristics like the many faces of the rock ledges in the White Mountains. I learned that place is much more like a mysterious puzzle longing to be unearthed. The many places that exist on Earth, exist for a reason. They want to be looked at, explored, walked on, and learned from. More importantly, however, they also want to be shaped and impacted by us as humans. Clearly, I had much to learn about place and how I fit into it.
Creating the group definition of place that the four of us did together was enlightening for me. I struggle, at times, to listen to others and their ideas. I’d like to think that my way is the right and only way. Of course, that line of thinking has been manipulated quite a bit over the past several years, but remnants of the old rock ways of thinking still lie deep within me. So, for this exercise of group thinking, I forced myself to be open to the ideas of others. I’m not a single mountain peak alone in a sea of nothingness, I am a part of a mountain range community composed of many people, thoughts, and ideas. As Jenn shared her definition of place, I began to take my ideas and put them on the back burner. Her insight was impeccable. While I had some tiny pebbles to add, the crux of our definition was laid by her. I liked it. I liked letting myself go. I enjoyed not having to be right in the center of everything all the time. Sure, there was a nanosecond where I thought, “That’s stupid. My idea is way better.” Luckily though, that short time passed and I came to realize that a community can’t function when one person puts himself and his ideas above others. Teamwork was essential in this activity and I saw that as we juggled ideas and shared nuggets of wisdom to build our own definition of place.
For me, this class helped me realize the importance of teamwork when working as part of a community. While everyone has a role, no one role is bigger or more important than any other. That’s the idea I need to take back with me to the classroom this fall. When I’m working with my students I need to help them realize that while they all have great ideas, the power of listening can sometimes be even more valuable and great.
As our discussion of place bled into place-based writing, I realized that it is so much more than what I had thought it was. I thought that place-based writing was just about using a place as inspiration for writing. I didn’t realize that it encompassed so much more. Place-based writing, I realized, is about thinking, learning, exploring, writing, talking, sharing, listening, and growing. It’s not just a quick activity or side note. Place-based writing is deliberate and part of the much bigger puzzle of community building. We write to process our thoughts and truths learned about a place before sharing our piece with others. We then listen to what our fellow community members wrote and offer kind and constructive feedback. We think about how the writing of our peers affects or is connected to us as individuals. Through listening to Lois, Jenn, and Alexis share their writing, I realized that I have a lot in common with these three women. Lois and I each opened our hearts and families to a Fresh air child. Jenn and I each have a connection to Bethlehem, NH. Alexis and I, well that list could take hours to compile. Let’s just say that Alexis and I have much in common. I wouldn’t have known what I now know had I not genuinely listened to what the other writers ands teachers in this class had to offer.
Being a part of a community is so much more than just being one’s self. I opened myself to others and became vulnerable. It was scary at times. Would they like my writing? Is it too intense or provocative? I was afraid that when I proposed my research topic idea to Lois, she would lecture me on the appropriateness of writing and researching. In college, I had been kicked out of a writing class because the teacher thought my work was too over-the-top. I carried that baggage with me into this class. Luckily, I flushed that useless luggage down the toilet after that first day. I trusted my community of writers and people. I knew I would be supported and cared for. It was a good feeling to let go and just be me.
As I journeyed through the research project portion of the class, I realized that I was having fun. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love reading, writing, crafting lesson plans, and making new projects; however, sometimes when I’m working on a lesson plan it becomes tedious and something I just need to finish. This project kept me captivated the entire time because I never knew what was coming next. What else would I learn about public restrooms? Once I realized that bathrooms were once a community experience I knew that there was much more to my topic than I first realized. I wasn’t just researching public restrooms, I was learning about the history of humans, culture, and life. Bathrooms are a part of us as humans. They haven been woven into the fabric of our cultural mountains. This was no longer just a research project, this was a journey into the unknown. I learned that I wasn’t the only one who always had to go. Many people with chronic medical conditions need restrooms at a moment’s notice. I thought it was was just me that was always on the look out for restrooms. Boy was I wrong. What an amazing journey I had gone on. Even as I transformed my research into a movie, I learned something new. The puzzle pieces of my research fit together in so many different ways that it was difficult to figure out where in the movie to place specific facts and pictures. Gender specific restrooms have been a bone of contention for years in many parts of the world. So, where do I put it? Do I talk about it at the beginning of my video or later when I talk about the changes in health laws? I could even talk about it towards the end when I discuss the Restroom Access Law. It was a hard yet fun decision to make. In the end, I learned that bathrooms, while in our culture are not spoken about because we’d be breaking the Victorian-Era etiquette rules, are a necessary part of our society. We need them, but we don’t talk about them. I’ve never understood that. I would have fit in nicely during the great Roman civilization. Not only could I talk about bathrooms and going to the bathroom, I could talk with other people in the bathroom about about going to the bathroom. That would have been so cool. Well, I guess I’ll heed my advice from my video and spark up a conversation with another dude in a public restroom. I can’t wait to see how that goes.
As my mountains and valleys continued to grow throughout the week, I had this nagging thought continually pop up in my mind as I wrote and walked around Plymouth, NH. My father grew up in Plymouth and I know so little about him and this great town. While my relationship isn’t strained with my father, it isn’t exactly very strong. I’d like to learn more about the man who makes up more than 50 percent of me. I kept thinking and wondering about him as we did our writing marathon and walked around the town. I even wrote about him at one stop. So, now what? Do I just keep letting these thoughts eat away at me like some flesh-eating bacteria or flash flood threatening a local ecosystem? No, I needed to do something about it. This class had changed me in so many ways and fed my brain and soul in such vast ways that I needed to bring about action. I was no longer a huge mountain with a great forest on top, I was a bald-faced mountain full of crags and splits. So, I did something I had never done before. I talked to my dad, just last night in fact, about Plymouth and growing up there. I told him about the class I had taken and what I had done. I asked him if he knew about the D&M building. He said, “Oh yeah, that was right next to the Rochester Show Horn Factory where my dad worked. And up the street was a toy company.” I never knew. So, I kept digging to see what I might unearth. It turns out that the old train station building used to be a lamp assembly factory of some kind that my father worked at on the weekends with his father. They used to make lights and lamps from parts shipped to Plymouth from around the world. Wow! I learned more about my father’s connection to Plymouth from that short conversation than I had ever known. Again, my mountain was being shaped and carved by my family community. We also talked about Fox Pond. He used to go there as a kid and hang out with his friends. The pond used to offer swim lessons and apparently was a lot larger than it currently is. I never would have learned all of this about my dad, the silent mountain that he is, had I not taken this class. I feel like I now have a springboard to propel my mountain closer to my father’s peak. I can’t wait to have more conversations with him and learn even more about the man who made me into the man I am today.
Sure, I am excited to try all the new things that Alexis and I learned from the class with our class of sixth graders starting in September. I can’t wait to do our “Where We’re From” poem as we build a sense of community within the class. I can’t wait to collect samples from our local lake to study the science of our place. I’m excited to try new types of writing and prompts with my students and can’t wait to see what they come up with. Alexis and I are so excited to start planning out the year in our Humanities class thanks to everything we learned in this class. However, for me, I’m more grateful for being able to have had the opportunity to be a part of a an open and accepting writing community that helped me grow and feel good about my writing. I can carry this confidence with me forever. That, along with what I learned about my dad, really changed me and eroded away some of my doubts and self-consciousness. My mountain, like the peaks of the White Mountains, is now different thanks to being a part of a brilliant and amazing community. Unlike what we tell our students as we hike up Cardigan, I’ve taken away far more than just photographs this week and hope that I’ve left behind more than just my footprints.