Deb Marquart immediately captured my attention on Monday at the Midwest Rural Assembly. During her keynote presentation “Reimaging Place,” she explained to the audience that she left her hometown of Napoleon in rural North Dakota as a teenager because it was boring. As she wrote a book about it as an adult, however, she discovered it was anything but boring.
The statement raised an interesting idea: Do young people need to write a book in order to appreciate their hometowns?
Although that question is a bit out there, it might not be as far-fetched as one might think. I’ve actually witnessed first-hand how young people can develop a connection to their community through writing activities.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mary Stangohr, a talented English teacher at Howard H.S. (SD) embedded place based education in her classroom. In one of her units of study, Mary had her students read Broken Heartland by Osha Grey Davison, a book detailing the impact of industrial agriculture on rural communities.
Whether they agreed with the author’s assessment or not, the book connected with most students because they could see similar trends in agriculture happening around them. In some cases, it connected on an emotional level as some students saw how these changes impacted their parent’s farms, businesses, and places of employment. It even opened the door for young people to talk to adults about issues that seldom get discussed.
But Mary didn’t end the project with reading the book. She brought in a community historian who shared engaging stories about growing up in the community. She took students on field trips to places like to Vilas, SD where students were able to visually experience what life was like in a town back in the 1920-30 before its population shrunk from 400-500 to 19 people today. And then as a capstone, she required students to write a paper or produce a multimedia project that shared what they had learned.
I’m not sure if student’s scores on the grammar section of mandatory testing increased as a result of the project. But I’m positive that the activity encouraged them to dig in and connect more deeply to the subject, and that certainly made them better writers.
It’s more than good learning
Beyond the value of helping students become better writers, the project had another impact; Mary’s students came to understand their community better, and I think in many cases, to develop a deeper emotional connection to their hometown.
In her own way, this is what Marquart shared with her audience at the Midwest Rural Assembly. She grew up in her rural North Dakota community without knowing much about it. Sure, she knew the people who lived there. She knew they worked hard to eke out a living. But she didn’t know the personal stories that made her community rich.
Without those stories, it’s easy for any place to appear boring.
Originally posted August 19th, 2010 by Mike Knutson on the Reimagine Rural blog.
Photo Credit: National Rural Assembly - Flickr (Shawn Poyter - permission granted)