Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Good examples of place-based learning programs
     Encouragements to get started in place-based education

The Rural School and Community Trust has published profiles of five place-based learning programs.

The curriculum I’ve been working on this year has kept me farther than I want to be from place-based approaches, but last week’s Montana Indian Education Association Conference restored me to my better self. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the particular place I am teaching, and how far away from much of it young people truly are. In a digital age, it gets harder and harder to get here, which is the only place we have much hope of being real.

There is a two-mile stretch of road along a canal that I used to walk with a friend who has been gone from here for years. I no longer walk there and I can’t pass by without a dual feeling of remembered good times and sorrow that they are past, never to return. Places are places in part because they are haunted.

They are haunted by other selves. We don’t become or stay human by ourselves. Place is mostly mind, a level of narrative perception somewhere between molecules and stars. When todays Salish gaze at the uninhabited mountains, they are gazing into the past, and so the wilderness that enchants with its beauty in the same instant saddens by evoking an awareness of loss. This is the nearest I can come to a definition of “sense of place.” It seems to me that it resonates from loss, intensifying our need for joy. It is part memory, part longing.

We know that we cannot stay more than we know where we really are. We are, as Walker Percy put it, “lost in the cosmos.” A sense of place grows out of a longing for family, for a place in the vastness of time and space at a scale and in a key where we might be understood and loved.

A few weeks after my grandson came into my study, I was there again reading a work of popular physics, something about the illusoriness of time. I went to my window and looked out at the winter night into the thick swirl of snowflakes. In the near distance I saw two cars moving slowly, as it seemed to me, through whatever night they encountered. Matter was, I had been told, vastly different than it seemed. The empty spaces between protons and electrons were a million billion times bigger than the particles themselves. The apparent solidity of things was an illusion created in part by the poor resolution of my eyes but more by the force fields within which the particles existed. Nobody knows what such force fields really are. The electrons and protons themselves were made of smaller particles which emerged from waves of something more original than energy flooding into the universe and pulsing throughout being.

My grandson appeared beside me tugging at my pant leg and looking up, his two-year-old eyes pure with pleading. “I want to see.” So I lifted him to the window where he could gaze at the swirl of flakes and the mystery of light.

A sense of place is a sense of orientation. It is the beginning and end of knowing.

The books to read are Greg Smith’s new Place-Based Education in the Global Age, David Sobel’s Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities, and maybe my own The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Early tulips restore what faded in winter
     Finally, t-shirt weather

Today was the first day this spring I’ve had time to be out gardening in t-shirt weather. The daffodils and early tulips are in bloom, and peonies seem to be growing several inches per day. The early tulips are the most spectacular event at the moment. They are a form of grace, with “grace” understood as all that is good about life that we don’t and can’t earn.

All gardens are mostly grace, as nature responds all out of proportion to our little efforts. And the more we know the more we are beholden, not just to nature but to other people.

The plants we can now buy at nurseries and grocery stores for a few dollars exist only because of centuries of labor. Whatever motivated various gardeners and scientists, their work was a way of taking responsibility for the earth, increasing its wealth in the most fundamental ways. When I look at my tulips I am seeing the results of efforts begun over a thousand years ago in the mountains of central Asia when some Turkish man or woman saw the wild flowers and decided to grow them intentionally.

The Dutch, of course, adopted them as their own during the 16th Century, maybe because their brilliance seemed so glorious in the bleak landscape of the Netherlands. “What beauty there is in the Netherlands is largely the result of human effort,” observed Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

New Montana history text makes signficant contribution to education
     Highlights of Montana Indian Education Conference, April 25-26 2008

Significant progress is being made in Indian Education in Montana. Many of the sessions at the latest Montana Indian Education Association Conference featured high quality content ready for classroom use. To be sure, the important people with important offices were there as well—doing what political leaders often do: speaking in abstractions calculated to affect power and control—but the real work is also moving forward.

Two projects are especially noteworthy: The Montana Tribal History Project and the Montana Historical Society’s textbook project, which will result in the publication of a new Montana history textbook this August.

I attended the session presented by Julie Cajune and Michelle Mitchell on the Salish Kootenai College Tribal History Project. So far this project has published three units in a serial history of the Salish Tribes. They’ve also completed a book about the Lower Flathead River. These are gorgeous productions rich in historical and cultural materials for the classroom.

I also attended the Montana Historical Society’s session on their new textbook, Montana: Stories of the Land. Krys Holmes, the author of the book, and Martha Kohl, Project Director, provided an overview of the publication, emphasizing the extensive presentation of the Native point of view. Having this publication ready at last is an important landmark for Montana’s education system. We have long lacked a high-quality presentation of our history. I think it would be very hard to overestimate how important this project should be to education in Montana.

This book was long a dream of historian Dave Walter, who was the driving force behind the project. He died unexpectedly in the summer of 2006 before the project was completed but not before he had endowed it with the momentum needed for it to reach completion. That momentum came from Dave’s infectious love of Montana and his desire to understand it deeply and truly.

It really is a fine piece of work—well-suited to provide inspiration and direction to teachers who understand the critical importance to young people of knowing the place where they live.

The 500+ page book is loaded with photographs, time lines, maps and other tools to supplement the excellent text. The content has been vetted by a stellar cast of historians and tribal experts, as well as by classroom teachers. Unlike earlier Montana history text, this is designed for teaching. I’ve been delighted by reading through the uncorrected proofs, and I look forward to delving into it in more detail when I get a finished book. The book uses extensive quotes and presents events from many perspectives in language that is evocative and clear.

I’ve been working with high school students on the history of the Flathead Reservation around 1910, when much of the land was transferred to homesteaders, so I focused on the materials included for telling that story. The two maps below tell that story in a vividly graphic way. They are a tiny sample of the sort of treasures the text contains on nearly every page.

Flathead Reservation Land Ownership, 1907

Flathead Reservation Land Ownership, 1922-1935

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Before it snowed again
     I was enjoying the white crocuses

white crocuses

The beauty of crocuses arrives suddenly, often before winter is really finished. They don’t last long but their vibrant emergence reminds of the glories of summer ahead.

In Hebrew, the word for beauty is ”yapha.” Originally this meant “to be bright, to glow.” This might be related to an Aramaic term for bursting forth. Flowers represent this luminous, blossoming sort of beauty. Who doesn’t appreciate this sort of beauty? Wealthy Romans used to have slaves strew crocus blossoms through their banquet halls, filling the air with its lovely fragrance. They scattered them along the fountains and streams that flowed through their courtyards.

When moderns can afford it, they quickly purchase such amenities. What would a luxury hotel be without fine gardens? The best suites are graced with fresh bouquets.

We have become a stunningly wealthy people, and our wealth gets expressed in buildings and neighborhoods of great beauty.

Is our instinctive attraction to beauty anything more than an appetite? John Keats famously asserted that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” This doctrine has enormous appeal. It’s a beautiful thought.

Unfortunately it, doesn’t appear to be true, or at least not always, as anyone who’s been deceived by things that appear beautiful well knows. The sirens sing lovely songs. Even hell has its beauties, I imagine.

Still, the persistence of the doctrine suggests that people continue to find it useful. William M. Burke quotes psychologist Nancy Etcoff from the Harvard Medical School, suggesting that “beauty is one of the ways life perpetuates itself, and love of beauty is deeply rooted in our biology” He cites several scientists who link the perception of beauty to the perception of truth, including astronomer John Wheeler, who says that “God or evolution has formed the minds of some of us in such a way that our instinctive ability to recognize beauty is a practical tool for finding truth.”

The trouble is that beauty is made by the perceiving mind. It is never just “out there.” It is all mingled up with what we know and what we desire. Furthermore, a moment’s thought reminds us that if true solutions are often beautiful, false solutions are also sometimes lovely. Such problems led Chinese thinkers, by the eleventh century, to conclude that if bad or dishonest persons could create beautiful literature and paintings, then beauty must exist outside the moral realm of truth and rightness. It could not serve a serious moral purpose.

I think that’s probably right. Aesthetic judgments are of a different order than ethical ones and we can pursue beauty without much regard to what is good and true. Aldo Leopold, an early champion of an ecological world view, urged his fellow citizens to consider each question about land use in terms of what is “ethically and aesthetically right.” In his celebrated “land ethic” he wrote that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” A lovely vision, but not always a helpful one when hard choices need to be made.

Still, when we get it right, one of the things we get is beauty. We would be foolish to pay it no mind. A life or a culture without beauty languishes in a spiritual wasteland; a culture that does not nurture the beautiful creates impoverished and unhealthy places.

To cultivate our love of beauty, we refine our attention, turning our souls toward reality and cleansing ourselves of egoism.

It’s one reason to live in a garden.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

25 free tools for elearning
     Working with Web 2.0

A list of 25 “core” tools for using the web in teaching and learning is available here. For the most part, they are the same tools I’ve (for the moment) settled on.

I don’t lean too heavily on the web in my day-to-day teaching, because the school I work in isn’t set up for that. But I do most of my planning and handout creation online and keep a home page so students can get materials they missed or lost and check assignments. It makes makeup pretty simple.

At my last job I published a magazine and led an organization in which the staff were scattered around the map and most of our interaction was via the web. A digital communications environment is normal in today’s work environment, and students should be developing the skills to get work done in a similar environment at school.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Speaking of beauty
     And the mission of schools

I helped the adjudicators at the District Music Festival held in Polson this past weekend. It was like climbing out of a slummy little village into an alpine meadow.

After each performance, the adjudicators talked with students about their music. One older gentleman told the high school kids that that they would not really understand the intensity of love that a person could feel toward grandchildren until they had grandchildren of their own, but that it was that sort of intensity that he felt during their performance.

He went on to discuss technical aspects of their work, and they stood in their gowns listening respectfully and attentively. Awakened by his forthright talk about beauty, my own mind wandered. I began to think of a backcountry trip I had made a few years ago. I was helping with the search for a small plane that had vanished into the Mission Mountain Wilderness in western Montana. We were days past the time where we believed any of the passengers might still be alive, so our mission was recovery rather than rescue. The plane had been carrying three children besides the pilot and his fiancee. I had been in the mountains for several days, bushwhacking through rugged terrain, wearily and somewhat grimly doing what I believed needed to be done.

And then, descending the foothills at the base of Mount Harding, we came around a bend on an overgrown logging road and into utter astonishment.

Western Meadowlark

The air was sweet with the perfume of late May blossoms?so sweet that without speaking all three of us slowed, then stopped. Awakened by the aroma, we suddenly saw that all around us the dense greenery of underbrush was graced by white of service berry blossoms, violet-blue of clematis flowers, and red of honeysuckle blooms all set ablaze by the afternoon sun. Even stranger, the entire scene vibrated with the fluttering of thousands and thousands of butterflies. Above us in mixed conifers the sky thrilled with the pulsing twitter of grosbeaks and rock wrens, the calls of nuthatches, and the piercing throb and receding echoes of waxwings and thrushes.

I have never experienced a moment in nature when all the senses combined in such profound beauty. The three of us without speaking each apprehended in an instant the sublime reality into which we had stumbled, and we stood still and silent, taking it in. What to make of it was hard to think, let alone to say.

Intelligence flowed into us directly, without words, letting us know beyond argument that life and the earth were good.

This didn’t contradict the sad event that had drawn us to this place at this moment. It included it, unifying it in our minds with a reality we could only glimpse that was nonetheless vivid around us. Life was sorrow and tragedy, and the sorrow was suffused with something deeper and higher which was a joy through all our being.

Though we all experience such moments, they are hard to talk about--either we repeat cliches, or we find ourselves wrestling with large and formidable abstractions. And so, profound beauty tends to have no official reality. In the public realm, where decisions affecting our common life are made, beauty is rarely mentioned.

It’s hard to get far at a school board meeting by talking about rock wrens and clematis blossoms when we are up against earnest guys with charts. We can be sure they are safe. They’ll never make anything happen.

Beauty, on the other hand, is dangerous. It moves us to the depths of our beings. It changes us. It changes the world.

It occurred to me watching the program how much students learn from an insistence that performances be beautifully done. I’ve spent time in schools where the unofficial motto for everything was “that’s good enough,” and where everything tended toward shabbiness.

Leaving the festival, I felt that strange combination of hope and sadness that beauty often triggers hope because we glimpse the realm from which sublimity emerges and to which it is native, so we know that the better world we dream of really does exist. And sadness because for now it is momentary, the beauty unforming as it is formed.

Beauty, after all, is not a value. It’s an intuition. It’s a perception of a higher reality. It’s a message that our truest hopes are not false.

The best scientists know that beauty and elegance are crucial to developing sound scientific theory. They are important enough that beauty sometimes serves as a guide when things get too complex for the intellect. Some scientists believe that it’s better to achieve elegance even if the theory then doesn’t quite fit all the known facts. It’s more probably that the “facts” may contain measurement errors or other abnormalities than it is that an inelegant solution is true. Beautiful and elegant theories can be wrong, but ugly and complicated ones are almost certainly so.

I would like to hear teachers talking more about the role of beauty in teaching. We have too many ugly and klutzy solutions in schools and too little striving for breathtaking beauty. It is beauty that inspires longing for the ideal, and it is in attention to the ideal that critical thought and wisdom become important.  (And they do become important. Very important. Lousy people long ago learned the power of art of to make lousy things seem good. I think of the Third Reich’s preoccupation with music, painting, and architecture, or of much of today’s music created by commercial and cultural spin masters. As I said, beauty is dangerous.)

High schools have the potential to play the central role in the lives of American communities. Because concern for our young is the strongest value that might bind us together, they are the places with the most power to bring us together, out of our various churches and anti-churches, into a common culture.

For them to do the work that perhaps only they can now do, teachers and principals need to live among young people in ways more profound than the purveyors of tests are likely to imagine. They need to ponder beauty. They need to accept Adam’s curse and labor to create beauty. This labor includes the study of ideals

At this time in history we are awash in floods of material goods but often confused by our inability to form strong purposes as to what our lives are for. If we don’t engage high schools students in creating cultural artifacts of enduring beauty, we may be miseducating them. It is in beauty that they may understand their purpose, without which time and money too often become a curse.

Beauty gives them hope, which is the lifeblood of purpose.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

April gardening: more winter
     But there's fresh compost under that snow

Fritillaria-yellow crown imperial
Spring was doing nicely. My yellow Fritillaria Imperialis (Crown Imperial) isn’t in full bloom yet but it’s getting there. It’s been a cold, snowy spring, and most weekends when I’ve had time to pay attention to the garden snow flurries kept my motivation cool.

Mulching flower bedsBut things started well. I’ve just put a new clutch in my old truck and it seemed to be running well, so I loaded a couple yards of compost and began mulching the beds.

The guy with the front end loader at Eko Compost dumped his whole bucket on my little half-ton truck. It looked more like three yards and my rear tires went nearly flat. I made it to Cenex and added air, then drove slowly home. When I finally got there, I was glad for the big load. I have lots of places to put it.
However, I didn’t even finish getting the truck unloaded when the snow began again. It was a nice snow, thick with huge flakes drifting softly through the air.

Tulips in snow
Within a couple hours, my beds look like this. Neither the daffodils nor the tulips mind much, of course. And in most ways I don’t either.

Autumn Joy Sedum in snow
I was glad I hadn’t yet cleared last year’s Autumn Joy Sedum from the beds. It’s quite gorgeous in winter--for the moment, it’s the most striking thing I see in my April garden.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Paying the piper: fragmented families cost billions
     The good life and the market state

In the old republic of virtue we had moral crusades to try to get people to do the right things for the right reasons. In the new market state in which we more and more live, moral crusades seem too, well, moralistic.

So we get economic crusades. We are lectured not about the content of our character, but about how our actions impact the public purse.

Though it’s never been hard to see the connection between good marriages and the good life, those people whose attention has been on other things, such as fighting the threat of morality (judgmentalism} in the public discourse, may still believe that such practices as divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing are merely private matters.

They would be mistaken. The market state is also a nanny state. As more of your behavior can be tracked through the miracle of computing, many things that were once in the private real have become public. If you over-indulge your fondness for hot fudge sundaes, for example, you increase your chances of saddling your neighbors with the medical costs of treating your obesity or diabetes, and we can track just how much your indulgence is likely to cost us.

So now we have moral crusades about fast food. The school where I work just paid all staff members $25 to complete a risk assessment survey. This survey allows the health insurance company to target specific interventions to people who are at risk of increasing medical costs for the group. It’s all quite voluntary and pleasant, for now. As with all modern bureaucracies, they speak as though they care about me, but their presentation led off with lots of charts about how some bad habits are affecting the bottom line.

In the market state, the only measure we have in common is dollars. So it makes good sense that a new report calculates the financial costs associated with divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing to be $112 billion per year. Georgia State University economist Ben Scafidi completed the study with sponsorship by the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Families Northwest of Redmond, and the Georgia Family Council, an ally of Focus on the Family.

“Marriage is more than a moral or social institution,” according to the study. “It is also an economic one, a generator of social and human capital, especially when it comes to children.” The figures will be unsurprising to ordinary people. Most people try to organize their own lives around stable marriages, understanding that this has obvious practical as well as spiritual benefits.

The practical and spiritual are not, after all, unrelated. In his important essay ”Discipline and Hope,” Wendell Berry shows some of the linkages between moral values and ecological values and economic values. “Morality is long-term practicality,” he concludes.

Unfortunately, we now live with millions of people who feel empowered to make up their own rules when it comes to morality. Unsurpisingly, many of them make costly mistakes. Fortunately, most of them remain very interested in money. Therefore, we share enough common ground to permit a conversation to continue.

Because talking about money is safer and easier than talking about morality, I expect more and more conversations about such topics as casual sex and cohabitation to be grounded in dollar talk.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Show us the real work
     Education gurus engage in hollow rhetoric

Science teacher Annie Chien reacts with skepticism to all the talk she hears at education conferences and workshops. Such gatherings have “become stagnant to me,” she says. Though she hears speakers gush about student voice and student involvment, she “can’t seem to find the evidence” that anything important is happening.

I don’t hear or see students talking about math, science, English and Social Studies. I don’t see students working out problems in math, and I don’t see students engaging in debates about our government. Where are the abundant great student work in science and English that these student-centered institutions are supposedly creating? I don’t see a slew of student inventions and original work where they demonstrate mastery and creativity. Where is the hard core evidence that supports student centered organizations?

What she wants from those who would advise us on how to teach is “raw evidence of student learning.” Instead of pious phrases we need evidence of student accomplishment.  “No more shiny bells--I want student work and performance as my guiding light to perfect my teaching practice.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Montana and North Dakota heading into oil boom?
     The Saudi Arabia of America?

click to enlarge

The much awaited US Geological Survey (USGS) report has been released. The agency increased by 25 times its estimates of how much recoverable oil exists beneath the Northern Plains. The report stated that the Bakken Formation in Montana and North Dakota contains 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, instead of the 151 million barrels the agency estimated in 1995. The crude oil is locked away in rocks that are buried miles underground, but recent technological advances have made it easier to get at. “Technically recoverable” oil resources are estimates of products that can be recovered using the technology and procedures that are currently available.

The estimate is larger than any other estimate for the lower 48 states and ranks as the largest oil discovery in the past 50 years.  A new black gold rush has already begun. So far Marathon Oil has acquired about 200,000 acres in the area and expects to spend $1.5 billion drilling about 300 oil wells within five years. According to Next Energy News, Marathon sees this as “one of the greatest booms in Oil discovery since Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938.

The Kiplinger Report states we are still a few years away from a large increase in drilling:

Figure on at least five years before the oil starts flowing in large volumes. A lot of work will need to be done first. In addition to installing drilling gear, firms must build supporting infrastructure, including roads, pipelines as well as new water, sewage and sanitation systems to meet the needs of workers and other area residents.

Still, the activity already underway is transforming the windy gold and slate landscape of MonDak, the area along the Montana and Dakota border. Zach Dundas sketched the story in an article for Good Magazine:

Sidney and its hinterlands are a hive of activity. Oil-tanker trucks patrol the narrow highways and gravel farm roads day and night. The cafs, casinos, and bars are full of guys wearing coveralls emblazoned with oil-company logos, most prominently those of “Team” Halliburton and that notorious company’s rival Schlumberger, the outfit BusinessWeek calls “the stealth oil giant.” Ubiquitous “help wanted” signs testify to the most open job market anyone around here can remember--if you can work, you’re working in oil. A genuine boom is in full swing.

I will be interested to see what people make of these sudden changes. Montana, of course, has long experience with boom and bust economics, which is a way of saying it’s always had a marginal economy. Modern economies are all boom and bust, but fortunate places mitigate the busts in one sector with new booms in other sectors.

In any case, boom and bust is better than bust and bust.


Bloomberg posts an article giving an overview of how various players in the oil industry make money along with some detailed information about Bakken in particular.

Here’s a technical discussion of what is publicly known about the Bakken Field so far.

And here‘s Alexandra Fuller’s contrarian take on oil booms, based on her Wyoming observations.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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