Writing and reading as placemaking
Getting to the real stuff
Each of us is reponsible for what we say—the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content—and each of us is also responsible for what we pay attention to. We shape the world both by what we say and what we listen to.
Each of us is responsible for what we say—the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content—and each of us is also responsible for what we listen to. The internet makes vivid the complex interplay between decisions individual persons make about their voices and the decisions others make about what to pay attention to, and the sort of places that result. On the internet, sites that get traffic grow and are imitated, while those that get no traffic dwindle away.
The world has always worked that way. Different communities practice different virtues, have different characters, and move toward different destinies. These differences are created by the things people think and say, and the actions that follow. At the same time, the things people think and say are influenced by what the community around them seems to approve or disapprove.
What we pay attention to grows. What we ignore dwindles. It’s how we make worlds.
I think it would be good if writing teachers kept pointing out to young people that through what we write about (and talk about and think about) we are constantly participating in a process of self-creation, that the outcome of this process is not predetermined (we are free), and that the outcome matters a lot (things could turn out very good, but they could also turn out very, very bad).
These are practices that lead to the sorts of places I prefer:
1. Be honest (rather than merely fashionable).
2. Be accurate (reality is fabulous).
3. Be nice (most people are tender and many mistakes they make can safely be ignored).
4. Be cautious about revealing intimate details (there are bad people out there).
Publishing a classroom book with on-demand printers
Making something wonderful
On-demand printers are a cost-effective way for school groups to publish a few dozen or a few hundred professionally printed books. Ronan high school English teacher Christa Umphrey shares her experiences in publishing two books--profiles of Vietnam and World War II veterans--as part of the Montana Heritage Project’s participation in the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress.
by Christa Umphrey
Growing up surrounded by words and stories, I have always thought there was something magical about books. Friends and family members who know me well never let me run into a bookstore to pick something up while they wait. Trips into bookstores are never quick, and Iâ€™m always collecting books faster than I can actually read them.
Many of my students are particularly baffled by this strange obsession with books. They canâ€™t see why people are so taken with these bound stacks of paper. But they see others like me and the way we look at books, the way we handle and speak of them. They donâ€™t get it, but they know the obsession is real.
This is why it works to have students publish a book. Even those who have never valued books themselves know that other people are impressed with writers, and they wouldnâ€™t mind people talking about them the way they talk about other authors.
For many reasons, publishing a book is one of the most rewarding projects my students and I have undertaken. When students know they have a real audience, it improves the quality of their work. Taking a project to a published final product makes students think a little more about the words theyâ€™re putting down, and keeping the best student work around and visible helps raise the standards of quality from year to year. This helps students learn to think and write more clearly, which is one of the most important things Iâ€™m trying to accomplish in the classroom.
At the beginning, most students are only mildly interested in what I think of their work, and even then itâ€™s less what I think than what grade Iâ€™ll give them. Iâ€™m not a very important audience.
But when they see newspaper clippings on the walls of work other students have done, they become curious and ask, â€śHow do we get our stuff in the paper?â€? When they see magazines or brochures from past years around my classroom, they get a little competitive and think they may do something better. With a bigger project, like a book, students are even more likely to buy in.
A while ago, as students looked through last yearâ€™s bookâ€”a collection of essays based on oral interviews with World War II veteransâ€”I asked them to critique it and then to decide our direction for this year.
Their reaction came in two stages. First they were impressed: â€śSomeone from Ronan published a book?â€? â€śFreshmen did this?â€? â€śWhy didnâ€™t we get to do this when we were freshmen?â€? But they quickly turned competitive and critical. These students, with whom I hadnâ€™t yet had much of any discussion about writing, created a list of things their book would do better. It would be more focused and detailed, it would use stronger verbs, it would have more variety in sentence length, it would include more of the veteransâ€™ thoughts about events, it would give clearer descriptions of the settings. I was pleasantly surprised.
Though the book project required more work than anything else I had students do, it was the work that they found most worth doing. As the project progressed, students went from apathy, to annoyance, to excitement.
I think choosing a rich topic is vital. Students got to know the veterans whose stories they were telling, and the topic was important enough that they wanted to get it right for them. If you are going to spend a lot of time on something, it needs to be something worth your time. After spending hours with veterans and listening to their stories, students believed their time was well spent.
The publication process was simpler than Iâ€™d expected. We decided to use an on-demand publisher because this new technology makes short-run books much more affordable than it would have been a few years ago. Most of the on-demand publishing companies I looked into will take manuscripts at any point, from a Word or WordPerfect document to finished PageMaker or QuarkXpress files. We decided to use Trafford (http://www.Trafford.com), which offered the best combination of service and costs. We retained full control of the copyright, and we can order as many books at a special authorâ€™s rate as we want. (The authorâ€™s price is based on the number of pages. For a 100-page book with a glossy, laminated cover, this is about $5 per copy.)
The printer can assist with editing or layout or cover design. Of course, the more assistance you need, the more it will cost. And their time is expensive.
We were able to send them finished PageMaker files for the text and a graphic we did in Photoshop for the cover, so we only had to pay the base rate for setting up the print file. Through Trafford this varies from around $500 to a little under $1,000, depending on how much help you want with publicity and distribution. They will do order fulfillment and take credit card orders on the internet. Visit their web site for details: www.trafford.com.
All options include assigning an ISBN number and creating the print file, so the book will never go out of print. Because books are printed as they are ordered, there is no extensive inventory. Twenty years from now, a descendent of one of our veterans should be able to order a fresh new copy of the book.
Trafford also sent out press releases, which led to a story in the Missoulian.
After weâ€™d done all the research and writing and revising, we really did have the most difficult work behind us. Once we had the book assembled and the layout complete, it was just a matter of waiting, phone tag, and some e-mail exchanges over a few weeks to clear up small details as the publisher worked on the production of the book.
I didnâ€™t involve students to a great extent in the technical processes of publishing our first classroom book. This was mainly because I didnâ€™t know what it involved, and I didnâ€™t feel I could give up any of my already limited classroom time to have them figure it out with me. For our next project though, I think students can do much of the work dealing with the publisher as well. Doing real work in the real world is powerfully educative.
This project worked well, despite wide variances in studentsâ€™ writing abilities. Though a small honors class helped, most of the work was done by a typical cross-section of the ninth grade students at Ronan High School. This included quite a few whose skill levels were below ninth grade. Many of these students claimed to hate writing. They hadnâ€™t often produced school work they were pleased with, and most of their writing assignments got returned with a poor grade and were quickly forgotten. Instead of learning to write, they had learned they werenâ€™t writers.
So it was important to allow enough time for revision and editing.
On the other end of the spectrum were students who wrote fairly well. Because of this, they were accustomed to getting good grades and moving on. They werenâ€™t used to getting suggestions, revising, or having to work on their writing.
Both groups were very resistant to spending so much time on one piece of work in the beginning, but as they spent more time on it, most began to develop something that pleased them.
And other people were pleased as well. Community response has been wonderful. People who havenâ€™t been involved with the school for years gave students positive feedback. We received thank you notes from veterans, a typewritten letter from the local librarian asking to be kept on a mailing list for new publications (along with suggestions for new topics), and inquiries from other communities about how to get copies. I took requested copies to the senior center every day for a week and a half.
But of course, the most important benefit of this project was that some of my students find books a little more interesting. Not only are they starting to glimpse the magic behind books, they understand that itâ€™s a magic they can create.
To-do list for public heritage programs
Planning and executing a successful heritage event
Set a date
Book a space
Form your committee
Create a set of deadlines
Keep excellent track of all those who help you through the year
Decide on all the event components: sequence, content, presenters, introducers, food, music, greeters, decorating crew, clean-up crew
Prepare a â€śscriptâ€? for the event indicating where everyone should be at what time, from greeters to emcees
Invite any outside presenters
Create invitations, press releases, announcements
Write newspaper stories
Participate in radio shows
Do follow-up invitations
Remember your teachers
Make programs and name tags and signs
Make a list of all the supplies youâ€™ll need
Know exactly who is bringing food and how much there should be
Time the rehearsal
Designate a photographer
Create a set-up and clean-up crew
Ideas for public programs
Inviting the community to school
A list of public events schools can use to bring the community together to celebrate their shared cultural heritage.
Historic building tours
Re-created historic events and games
Exhibits and fairs
Fish-bowl interviews for the community to see
PowerPoint presentations of student work
Book signings for your essays of place
Individual programs for civic groups and senior centers
Plays and musicals
Community quizzes/history bees/history game shows
How-to workshops on doing oral history, researching local newspapers, documenting historic buildings
A guide to planning and executing public heritage programs
A student guide to planning public programs, divided into 8 sections:
Why give a program?
What do you want to accomplish?
Plan early and often.
Take responsibility but get everyone involved.
Getting the word out. Give your program life, lights, and action.
Presents from your stage. Some event possibilities.
Event to-do list.
by Marcella Sherfy
An illustrated version of this article.
Why give a program? | What do you want to accomplish? | Plan early and often | Take responsibility but get everyone involved
Getting the word out | Give your program life, lights, and action | Presents from your stage
Some event possibilities | Event to-do-list
Heritage Project students are invited to return gifts of scholarship to their communities. One way of doing that is by hosting a public program.
Knowledge is a giftâ€”the worldâ€™s most enchanting, enduring, and useable. Long after the digital camera you got this Christmas grows obsolete, youâ€™ll remember what you learned from the gentleman you interviewed for your heritage project. Youâ€™ll recollect the kind wisdom of the older woman who shared her familyâ€™s quilt history, and after the tape recorder had been turned off, shared her homemade cookies too. In some way, you will recall the insight and perspective that all your mentors took time to offer youâ€”the gifts of their experience and memory.
The gifts that matter most to us are the ones we should share with others. From the beginning, the Montana Heritage Project founders understood that. Liz Claiborne, Art Ortenberg, and the staffs of the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society felt that Heritage Project students should complete their work by giving gifts of scholarship back to their communities.
Sharing what you have learned is the right thing to do for many reasons. First, we all draw upon what others know. It is how understanding grows in the world. Second, it is the best way to deepen our understanding of what we have researched. Organizing our information and observations so we can share it with others requires us to do the harder thinking we need to do if we are to â€śmasterâ€? content and refine our understanding. Teaching is a powerful way of learning because we have to clarify our own thoughts in order to explain them to someone else. And finally, passing on our insights sets an example for others in the community. It strengthens the spirit of sharing which every community needs to stay alive.
Your class and your teacher will want to discuss what gifts of scholarship may be most fitting at the end of your project. You can create a book that you give away or sell. You can catalog a photograph collection or compile a newspaper index for your community library and historical society. You can write newspaper columns and design interpretive markers. All of these methods of transforming your knowledge into gifts for the community are very valuable.
Public programs have been especially popular ways for students to share their findings with parents, elders, local historical societies, and classmates. In this article, weâ€™ll focus primarily on why and how to host a live public event, to give presents from a stage.
Since you can give your gifts of scholarship to your community in many ways, why choose to give a public program, especially since itâ€™s likely to be hard work and scary? The fact that itâ€™s hard work and scary is part of the answer. Giving a program in front of other people requires us to put our skills and talents on the line. It demands the best of us. Like a sports event, a public program lets the world see just how much weâ€™ve learned, how much time and energy weâ€™ve invested in developing our insight and understanding, and the depth of our community research. We demonstrate how skilled we are and how invested we are in thanking others by sharing our knowledge with them. When we put our hearts and minds on the line, it commands other peopleâ€™s attention. They admire us and are grateful for our work.
Other giftsâ€”such as indexes, catalog lists, and articlesâ€”may also be valuable and certain to be used. But even these are enhanced when they are introduced through public programs, which may be the best way to call your communityâ€™s attention to them.
Finally, public programs are themselves gifts to communities that often hunger for interesting reasons to gather and celebrate. In the past, communities often enjoyed a rich array of community-wide concerts and Christmas programs, chautauqua events, all-town baseball games, and lecture series brought in by the Kiwanis or Lions clubs. Some of those events survive, but many do not. The reasons that once caused us to gather no longer seem compelling, but we havenâ€™t yet invented new cultural reasons for getting together. The program or event that you offer can add variety and richness to your community life, especially if youâ€™ve really tried to create unusual program content. The very process of drawing people together to watch youâ€”their young peopleâ€”demonstrate that you have learned about your town and that you care about it. It may be hard for you to realize the power you have to bring people together and to give them reasons for feeling glad they live in that community.
Once you decide to offer a public program, spend some time thinking about what you hope the program will accomplish. Youâ€™ll be able to design your event more easily when you have a clear goal. You have many options. Your primary goal may be to thank the people you interviewed and those who provided you with other research materials. You may want to organize a â€śhow toâ€? workshop, using what youâ€™ve learned to show others in the community how to use historic newspapers or courthouse records. You may want to offer a more general program for your families and others in the community to introduce them to the highlights of your classâ€™s work. Check out the accompanying sidebar to see just how many options there are for you to consider. And the list is just to get you started thinking. There are many others you may come up with on your own.
The odds are good that you will want to accomplish more than one of these goals. Thatâ€™s logical and okay. But you are more likely to create a program that pleases you if you outline your primary purposes and then choose activities and presentations most likely to serve those intentions. For instance, if you want to demonstrate to
community members how they can better use local records, you might want to schedule a day-long â€śopen houseâ€? in your library so you can spend individual time with them at a microfilm reader. If your main goal is to thank those who have helped you, youâ€™ll want to develop a specific guest list and invitations. If you want to share your work primarily with your parents, individual exhibits or short multimedia programs on several machines will let each of you show your work to your families. If you want many people in your community to understand your project, a more traditional program with a comprehensive presentation, or a play, or several readings may fit.
Any of these events will let you improve your public presentation skills: speaking, multimedia development, exhibit design, or drama. So, no matter what you do, prepare as well as you possibly canâ€”go all out! Practicing the effort needed to go beyond the ordinary is an important goal in its own right.
For a community program, thereâ€™s no such thing as too much preparation. You know how full your schoolâ€™s calendar gets, so pick a date well in advance and get it on the school and community calendar. Tell the newspaper and any other organizations in town that keep a â€śmaster scheduleâ€? of town events. If you wait to set a date, youâ€™ll be quickly frustrated by previously scheduled games, meetings, music programs, church nights, and book clubs.
Next, book a space that fits your event. It might be an auditorium or a meeting room at the bank. Donâ€™t underestimate turnout. Heritage programs tend to attract many community membersâ€”even when teachers and students have feared low attendance. Because so many older people in the community are likely to have helped you or be interested in your program, think about a place and a time of day that will make it easy for them to attend. Somewhere in here, youâ€™ll want to pull out a flip-chart and start listing all the tasks that need to be done. See the sidebar entitled â€śEvent to-do listâ€? for a start at that kind of list.
Anticipate mid-course corrections. Along the way, especially as you work with others, youâ€™ll get new ideas. Your research and the contacts that you make will suggest different options. Not only is it okay to rethink your event and change your plans with those in mind, you wouldnâ€™t want to do anything else.
Every student involved in heritage project work should have a role in planning and presenting. You can learn a lot by being responsible for most parts of this program: organizing, working together, figuring out what will work in your town. Everyone should have jobs to do. Though your teacher is a good resource and a good place to go for advice or perspective, donâ€™t count on him or her to be in charge. Students need to be in charge of the program.
An important key to spreading the word widely and ensuring a good turnout is to involve lots of people. You can ask for help from your parents, other classes in your school, your principal and superintendent, your local historical society, and other community groups. Some people will be short of time, but if you ask lots of people youâ€™ll be amazed at how much others are willing to do. Almost everyone is honored to be invited to make a successful event even more successful. Some organizations like the opportunity to be more visible or raise a little money for their own needs. For instance, if you choose to offer a light supper before an evening program while people browse through your exhibits, a local group can fix the food and turn it into a modest fund raiser.
Early in the planning process, organize a meeting with a representative from each group that you believe might be willing to help: the band teacher, if youâ€™d like to involve the school band; a few parents of Heritage Project students; and delegates from the community museum or historical society or other organizations. Try to have a written list of all the tasks that need to be done and the supplies youâ€™ll need. Tell them what you would like to accomplish with your program and what tasks need to be done ahead of time or on the day of the event. See if they like what you have proposed to do. Ask for their ideas. Ask for volunteers. Itâ€™s fine, also, to ask for donations of supplies, especially if you will give enthusiastic credit to the donors.
However, keep in mind that this event is yours. You can tackle most of the work needed to put on a good program, from creating invitations and programs to developing PowerPoint presentations, to making refreshments, to doing dishes and sweeping up. So, ask for help when it will be an honor or of benefit to othersâ€”not just because you donâ€™t want to do what is needed. Finally, remember that you want this to be a gift to your community. You want everyone to enjoy the occasion and to come back next year. You can use that goal to help you decide how to involve others in the event.
Youâ€™ll be very disappointed if you go to a lot of effort to host a program and no one comes. While there are no guarantees, you can do a lot to make sure that doesnâ€™t happen. First, create a list of who you want to be there, based on your goals. If you want just your parents, that will help you decide how to market the event. If you want just your interviewees, that will help you shape your publicity plan. If you want the whole town to come, plus your parents and your mentors, you can tailor your advertising accordingly. Whoever your intended audience, you will probably use a combination of invitation strategies.
For small groups of people (parents and mentors), written and mailed invitations will work. Your class can design and print those or you can work with computer and graphic arts students. I recommend that you handwrite addresses, so that folks receiving them donâ€™t assume that theyâ€™ve gotten another piece of pre-printed junk mail. Be sure that you correctly spell everyoneâ€™s name and address.
If you want to invite the whole community, itâ€™s a good idea to take this into account at the beginning of your research project. Some research topics appeal to a much broader audience than others, and if your aim is a large audience, youâ€™re better off studying something that affects or interests many people. Also, the community members whom you interview or enlist to help you as experts or advisers are likely to attend, so the more people you include along the way the easier it will be to get a crowd to attend your program.
You should also plan on writing a story for your local newspaper. Include pictures of people in the community who have helped you or photos of class members conducting interviews or researching. Student â€śby-linesâ€? may be even more compelling than a teacherâ€™s. Deliver your material in person to the paper in both printed and digital form. Ask whether you need to make changes in the format so that they can use your story easily. Ask when they are going to run your story, and see if theyâ€™ll also do a short reminder the day of the event. The editor may be more likely to run your copy if you also buy advertising space. Talk with your teacher about whether the Project budget could help with those costs.
No matter what forms of advertisement that you use, include specific information and plan on making personal follow-ups. People want to know how to dress, what to expect, whether there will be refreshments, and how long to plan on staying. Give them as much of that detail as you can. As you get close to your program, call and remind the folks that you most want to come about the eventâ€”especially if you are honoring them. Nothing else even comes close to the power of a personal phone call or visit when it comes to getting people to come to public events.
Donâ€™t be shy. If your town or bank has an outdoor message board, use it. Send notices to local access television or public service announcements and talk shows on radio stations that air in your vicinity.
In all the bustle of promoting your program, donâ€™t neglect putting together a program that youâ€™d want to attend. You probably wouldnâ€™t want to listen to two hours of talking. Youâ€™d want, instead, to be informed, entertained, recognized, fed, kept busy, and respected. You can create an event with this kind of power and energy by thinking about events that you and people on your planning committee like to attend.
To get to specifics, you can mentally move through your event picturing what will work, what your audience will like, and what will keep them entertained. What follows is merely the beginning of possibilities.
Consider greeters, someone to say hello to everyone who comes in. You might assign students who did interviews to meet their subjects and escort them to reserved chairs. Think about name tags for anyone youâ€™re recognizing. Try a guest book that lets everyone who attends sign in. You can also modify a guest book for other specific purposes. For instance, you can use it to gather subjects for upcoming research projects. If you do this, be sure to leave a place for contact information.
Try printed programs. They reassure people about whatâ€™s going to happen. You can include a specific list of people that you want to thank. Programs make great souvenirs for grandparents or a mom who likes to scrapbook.
Few things are more powerful than music. Just as the pep band comes to games and parades to whip up your spirits, a band, a choir, or recorded historic music may have the same effect on your event, especially when you link it to the time period and the themes youâ€™ve been studying. Audiences like to sing-along to music that they know and love. This also enlivens an audience after a session of listening passively. Donâ€™t underestimate our need for recognition. Most people enjoy hearing their names announced from a podium or being called to the front for a certificate or standing up in the audience to be thanked. A handshake and a hug in front of the community is something that many older folks will remember as a highlight of their year.
Food is important. Even when many of us are limiting carbs and calories, we rely on food to make folks feel welcome and at home. Whether you offer a relish tray or cookies or dinner served by your local 4-H club, food helps us socialize. Put the coffee pot on ahead of time. Some seniors like to arrive early and enjoy some coffee while they wait and visit.
Think carefully about how long the event will end up being. It should be long enough that people are glad to have come, but not so long that they grow weary. Intermissions may help if you have a lot that you want to accomplish.
Donâ€™t be afraid to add new twists. Some schools include dances and raffles and quizzes that involve the audience. Some display exhibits that theyâ€™ve created over the years. Youâ€™ll have good ideas on how to keep your townsfolk engaged.
You can choose many ways to give what you have learned back to your community, but donâ€™t underestimate how valuable a community program may be. Hosting an event will summon skills that you and your classmates may have overlooked or not recognized. Even more important, a great community partyâ€”a gathering that celebrates the understanding forged between young people and older peopleâ€”may be treasured and remembered by your town more than you will know. You will be giving your town the best present of all.