Poster: dawn is our classroom Dawn Poster
                                       ". . .What we have loved
Others will love, and we will show them how."

                                                          William Wordsworth

Dublin Gulch-Sharing A Taste of Butte’s Music

Talk about the folklife and folklore of a place and you’ll soon be talking about its food and its sports--its literature and its music. Families from many countries and many cultures came to Butte to harvest copper in the “richest hill on earth"--very much including the Irish.  Montana’s widely known musical group, Dublin Gulch--named for a Butte landscape--began gathering and performing Butte Irish music many years ago. All the performers have other “day” jobs, but they get together often to refine and build their collection of distinctive songs and to perform for a wide range of audiences.

The group’s CD Any Day Above Ground is a Good One includes: As I Roved Out, Galway Races, Star of Munster/The Maid Behind the Bar/Cooley’s Reel, A Jug of Punch, The Irish Rover, Mountain Dew, An Feochan, Leavin’ Tipperary, Haul Away Joe, Si Beag Si Mohr/When the Boys Come Rollin’ Home, Off to California/Boys of Bluehill, Wild Colonial Boy, Black Velvet Band, Brennan on the Moor, Coppers & Brass/Langstern’s Pony, The Wild Rover, Risin’ of the Moon, Whiskey in the Jar.

For us, a combination of performers from Dublin Gulch (Tom Powers on vocals and bodhran, Mick Cavanaugh on guitar, whistles and vocals, Jim Schulz on vocals, guitar, mandolin and bouzouki, and John Joyner on fiddle, banjo and vocals) will share both these place-based songs--and the stories behind how they arrived in Butte and what they meant to that community.

Posted by Marcella Sherfy
on 10/01 at 12:24 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Conference poster available

To order a 22 x 28 poster for the 2006 place-based learning conference, please send $12 to cover shipping and handling costs to the Montana Heritage Project office in St. Ignatius.

The poster features a photograph of students in Jeff Gruber’s classes at Libby High School visiting the site of the Houghton Creek Fire.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 09/12 at 02:16 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

How to save the world: beginning again

Dave Pollard at How to Save the World summarizes the two visions for the future that David Ehrenfeld described in his 1993 book, Beginning Again.

One depends on command and control and a faith in big solutions to what appear to be big problems. This is the view that brought us Homeland Security and No Child Left Behind.

The second vision is both more optimistic and more likely to prevail in the long term, though at present the forces that favor big, centralized responses to every trouble are powerful and well-financed. The second vision is the vision of free people making lives for themselves by making the places they live safer and more beautiful, as well as more convenient and more abundant. This vision includes dignified work for all of us. It involves

. . .a transformation of the dream of progress to one of honesty, resilience, appreciation of beauty and scale, and stability, based in part on the inventive imitation of nature… It will be advanced by countless people working separately and in small groups, sharing only a common dream of life. They will tend to be flexible, inventive and pragmatic, and most will have practical skills—carpentry, the building of windmills and small bridges, design and repair of engines and computers, the recognition and care of soils, the ability to teach. Nature will have entered their lives at an early age and will remain as a source of joy. They will welcome the challenge of the world that Orwell hoped for, a simpler, harder world. They will devote their first energies to the places where they live.

When we see the world this way, we see more readily the best and highest use for schools. Education becomes less a preparation to rent one’s life to the highest bidder and more a way of living that links past, present, and future through work worth doing.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 09/07 at 02:49 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Ellen Crain Introduces Us to Butte

Ellen Crain’s roots are laced through Butte history and its veins of copper, politics, social scene, architecture, social customs, family life, education, and tradition. She was born in the community and now raises her own family there. Not surprisingly, given her devotion to the preservation and understanding of Butte history, Ellen became director of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. Located in a historic “uptown” fire station, the archives is one of Montana’s most professional community archives and serves a steady crowd of historians, script and fiction writers, students, genealogists, and public agencies.

Ellen draws on her understanding of community and place-based research as she serves on the Montana Committee for the Humanities and the Montana Preservation Alliance.

Ellen and Janet L. Finn have just published Motherlode: Legacies of Women’s Lives and Labors in Butte, Montana (Clark City Press, Livingston, MT, 2006). Ellen and Janet edited this collection of 20 essays about the diverse roles and experiences of women in Butte during the twentieth century. “Like the mother lode, the women of Butte have been a rich, if hidden, resource. We have chosen that single word in the title to represent the fusion of gender, labor, and abundant resource which lies at th heart of this book.”

In her luncheon presentation, Ellen will introduce us to the Butte she knows from the inside--a place like no other.

Posted by Marcella Sherfy
on 09/01 at 01:47 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Students to read place-based essays at Book Festival

The Next Generation of Montana Writers

2005 Montana Committee for the Humanities Festival of the Book
Saturday morning, September 24, 2005 9:30 Session

The Montana Committee for the Humanities has long been an important partner for the Heritage Project, and Executive Director Mark Sherouse has been a reliable source of wisdom and assistance whenever needed. He’s been a valuable member of the Executive Committee that governs us. So we’re grateful for the chance to extend this partnership by featuring a few of our high school writers at the Committee’s Festival of the Book, which is one the cultural high points in Montana each year.

Three high school writers from the Montana Heritage Project will read essays they wrote this past year based on inquiries into local culture.

Britney Maddox, Ronan High School, “ My Oma’s Story.” Britney’s essay was crafted from an oral history interview with her grandmother Else, her “Oma,” in which Else recounted the horrors of her childhood in Romania, Germany, and Poland during World War II.

Cassandra VandenBos, Simms High School, “Paving for Prosperity?” Cassie studied and will read her findings about how improvements to Highway 200 impacted the Sun River Valley through the 20th century.

Claire Stanfill, Bigfork High School, “Their Legacy Living Through Letters.” Bob and Ginny Reed donated their Vietnam-era home front-to-military front correspondence to the Bigfork Heritage Project. Claire will read her analytical summary of the content and value of the letters to us and to the Reeds.

Former Montana Heritage Project teacher and University of Montana English-graduate student Christa Umphrey will introduce this session and these students.

Each year, the Montana Heritage Project holds a Youth Heritage Festival at the Capitol in Helena, where the best student scholars from around the state present their research and writing to the State of Montana, to be preserved at the Montana Historical Society. The Project was initiated by the Library of Congress with support from the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation and has received nationwide recognition for the caliber of student research and writing it generates. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 08/31 at 11:16 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

School Growth by Consolidation

The opening day of the new consolidated school of Chester, Joplin, and Inverness make the front page of the regional paper today.  School consolidation is still rare enough in Montana for it to be big news.  With the dwindling rural Montana population, it may not stay that way. 

Posted by Renee Rasmussen
on 08/25 at 08:21 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Love of place as an invitation to youth

When a community loses its memory its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. [The work of local culture,” in What are people for? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. 157]

Though Teaching 101 may be concerned with passing on information, teachers who don’t grow beyond such an understanding of their work miss the joys and the successes that can be found when they craft invitations for students to join them in making their communities the places they really want to live. Teachers who understand their work as an invitation across generations to share traditions, lifeways, and culture move beyond the classroom and stand in holy places. They understanding it’s not possible to teach what they aren’t committed to themselves. They act as tradition bearers, knowing that their traditions--including the great academic disciplines--need to be alive and lived in coherent ways for young people to hear them as true.

Kids are spookily adept at recognizing insincerity and hypocrisy, which is why we can’t teach them our principles except by struggling to live them.

When I taught in Fairfield, I quickly learned the stories of the community--the people who built the local volunteer ambulance, served as school administrators, supported local churches. What we studied in the classroom--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Shakespeare, Patrick Henry--didn’t seem unrelated to the ongoing work of trying to make of our town a humane space. The narrative environment of kids there included what we taught in the classroom, but it also included stories of people in the school and in the town, and the two sets of stories seemed in harmony at least much of the time. The kids in Fairfield were quite easy to teach, and they did well.

Later, I taught in a school in the western part of the state. What a difference! Many of the stories in the teachers lounge grew out of that witch’s brew of paranoia, cynicism, laziness, and pessimism that anyone who has taught in a poorly performing school knows well. Teachers openly mocked administrative memos to the students, yet still expected some level of obedience to their own directives. Students openly used derisive nicknames for the principal. Parents routinely criticized the teachers, and teachers routinely criticized parents. Many teachers had a quite adolescent understanding of governance. Most students could not hear, in that narrative environment, the intimations of a different world that is always present in great literature. It was a place that drew dull-witted and flatfooted performances out of teachers and students alike.

Lots of adolescents have trouble working for teachers they don’t like, and they need to work and do things to learn. Since the school was poorly governed, there were lots of contests between students and teachers, and everyone suffered. The place was poorly made.

In Fairfield, teachers seemed neither to exercise a lot of control or to avoid exercising control. They were able to stay focused on achieving harmony by developing principles for handling trouble and advancing their purposes. In other words, they were able to put much of their energy into placemaking. This, it so happens, is precisely the sort of environment adolescents need if they are to internalize the values of the adult community.

A great many people helped make Fairfield a good place. Loving the place and trying to make it better was not an incidental part of life there. And since it was a good place, it was relatively easy to be a good teacher there. Compared to the disordered school, the teenagers tended to be happy, energetic, and actively seeking ways to join society in helpful ways.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 08/21 at 08:15 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Hogwart’s, Heritage, and the Classroom

Teachers are always trolling for literature that resonates with students. J.K. Rowling’s newest book in the Harry Potter series, HP and the Half Blood Princ, may be just that. The series reeks of the importance of place, of the need for acceptance, of family history that controls our present life.  She wraps it all in the more than enjoyable trappings of magic, wizards, castles--all living right in our backyard. 

“As I look back over the five published books,” she says, “I realize that it’s kind of a litany of bad fathers. That’s where evil seems to flourish, in places where people didn’t get good fathering.”

Good stuff for those of us who teach writing. 

Posted by Renee Rasmussen
on 08/19 at 06:41 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Lions and cheetahs? Move over, Poppers

Part of the pleasure of living in the West is that people still talk about what sort of place it might become. The place does not seem--well, finished, in the way that Manhattan and Portland seem finished. It’s easy to dream in Montana of how we might like the world to become. Faced with the jammed and frantic reality of Fifth Avenue, only Donald Trump is likely to imagine having much impact on it.

The West has long enticed people with big dreams who are interested in placemaking. It is, as Stegner called it, “the native home of hope. In 1987 Deborah and Frank Popper imagined it all wild again. They suggested we could create a “buffalo commons” on the Great Plains, re-introducing wild bison.

Theirs was a controversial suggestion, and it stimulated a lot of thought and discussion. Obviously, any substantial change would create hardships for those who have it pretty good in the status quo. And yet, who does not wish to come over a hill into a wild prairie teeming with healthy herds of bison and flocks of waterfowl like those that were once here but that no one now alive has ever seen?

And now the dreamers at Cornell have done the Poppers one better. A new article suggests that we should introduce elephants, lions, cheetahs and wild horses into the open spaces of the West. The authors speculate that ancient versions of these species were eradicated by human hunters 12,000 years ago, so populating the Great Plains with beasts from Africa would be a sort of restoration. Their suggestion is published in the August 18 issue of Nature.

Re-creating the pre-human environment of the Pleistocene--"Pleistocene re-wilding"--might be good for both the environment and the economy, they argue:

The African cheetah, a close relative of the American cheetah, has only a modest chance of persisting in the wild in the next century. Breeding programmes are not self-sustaining, but some of the 1,000 captive animals could be used in re-wilding. Free-roaming, managed cheetahs in the southwestern United States could save the fastest carnivore from extinction, restore what must have been strong interactions with pronghorn, and facilitate ecotourism as an economic alternative for ranchers .

Managed elephant populations could similarly benefit ranchers through grassland maintenance and ecotourism . Five species of proboscidians (mammoths, mastadons and gomphotheres) once roamed North America in the Late Pleistocene; today many of the remaining African and Asian elephants are in grave danger. Elephants inhibit woodland regeneration and promote grasslands, as Pleistocene proboscidians probably once did. With appropriate resources, captive US stock and some of the 16,000 domesticated elephants in Asia could be introduced to North America, where they might suppress the woody plants that threaten western grasslands. Fencing, which can be effective in reducing human-elephant conflict in Africa, would be the main economic cost.

Jackson Kuhl thinks it’s a stretch to call the introduction of exotic species from Africa a “re-introduction,” but he says he doesn’t really care because he lives in the East. Poor guy.

I think it’s a very good thing to imagine large changes in the way we do things, and then to think and talk our way through what the consequences would likely be. And there are ages beyond the Pleistocene. Though the plot was dopey, I loved the idea behind Jurassic Park. I’d like to see T-Rex coming around the bend on the Missouri Breaks.

Update:Tim Worstall, an Englishman living in Portugal, thinks that if “some 5% of the world’s population creates 25% of the world’s wealth and yet has the land left over to recreate an Edenic pre-human environment seems to indicate that there’s something to be said for the American model.”

Update 2: Steven Shay takes the idea seriously enough to think it won’t fly. He talks as people do at planning commission meetings--as though the meeting were in fact where the future was being decided. I’m distracted by my acquaintance with ranchers like Gene Leary near Harlowton who’s been running buffalo for years. There are bison all over the West and “African” safaris have been available in Texas for years. We know Ted Turner has 10,000 bison roaming over more than a million acres scattered through several states, and we have to wonder what the land will be used for at the growing number of “ranches” owned by such as Tom Brokaw and David Letterman. Herefords and Angus? Probably not.

And then there are the Blackfeet and other tribes. They have a land base, an openness to visions more Edenic than those most comfortable to families raised on cattle baron dreams, and the ability to take corporate action over the long term. How they dream of the West’s future is going to count mightily.

Update 3: Cornell graduate student C. Josh Donlan joins the fray from Slate. He likes the idea:

Sure, the costs and risks of bringing back the megafauna are significant—they include angry ranchers, scared passersby, and unanticipated effects on other plants and animals. But without rewilding, we settle forever for an American wilderness that is diminished compared with just 100 centuries ago. And in the event of global climate change that affects Africa in particular, or economic and political strife there, we risk the extinction of the world’s remaining bolson tortoises, camels, elephants, cheetahs, and lions.

I sent the Slate article to two friends with exensive experience in conservation efforts. The first:

The comment on the successful reintroduction of the horse is an excellent twist for rebutting the non-introductionists. I’m for exploring gene splicing to cause the large predators to prefer the top ten percent in the Dunn and Bradstreet list of the world’s richest people. It would add zest to their over-protected existence.

The second:

As Livy said: the more he sees the more he abominates.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 08/19 at 09:22 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

“Lights, Camera. . .Leadership!”

The Rural Trust, which has for years been a leader in place-based teaching, has been hosting a community video program created by psychologist Helen Beattie and developed in partnership with the Orton Family Foundation and the Vermont Rural Partnership. “Lights, Camera...Leadership!” is a high school credit-bearing, place-based curriculum that develops student leadership and academic skills through the process of making and premiering a community video. The video captures some important aspect of their community from past, present, and future perspectives. The students learn to lead focus groups, interview community members, conceptualize and produce a video, and organize and facilitate a community premiere (including leading small discussion groups).

The Rural Trust will be integrating the community video curriculum into its programs and trainings geared toward place-based education.

We will invite invite a speaker from the Rural Trust to the Summer Institute for Place-Based Teaching to bring us up to date on this and similar projects, which parallel so closely the work we’ve been doing in Montana.

At present, we have 4 teachers (Phil Leonardi in Corvallis, Sarah Zook in Great Falls, Renee Rasmussen in Chester, and Nancy Brastrup in White Sulphur Springs) experimenting in their classes with Serious Magic, which provides ways for teachers to include video in their teaching without becoming fulltime av producers. We will review what they’ve learned at the Winter Summit Conference, then talk about where we might want to go from there.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 08/17 at 09:06 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Call for teacher affiliates in the Clark Fork watershed

The Montana Heritage Project would like to work with humanities teachers in the high schools in the lower Clark Fork Watershed--Deer Lodge, Philipsburg, Anaconda, and Drummond. This will allow us a chance to support place-based education across the curriculum by coordinating our efforts with the Clark Fork Watershed Education Project. The Clark Fork people can work in science at the same schools where we will work in the humanities.

We could provide $1,000 grants to teachers who are accepted as Montana Heritage Project Affiliates. More Information.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 08/14 at 04:01 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Place-Based Teaching Institute to be held in Butte, June 19-20, 2006

What happened in Butte? Anyone who walks the uptown streets or gazes at Berkeley Pitt or examines the surrounding landscape can see that something big happened there. And anyone who dips into the many histories that have been written can see that what happened was not only vast but vastly important.

And yet, it may be the case that we don’t know yet what really did happen. There are important senses in which the past can be changed. In important ways, what happened in Butte depends on what we do now.

This is topic that’s been wrestled with by serious historians and philosophers, such as Arthur Danto, Martin Bunzl, and David Weberman. To show a bit of what’s involved, Weberman uses the example of a political assassination in 1995. On November 4, 1995, the prime minister of Israel, Yitzchak Rabin, was shot by Yigal Amir. Though it was clear that Rabin was shot and killed, it was not clear what happened to the prospects of peace in the Mideast. Maybe the assassination derailed the peace process but maybe it provoked a backlash leading to renewed support for Rabin’s peacemaking. The truth may be that what happened would be determined by what was yet to happen.

This sort of thing is not at all uncommon in history. We often cannot know what happened until later events occur. Danto pointed out that although sentences such as “The Thirty Years War began in 1618” are common, this is not a sentence that someone in 1618 or 1628 or 1638 could have written. Only much later could people make out what really happened in 1618, because of the complex interactions between past, present and future.

Weberman invites us to suppose for the sake of argument that Amir shot Rabin at 10 A.M., but that Rabin did not die until 1:00 P.M. That would mean that what happened at 1:00 P.M. changed what happened at 10:00 A.M. It is not just in a manner of speaking that the 10:00 event is changed by the 1:00 event. The change is real in the most important ways that historical events are ever real.

This line of thought provides the way I like to think about the story of Butte.

We know that the story of what happened in and around Butte is one of America’s most important stories--from the “Richest Hill on Earth” to the largest Superfund site in the United States. But Butte’s story is far from over, and lately some interesting and inspiring people have made their own lives part of that story. The Clarkfork Watershed Education Project, which is being led by Executive Director Colleen Elliott and Science Coordinator Matt Vincent, will hold its first teacher institute next week (I’ll be helping out, providing an overview of place-based pedagogy, along with Pam Roberts and Ed Dobb who are working on a film and a book that tell the Butte story). This project will target schools in the Upper Clark Fork Basin of Montana, from Butte to Bonner with funds provided by Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program.

These teachers and teacher-educators and the middle school and high school students who will soon be joining them are linking their personal life stories with the story of Butte. They are becoming a part of the history of Butte. Through their work, It may be that an important story of Butte is one of learning and of restoration: we are figuring out how damaged landscapes can be helped to heal.

What a great story for young Montanans to claim as their heritage! Though there’s sadness in the fact that young people today have fewer opportunities to work in the landscape in the traditional occupations such as logging and ranching that gave many of us chances to work long hours out in nature, new opportunities are emerging. In projects such as the one in Butte young people have a chance to do such knowledge work as water quality monitoring, archaeological surveys and biological and historical research.

I know from our work in the Heritage Project that many young people learn to love such work, and that in doing it they find their horizons expanded and their lives enobled. After all, plenty of us would jump at the chance to get out of our desks and cubicles to go study rivers, map ancient archaeological site, and restore forests.

I hope lots of people will join us in making the the story of Butte a story of learning to restore our own lives through restoring a watershed. As we learn to fix past mistakes we learn to slip out of the dullness of intert ideas and abstract curricula to do something real. It’s inspiring to be part of the story in Butte of people coming together to do the good work of restoring a place to beauty.

We invite everyone who wants to be part of this story to come to the Place-Based Teaching Institute which will be held in Butte in 2006. The first two days, June 19-20, will be open registration. We welcome all teachers and school administrators and others who want learn more about place-based teaching and meet the people who are changing our understanding of what schooling can be.


Note: Weberman’s article, “The nonfixity of the historical past,” published in The Review of Metaphysics (Volume 50, Issue 4, 1997), is available fulltext through Questia.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 08/13 at 07:15 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Essential Questions for 2006 Institute

At the 2006 Institute in Butte, June 19-20, we will explore questions raised by Robert Frost’s poem (below) through Montana literature such as The Big Sky and Fools Crow.

The main character in each novel lives in a time when the economy and community is changing, and each refuses to let go of some things. They make different choices and endure different consequences.

These are some of the questions that arise for Montanans at this moment in history, as well as for individuals at nearly any point in their lives: What should we leave behind? What should we refuse to part with? What might we restore, or return to?

I Could Give All To Time

Robert Frost

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except - except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.

Butte provides a rich context to think about what we lose, what we refuse to let go, and what we might restore. It might be a good place to read an education writer such as Diane Ravitch, who wonders what we might have lost in education that we could restore.

Stegner took the title of his fictional study of friendship, Crossing to Safety, from the last stanza of Frost’s poem. What does it mean to cross to safety? What can adolescents be told of safety, and how to cross to it?

What readings would you suggest? What historians, scientists, writers, moral philosophers, educators, etc. would you like to hear? What topics would you like to explore? 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 08/13 at 07:06 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Getting Started in Community-Centered Teaching

How do we get started?  How do I know who I need to talk to? How will I contact my interviewee? What if they really don’t want to talk to me? How will I know what to say? 

These are all common questions that students pose prior to beginning their projects. To help students achieve a rapport with potential interviewees and to assist with the ASK portion of the ALERT model, students where I teach in Townsend, Montana, often host a public event that will launch our entire project. In doing this, students and community members become acquainted, gain confidence, and set goals for future meetings. The event often sets the tone for the interview and helps students refine their questions and goals. 

Some student/community centered events that have worked for us are:

All of these events encouraged community members to participate and assisted students to ask more pertinent questions while learning about their local community.

Posted by Darlene
on 06/05 at 09:43 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Three levels of questions

Learning expeditions are organized around three levels of questions: Essential questions, which point toward the large and enduring concerns of human life. Expedition questions, which are specific enough to be answered but broad enough to support extended research. Research questions, which are focused tightly, to allow teams or individuals to find answers.

While planning expeditions, it’s helpful to think of three levels of questions:


Essential Question: How are our lives shaped by roads and fences? Consider roads and fences metaphorically (routes and boundaries) as well as literally.

Expedition Question: How did changes in the transportation systems affect life in the Sun River Valley in the twentieth century?

Research Question: How were businesses in Simms affected when the highway was re-routed around town?

Essential Questions

Essential questions are important because they connect classroom work to the large and enduring issues that affect our lives. They are the links that make expeditions relevant, connecting the curriculum to actual concerns that young people face.

They also provide an invitation into critical thinking, providing chances to coach young people to think clearly, precisely, accurately, and reasonably about things that matter.

Essential questions are too broad to focus manageble research projects, however. They are best thought of as part of the reflection process. They should be discussed at the beginning of the unit to engage students in important issues, and then they should be brought up regularly as the expedition progresses, to keep students oriented to those important issues.

But before actual research can begin, more narrow and specific expedition questions will need to be formed.

Expedition Questions

Expedition questions are about the size of traditional unit questions. They should be specific enough to be researchable but broad enough to support several teams doing research for however long the expedition is planned to last. Several filters can be used to ensure a question will support an expedition.

Is the question specific enough to be answerable? A question such as “When should we rebel against authority?” is a good essential question in part because it cannot finally be answered. We have opinions about it, and these opinions may keep changing through our lives. But if a student tried to research such a broad question, he or she would probably feel lost in a sea of examples and opinions.

On the other hand, “Why did students in the sixties rebel against college administrators?” is manageable. Though there are many answers to the question, we can find those answers by reading what former student protestors have written or by finding former protestors to interview.

Is the question broad enough to support multiple researchers? A good expedition question ties the expedition members together, so that they are interested in what others are finding because it is related to their own work. Successful expeditions have focused on particular time periods, such 1910 or 1935 or 1968. Within a time period, research teams can tackle such subtopics as main street businesses, home life, school, and agriculture. One class did a study of the history and meaning of quilting in the community, with various teams interviewing individual quilters. Another studied water, examining it from the perspectives of irrigators, artists, Native Americans, and sportsmen.

Do we have access to the resources needed to answer the question? Many questions that are theoretically answerable turn out to be tough to answer because needed materials dont exist or arenҒt available locally. One teacher planned to research reasons why people moved to her town when it was founded. Her plan was to use land deed records to learn who built the first homes, then use obituaries to learn the names of family members, then locate descendents to inquire about letters, diaries or stories that have been passed down. When she began the unit, she was chagrined to learn that a courthouse fire had destroyed the relevant records.

Research Questions

Research questions are focused even more tightly than expedition questions. Though there is no right degree of focus for a successful research project, experience teaches that scholars more often have trouble because their focus is too broad than because it is too narrow. If the essential question is “What role have the Rocky Mountains played in the American psyche?” then an expedition question might ask “Why did people move to the Rocky Mountains in the 1960s?” and an individual research project might focus on asking specific questions of one person who did migrate to the Rocky Mountains in the 1960s.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 06/03 at 07:54 PM
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