". . .What we have loved
Others will love, and we will show them how."

                                              William Wordsworth


What do we keep? What do we leave behind? What do we restore? These are fundamental questions for a culture experiencing rapid change. If we do not ask them, and reflect upon them, and form our own answers, we will be hostage to events.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Essential Questions for the Conference

What might we restore?

How do we cross to safety?

What should we refuse to part with?

What should we let go?

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.
                  "I Could Give All to Time," Robert Frost

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/13 at 05:51 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Exploring Where We Are
Through Literature and Writing

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it...Ӕ
Joan Didion

A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar nonmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge.
חGeorge Eliot

June 19 and 20, 2006
Butte, Montana

MONDAY, June 19, 2006

9:00 a.m. Where we are, and why we are here,Ӕ Marcella Sherfy, Education Director, Montana Heritage Project 

9:15 a.m. Learning to be where we are,Ӕ Greg Smith, faculty, Lewis & Clark College

10:30 a.m. Place-Conscious Education and the teaching of writing,Ӕ Sharon Bishop, Co-Director, Nebraska Writing Project and Heartland Community Schools

11:45 a.m. Lunch - A place like no other: an introduction to Butte,Ӕ Ellen Crain, Director, Butte-Silver Bow Archives

1:15 p.m. Beyond the text:  fieldwork as education,Ӕ Guha Shankar, Folklife Specialist, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

2:15 p.m. Break

2:30 p.m. CONCURRENT SESSIONS Best Practices, Montana Heritage Project Teachers

֓Getting to story: investigation as the foundation of writing, Jeff Gruber, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director (Read these essays by JeffԒs students:  Songs of Hope" by Rachel Reckin and ӓSenator John Geiger: A Cold Front" by Amanda Shotzberger.)

An Expedition to the 1930s: what you need to know and what youӒll want to take, Mary Sullivan and Nancy Widdicombe, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Directors

ԓPointers, pitfalls, and payoffs: picking great topics for community research--and making any topic great, Nancy Heggen, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director

3:30 p.m. Break

4:00 p.m. CONCURRENT SESSIONS Ԗ Best Practices, Montana Heritage Project Teachers

Point of entry: using family heirlooms to connect students with the big questions in literature and history,Ӕ Renee Rasmussen, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director

How to get your kids to write like Studs Terkel: unleashing creativity through family and community history research,Ӕ  Christa Umphrey, Montana Heritage Project Mentor (Read this essay by Christas student:  ғMy Oma" by Britney Maddox.)

Gifts of scholarship: real work your students can do for your community--with an emphasis on non-narrative modes of analysis,Ӕ Sarah Zook, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director

5:00 p.m. Break

6:30 p.m. Dinner - Butte rats and glory holes: a poet mucks about in the Mining City,Ӕ Mark Gibbons, poet

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

9:00 a.m. Finding our way:  examples of place-based teaching from around the nation,Ӕ Rachel Tompkins, President, Rural School and Community Trust

10:00 a.m. Break

10:30 a.m.. Text and context:  using historical sources to understand place,Ӕ Martha Kohl, historical specialist, National Register of Historic Places

11:45 a.m. Lunch - IrelandӒs musical heritage in Butte, Members of Dublin Gulch, Butte and Helena Irish musicians

1:30 p.m. CONCURRENT SESSIONS Ԗ Best Practices, Montana Heritage Project Teachers

Finding the national in the local: American history through the lense of local history,Ӕ Josh Clixby, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director

Gearing up for important work: strategies to engage and motivate,Ӕ Dorothea Susag, Montana Heritage Project Mentor

This storied place: ‘connecting’ as a step in the writing process,Ӕ Darlene Beck, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director

2:30 p.m. Break

2:45 p.m. CONCURRENT SESSIONS Best Practices, Montana Heritage Project Teachers

֓Students as leaders of community forumsupdating the Montana Study model,ה Tom Thackeray, Tim Schaff, and Dale Alger, along with student Lindsey Appell from Roundup High School. Additional insights from Montana Study Projects at Libby High School (Jeff Gruber) and Chester High School (Renee Rasmussen)

Keeping it real: using family history to teach authentic research and writing,Ӕ Phil Leonardi, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director

Exploring other cultures: a case study of the Hutterite Project,Ӕ Nancy Widdicombe, Montana Heritage Project Demonstration Site Director

3:45 p.m. Break

4:15 p.m. Environmental history, education, and community renewal in Butte, Montana,Ӕ Chad Okrusch, faculty, Montana Tech-The University of Montana

5:00 p.m. Break

6:30 p.m. Dinner - Teaching as placemaking,Ӕ Michael Umphrey, Director, Montana Heritage Project

Project exhibits available for review during meal and mid-day breaks. 


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 06/27 at 12:37 PM
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© 2007 Montana Heritage Project

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Nancy Heggen- Lesson for the ALERT model

LESSON PLAN for the ALERT model

Outline for the “R” or Reflect

Pre- Prep: Students have been studying the Vietnam War and have finished listening to a Vietnam Veteran tell his Vietnam story. He is a poet and song writer. He sang and told many of his poems to the students. They will now reflect on their own thoughts and feelings, and how they can tell some of their stories through song.

1. Students will learn about the role of protest songs
2. Students will identify their own political agendas and write protest songs or poems
3. Students will identify political issues that are important to them, choose a song, and rewrite the words to fit a rhythm.

1. Possibly 3 class periods. (one to research, one to write/edit, one to present)
2. Computer lab to research songs
3. Writing materials, tape/CD player if needed
4. Possibly create your own protest song so students have an idea of what is expected
5. Tape or CD of protests song from Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

DAY ONE: In computer lab
Ask the students to research songs of the Vietnam War. Have students print out and listen to the message of the song.  They will then need to list 5 current political issues that deeply concern them. Encourage students to share their topics. List some on the board.

Select an old nursery song to help students write their song or poem. Consider using:
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Michael, Row the Boat Ashore
You are my Sunshine
The Itsy-Bitsy Spider
Use the example(play some) of how the Civil Rights children of Birmingham used simple rhythms so as to focus on the passion of the message. Read students your song.
Students will write and edit their messages today.

Present songs to the class. Each student will listen and try to understand the message the song is presenting. Have students comment or write down the message.


MUSIC: examples of protest songs
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute of Music:
We Shall Overcome
Blowing in the Wind
If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round
Freedom Land
We Shall Not Be Moved
Mind on Freedom
This Little of Mine
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
We Were Soldiers Once…and Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway


Posted by nancy b
on 07/30 at 05:52 PM
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© 2006 Montana Heritage Project

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Poetry of Place: Where I’m From

On Monday, in a post on A Shrewdness of Apes, the author thinks of her terminally ill father and reflects on the pieces of her childhood that shaped who she is. 

“I come from a place that plays gospel music over the loudspeaker at a gas station-- you can get Jesus while you get Super Unleaded and a bag of pork rinds to go.

I come from a place where one loves God, Mama, and football-- but not necessarily in that order, particularly on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon.”

The post reminded me of one of my favorite writing assignments.
A few years ago as a way of beginning to study our local community I had students, who were mostly local, write about where they come from. I thought the background work we did and discussions we had leading up to the writing were very valuable. Students enjoyed thinking about and photographing the places important to them, but the quality of the writing wasn’t as high as I would have liked or as good as I thought is could’ve been. 

Right after I finished the writing assignment I found a much better model for getting the kind of specificity I wanted from students. George Ella Lyon’s book Where I’m From seems to be the original source. Though I haven’t actually read her book, I’ve since run into hundreds of great examples that follow this form. Some just use the model, others have more specific guidelines. Unlike many “forms,” rather than ending up with many examples of vague, similar writing, the style of this makes each piece unique.

I especially like the idea of creating a sort of hyper text poem—along the lines of the first post I mentioned, with links to some of the places and things the poem might reference.

I don’t have examples of my own students work, but there are many others —students, teachers, bloggers—who have also given the format a try.
The Minnesota Writing Project has even used it as a demonstration lesson, as does the United Nations Cyber School Bus.

Almost all the versions I’ve read are interesting. This was the case with my students as well. Nearly every poem my students wrote was powerful in some way—either through the language, imagery or experiences conveyed. Students seemed to appreciate the chance to think about and share what pieces of their pasts had shaped them, and I found that the short assignment really did help me understand where my students where coming from.

Posted by Christa Umphrey
on 01/19 at 12:48 PM
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© 2006 Montana Heritage Project

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Gift of Stories

Alcestis “Cooky” Oberg has an article about life stories as priceless gifts in USA Today. She makes a point that heritage teachers encounter over and over again--when students encounter stories from their families and communities, they also learn important lessons about how to live that aren’t easy to teach into today’s diverse and divided schools. She notes that the story her godfather gave to his grandson is full of important understandings:

His grandson is not going to find on television the tale of becoming the man of the family at 16 years old either, as my godfather did. He financially supported his mother and sister after his father died during the Depression, while putting himself through Northwestern University on athletic scholarships and odd jobs. He kept 50 cents in his pocket for emergencies and sent everything else home. Self-sacrifice and responsibility for others are not part of the manly role model that is taught in movie chase scenes and shoot-’em-ups, or by celebrity misbehavers and cheaters.

It’s the truth of the stories told that make them so important:

Our kids need to know real things about life besides the lame fantasies they get on television: the life we lived, the good and bad choices we made, the lessons we learned, what we’d do if we had it to do over again. In short, whether role model or cautionary tale, the real story of our lives is the best thing we can give kids because it’s true, and they’ll learn from it.

Oberg suggests that adults begin writing their stories as gifts to younger family members:

Whether housewife or doctor, truck driver or engineer, lawyer or lineman, we all have stories to tell — great stories. Perhaps we could write, record, or videotape these stories for our youngsters in installments over the years — something for them to look forward to during the holidays. They hardly know us or know what’s important in life anymore, amid today’s noise and clutter.

We will better understand education’s historic role as the means through which succeeding and overlapping generations find what they most need in each other--the young need wisdom and the old need acts of regeneration--as this simple idea is recognized to be as profound as it really is.

Here are a couple examples of what’s possible: http://www.montanaheritageproject.org/index.php/home/more/my-omas-story/ and http://www.montanaheritageproject.org/index.php/home/more/songs-of-hope-music-in-libby-montana-during-the-great-depression/.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/20 at 02:35 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Every Moment, You’re Writing

I’ve downloaded a copy of Frank McCourt’s new book, Teacher Man, from audible.com and I’m looking forward to listening to it. This quote from Contra Costa Times increases my anticipation:

“Every moment of your life, you’re writing. When you walk the halls in this school you meet various people and you write furiously in your head.” Frank McCourt “Teacher Man”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/17 at 05:44 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Montana Style, Take Two

Another trait of Montanans that’s related to self-sufficiency is what Montana Jones calls away-from-it-all-ness. Do we keep up with the latest trends in music? Maybe not. Do we care?

Away-from-it-all-ness. Importing musicians with other styles and tastes is easy enough, but Montana style is about getting away from all the hubub and noise and fashion trends and pop crap. Besides, why should we go to the trouble of bringing some of that hippity-hop music here when the kids down the street have guitars and can do a pretty good job of banging out some old rock and roll songs, it’s just as much fun for dancing.

Not following trends. Do it yourself. Avoiding the madness of the world. All part of Montana style.

Full article: http://montanajones.blogspot.com/2005/12/montana-style-part-two-rock-and-roll.html

Not being with “it” when “it” isn’t all that rewarding--part of the reason for living under the big sky, I think. For a longer and some what edgier take on the charm of not being cosmopolitan--what Anthony Harrigan calls the “therapy of distance"--see this article from the Contemporary Review: http://www.montanaheritageproject.org/index.php/institute/great-plains/

I keep running into articles extolling the virtues of life in the nonurban spaces of the West, especially Montana. Harrigan suggested in his 1994 article that the dissatisfaction with urban conditions and the allure of the West might in time lead to some new form of Homestead Boom (Katherine argues that it’s been underway for a long time, since she left Racine, Wisconsin for Montana for precisely such reasons):

Ironically, the settlement of the American continent began—and long continued—with an impulse to escape the crowded conditions of the Old World, whether the poverty-stricken countryside of Ireland or Sicily or the ghettoes of Russia and Poland. Indeed for many generations of immigrants, there was truly a therapy of distance—from poverty, conscription, and religious persecution. The Russo-Germans who settled in North Dakota in the late 19th century truly fit the description of those who seek therapy in great distances. In this connection, I am reminded of the statement by John G. Ackerman in the New York Times Book Review that there is a ‘dialectic of possibility in his history which is potentially liberating’. Thus, in time, urban Americans may turn against the horrors of American urban life and decide to participate in an internal migration—a new movement West.

I would like to see an oral interview project focusing on why recent immigrants to Montana have come here.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/14 at 08:41 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Montana Style--according to Montana Jones

Is there such a thing as a “Montana” style? Montana Jones thinks so, and it has something to do with self-sufficiency. This is exemplified by the number of people who hunt for meat, but it’s not limited to that:

I see self sufficiency everywhere I look around here. I see it in the business people I deal with. I see it in the recreation enthusiasts. I see it in the Missoula hippies and the city dwellers. Not everyone is bagging their own meat, but they are watching out for themselves in their own way.

Full article: http://montanajones.blogspot.com/2005/12/montana-style-part-one-hunting-season.html

Self-sufficiency is a near-universal trait of rural people. What’s the alternative? Do our kids recognize and appreciate this trait in those around them?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/14 at 08:35 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Teaching and a Sense of Place

Originally published by Cultural Arts Resources for Teachers and Students - CARTS

"What is a ‘Place’?" Is that strip of grass between the lanes on the interstate highway a place? Is an internet website a place? Is McDonalds a place? What about the Little Big Horn Battlefield? Chief Charlo’s grave? The camping spot on Lolo Creek that Lewis and Clark  called Travelers’ Rest? Your favorite summer swimming hole? Some "places" are really no place. That is, we pass them without seeing them. When we are there they have no meaning for us. We don’t remember them when we are gone.

Student from Libby High School in northwest Montana makes field notes at Kootenai Falls for an essay of place.

But other places are part of the landscapes in our minds. When we think of important events, times full of life, we see in our minds the places where they occurred, which are inseparable from what happened. When we are homesick, we remember them.

Other places are storied with public events of national significance: Gettysburg, Wounded Knee, Pearl Harbor. Visitors flock to them every year, hungry for reality.

Teachers who draw on the power of place in our lives quite literally "place" the abstract and conceptual understandings of traditional curricula in local realities. Many researchers have shown that young people have little real understanding of the decontextualized information that flows over them in conventional teaching, and without such understanding they are often unable to transfer their learning to the world beyond the classroom window.

Besides, place-based teaching is more fun and more engaging for students as well as for teachers, parents, and other community members.

I’ve followed students into the field to document the occupational culture of Montana ranching and logging families for community web sites.

I’ve gone with teams of students from a geography class to gather data from an abandoned cemetery they discovered in the woods, where the first fur trader in the area is buried with his Indian family, near a vanished fort.

I’ve watched a team of English students locate Lewis and Clark campsites after weeks of research using journals and GIS software, so they could document the present, comparing the flora and fauna with the 1804 journals.

I’ve helped art students complete a community calendar featuring drawings inspired by research into local stories.

I’ve attended plays put on by high school drama classes based on oral histories collected from local elders.

I’ve camped with a class of history students at an abandoned gold mining town where they were completing a field archeology project so they could write the history of a place that had been all but forgotten.

When we talk about teaching and a sense of place, we are simply talking about the best teaching--teaching for deep understanding, teaching that transfers to new settings. A simple hunger for reality motivates current thinking about a sense of place, a hunger for meanings that satisfy like the snap of an apple bitten into on a cool October morning, the juice wet and cold and sweet. Real sky. Real stars. Real history. Real stories. Real friendships.

More and more teachers now accompany students to neighborhoods, streams and rivers, forests, community meetings or markets, local celebrations, and historic sites to study, document, and understand the world. They enter the community as hunters and gatherers, ethnographers, scientists, historians, problem-solvers, artists and, most important of all, as fellow community members.

Our youth have been gone so long, off in those huge schools on the edge of town, that when they re-enter the community, they cause something of a commotion. They wake people up. Both young and old have suffered from the loss of perspective that results when they are separated from each other.

Place-based teaching is not only the key to school reform but also to community revitalization. A person or a town whose music comes pre-recorded, whose textbooks are written by distant committees, whose food materializes through unknown processes, whose conversation is drowned out by broadcast chatter, whose politics consists of filling out multiple-choice forms, and whose education is planned by bickering factions is living in a fantasy if it imagines itself free.

It would be good if every student could have at least one class each term that dealt directly and intensively with local knowledge or local issues. And if every class could include at least one unit that focused on the making the places students inhabit better, helping them make personal connections to stories larger than themselves, seeing the ways individuals are intertwined with communities and communities with states and with nations, all sorts of problems we now face would begin to dissolve.

We would sense hopeful answers to many pressing questions: How can we involve our youth in serving others? How can we smooth the transition from school to work by providing experiences in out-of-classroom settings? How can we give young people a sense of belonging? How can we make the curriculum relevant to contemporary concerns? How can we encourage greater parent and community involvement in the schools?

Educators who approach the curriculum through the lens of particular localities quite literally "place" information in contexts that help young people convert the curriculum from mere information into genuine knowledge.

A sense of place, after all, is a sense of orientation. It is both the beginning and the end of knowing.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/13 at 01:01 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Placemaking in Lolo

Placemaking is often both literal and obvious. We invest our time and energy to remake the world more to our liking.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 12/07 at 07:21 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Library of Congress Partners with Google

The Library of Congress just announced that Google Inc. has agreed to donate $3 million to be the first partner in a public-private initiative to begin building a digital library for the world.

Google Co-Founder and President of Technology Sergey Brin said, “Google supports the World Digital Library because we share a common mission of making the world’s information universally accessible and useful. To create a global digital library is a historic opportunity, and we want to help the Library of Congress in this effort.”

Librarian James Billington introduced the idea of the World Digital Library, which he believes would have both educational and diplomatic benefits, in a June speech at Georgetown University:

“Through a World Digital Library, the rich store of the world’s culture that American institutions have preserved could be given back to the world free of charge and in a new form far more universally accessible than ever before.”

Over 60% of the Library of Congress’s holdings are in languages other than English. Billington sees the project as a way for the experiences of these people of many different backgrounds to help people around the world:

“…recover distinctive elements of their own cultures through a shared enterprise that also may make it psychologically easier for them to discover that the knowledge and experience of our own and of other free cultures might be of more benefit to their own development than they would otherwise be willing to admit.”

This new project follows in the footsteps of The Library of Congress’s previous digitization project. The 1994 the National Digital Library Program has resulted in more than 10 million rare and unique materials available free of charge in the American Memory Web site.

This is another way technology is making it easier for not just other countries, but also rural America, to better understand, and become better prepared to shape, the world they inhabit.

Posted by Christa Umphrey
on 11/23 at 02:09 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Words from Henry David Thoreau’s blog today

and originally from his journals November 23, 1860:

“Most of us are still related to our native fields as the navigator to undiscovered islands in the sea. We can any autumn discover a new fruit there which will surprise us by its beauty or sweetness. So long as I saw one or two kinds of berries in my walks whose names I did not know, the proportion of the unknown seemed indefinitely if not infinitely great.”

I like this idea that there is always more to discover—even in our most familiar places—if we look closely enough.

There are many other ideas and writings of Thoreau’s that I think are insightful and useful in working to connect reading and writing to a clear awareness and curiosity to investigate the places around us. I think this site could be a useful resource. Every day there is a new excerpt posted from Thoreau’s writing (of that same calendar day).

Posted by Christa Umphrey
on 11/23 at 01:25 AM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Friday, November 18, 2005

Helping students build the audiences they need

I enjoyed the chance to talk with Britney Maddox when we taped her reading her essay about her “oma” earlier this week. One of the things that struck me was the conviction in her voice when we asked her why she chose her grandmother’s story as her research topic. “She deserved to have her story told,” Britney said.

Her grandmother’s story is important--her family was dislocated and her brother was killed under Hitler during the war in Europe. It matters.

Lots of problems in education begin to untangle themselves when we attempt to do work that matters. Classes of high school students can create books that matter, like the one students in Harlowton wrote about the neighboring Hutterite colonies, building bridges between cultures. They can place buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, as students did in Chester, doing the research that preserves the struggles and achievements of those who made the town a better place in the past. They can reimagine the lives of young men who built the northwest through hard lives at logging camps, as students are doing in Libby.

Several things happen in such projects. Students learn the expected academic skills of research, writing, and presenting, of course. But they also create an audience for their work. They find themselves talking about what really matters to interested audiences--Hutterites, elders, archaeologists, ranchers. In telling the stories they find in their neighborhoods, they create the audience for their scholarship.

This is critically important. We know that young people figure out how to live their lives by forming a narrative identity--a life story that links what they have experienced in the past and what they perceive in the present with what they anticipate in the future--and that they model this life story upon the stories they find in the narrative environment that surrounds them. What is less often understood is that the narrative environment consists not just of the stories we hear, but it also includes the audiences that exist for the stories we tell.

In his important book The Redemptive Self, Dan McAdams cites research that people who tell stories to friends who appear not to be listening can’t remember those stories themselves a few weeks later. When the friends appeared to be interested, on the other hands, people remembered the stories they told vividly.

When we find appreciative audiences for stories we tell about good character and striving for good causes, even though we found those stories in the lives of other people, we are changed by telling them.

I found myself very engaged in the story Britney told me. At the end, she quoted her grandmother, and I imagined I heard the German Lutheran inflections enter her voice as she said, “I get a little disgusted with these people who bellyache about the war. .  .I had to see it when I was awfully young: the bullets flying around, the houses bombed. And then we had to go and pick up the dead soldiers. All those people who complain here, well, they need to go see it themselves. It’s a mess.”

When Britney began speaking her oma’s words, she stood up straighter and spoke with a firmness and conviction I hadn’t heard earlier in the paper. Then she shifted into her own voice. The firmness and conviction stayed: “Her story means a lot to me,” said Britney. “It has helped me better understand my own history and where I come from. And, it has shown me what things are worth fighting for, what things we should fight against, and that ultimately, there is always hope.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 11/18 at 03:43 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Lessons from Leading without Power

Mr. McNamar at the Daily Grind lists eight parallels between good families and good classrooms. These include such things as teaching clear and concrete values:  “In a world with shifting values, the classroom should be firm--a place where students know from day to day, what is expected.”

Useful advice for those who approach teaching as a way of helping young people see that an important reason for education, as for life itself, is to make the places we find ourselves into better places (and learning and telling the stories of all the ordinary heroes who find ways to do that).

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 11/18 at 12:12 PM
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© 2005 Montana Heritage Project

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Thoughtful and Responsible Student Blogging

Happenings in Africa and New Jersey are intersecting in interesting ways for teachers this past week.

In Tunis, 170 countries and more than 20,000 delegates are taking part in the UN’s largest ever summit. The delegates are looking into ways to use information communication technologies to help improve living standards in some of the world’s poorest nations. A key aim is connect all the villages of the world to the internet by 2015. “There is a tremendous yearning, not for technology per se, but for what technology can make possible,” said Kofi Annan, UN secretary General, urging delegates to take action.

As the rest of the world strives for ways to allow more than the current 14% of citizens access to the global online community, here in the U.S. 62% of us are busy on the net. I think it’s highly likely that the percentage is even higher among our teens, so high that while the rest of the world is trying to figure out how to get their countries online, we have organizations (from educational to corporate) hard at work developing ways to restrict and monitor our students’ access.

Of course educators need to be concerned for our students’ safety, but recently the internet (and blogs specifically) are making mainstream news not because of all the innovative ways teachers are using them but for being banned completely, as happened last month in Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta, New Jersey. At a school assembly the Roman Catholic school’s 900 students were told they must delete personal blog sites such as MySpace.com and Xanga.com or risk suspension. “The Internet is a forum with unrestricted global access,” a spokeswoman for the diocese explained. “For minors to be vulnerable in that forum is not acceptable.”

A few days later blogs were in the news again when threats on MySpace.com basically shut down another New Jersey high school after threats were posted. The school district is looking for the website to be held accountable and one of the teens was arrested.

Is this where our country is headed when in comes to teens and technology? The internet does give young people more power. It lets them express their own thoughts and ideas. It allows them to find other people who think like they do. And many who don’t. Scary yes, but important, too.

As the rest of the world comes on-line, if we as teachers try to screen everything first and make all the decisions about what students will see, learn and experience, we are going to fail. And more importantly, we are not going to be giving students the tools a good education demands. When it comes to the internet we need to help them learn to do the same things we have always done with whatever we are studying: think critically, filter appropriately, and develop an honest, informed and responsible voice to present their own ideas.

As a teacher I am always searching for an audience that is real and in some way consequential to my students. Blogging can provide this, but not if we don’t allow anyone to read the words we hope our students are carefully crafting.

In pondering the expanding assortment of software cropping up to make blogging safer for students Will Richardson shares an experience I think many of us who’ve had students use the internet could echo:

When I first had my students blogging four years ago, their blogs were open to the world. Nothing but good things came of it. They met people from Spain and Japan and Canada and all over the states who shared their ideas and questions and knowledge. It didn’t happen often that someone we didn’t know chimed in with a comment, but when it did happen, we all shared in a positive experience. Were we lucky? Maybe. But I think that by and large people are good, and it was nice to have that borne out in that class.

As more people from around the world begin to have access to the internet, they are going to find our students there. Young people already have so many examples of how the internet can be used poorly, we have a responsibility to step in and expose them to better alternatives. They are going to be out on the internet regardless of what is happening in school. Our students are already leaders in the field about which those 20,000 delegates in Tunis are meeting. What a wonderful opportunity we have to step in and help them to fulfill this role well. 

Posted by Christa Umphrey
on 11/16 at 11:43 PM
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