By Cathie English
I never considered myself an activist teacher. My past understanding of an activist teacher resembled something from the 1960s akin to the anti-war and civil rights movements. To me, an activist teacher was someone who protested at political rallies or government offices and encouraged her students to do so. However, once I became familiar with the concept of place-conscious education, I began enacting community literacy that asks students to consider the culture, environment or economic issues of their community. It was then that activism became as natural as breathing. I finally understood that being an activist teacher is about student activism, that is, how did I go about asking my students to engage in “real life” issues in their specific locale. What specific instructional choices did I make as an educator to raise awareness in my students?
Those choices were made because of deep convictions or concerns about my community and a shift to a standardized curriculum. It then became second nature for me, each academic year, to consider how I might engage my students with members of the community and leave the four walls of Room 104 where I taught for 21 years in Aurora, Nebraska. My first attempt at a place-conscious unit was simply to have my students create digital stories that asked them to tell their stories of who they were in their locale, small town Nebraska. It wasn’t activism, quite yet, but through the digital stories, I learned that many students hailed from even smaller towns subsumed by our rural consolidated district. These students weren’t from Aurora city proper; they were from Stockham, Phillips, and Marquette, all villages that once had schools.
It was this trend in rural Nebraska that initiated my inquiry into the issue of rural migration. All around me, small school districts were consolidating and small towns began to lose the schools at the center of their communities. In the fall of 2000, when I returned to my own hometown, Silver Creek, population 480, I drove the main street across Highway 30 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, past the Catholic Church, and as I turned to look at the high school building, I gasped. There, where the building had been for 90 years, was newly planted grass. The three-story brick building built in 1910 was gone forever.
In Aurora, like Silver Creek, agriculture was the dominant work of the community. However, with the onset of agribusiness and the loss of most small farms in the 1980s, the nature of work that employed citizens of Aurora and surrounding areas had been changing for several decades and my students could expect more changes on the horizon. Prior to the farm crisis of the 1980s, the Jeffersonian ideal of the 80 acres of land to sustain a family was in a consistent decline. Many families left the farm, migrating to city centers. In the 1980s, farm prices were so low, that most of the remaining family farms disappeared, replaced by millionaire farmers establishing agribusinesses through purchases of thousands of acres and the use of advanced mechanization. Often, these were non-resident land owners with no connection to the locale and its culture, history or ecology.
With that in mind, my students and I focused upon an inquiry into the nature of work and how it had changed through creating work ethnographies. I asked them to write their own work histories and interview their grandparents and parents to record their work histories. Once we collected the work histories, we studied how work had changed in the community over a span of approximately fifty years. I had asked them an everyday problem, asking how the community was transforming because the nature of work had changed and would continue to evolve, affecting their future careers.
My students achieved a goal of producing citizen narratives contextualized within the community. We preserved the past through collecting stories about our work, but in the process of interviewing, listening, writing and examining data, we learned a great deal about citizenship. Even though some of my students would not remain in their small town, I wanted to instill in them that wherever they might go and live, they should learn about their locale and become engaged citizens of their communities.
The final community literacy project I conducted as a secondary teacher was an inquiry into poverty and hunger in Hamilton County, Nebraska. This project was inspired by a colleague who taught history, when she asked me, “What can we do to help the Food Pantry because they are low on food donations?” I posed this question to my English IV students and they took it up by first defining poverty and hunger and explored data for Hamilton County, Nebraska, and several major cities in the USA. Students formulated their own questions to ask before field trips to the Food Pantry and the hospital auxiliary thrift store. They asked questions of representatives of the ministerial association, the backpack program, and Habitat for Humanity. The result of their inquiry produced informational flyers and videos advocating for support of the non-profit organizations that assist citizens who are experiencing hunger or poverty.
In 2013, I left the secondary classroom and began my career at Missouri State University; one of the main reasons I chose this university is its public affairs mission. The public affairs mission has three pillars: ethical leadership, cultural competence, and community engagement. The goals of community engagement are for students to recognize the importance of contributing their knowledge and experiences to their own community and the broader society as well as the importance of scientific principles in the generation of sound public policy. Faculty are encouraged at every turn to include service learning into their courses’ curriculum. For me, this meant nurturing and guiding future and current teachers of language arts into awareness of place-conscious education principles and their focus upon community literacy through student activism.
In courses focused upon place conscious reading and writing and teacher leadership, students in English education have heard community leaders speak about teacher agency and advocacy, (including a former state senator/teacher), community literacy projects, and issues of social justice. Over the past four years, teachers in surrounding communities have learned about resources available to them in Springfield by attending field trips to the Springfield Art Museum, the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, the History Museum on the Square and Rare Breed Youth Outreach Center, that offers an array of services starting with the Street Outreach Program with the goal of getting at-risk and homeless youth into their Outreach Center to build a positive relationship and provide basic needs. As a teacher of teacher, my most important goal is transfer—helping these teachers conceptualize and then enact place conscious education in their own classrooms and communities. Often, future and current teachers are focused upon English/language arts content, that is, the business of teaching the literature canon and limited genres of writing to meet the mandated statewide standards and subsequent assessments. The act of enacting a place conscious curriculum is activist. If we care about issues of equity and diversity and justice in our classrooms, place consciousness is a means to differentiate instruction in powerful ways beyond a standard curriculum. One key of this pedagogy of place is that it can and does meet many of the national and statewide standards and contextualizes them in experiential ways as students work with citizens in their communities.
Southwest Missouri teachers have developed their own community literacy projects emerging from their study in these courses. Through the Springfield Art Museum, teachers have learned about the Place Works grant program and have applied and received funding to bring their students to the museum to view the art and write in response to it. A middle school teacher secured funds for a field trip to an outdoor space where students wrote poetry and later performed it in public. A high school ELA teacher worked with her class to create a community online literary magazine. She gave over the reins of her classroom to her students who became responsible for all the important decisions for their magazine. Students made decisions about whose work was published, how the web page was designed, how they marketed the magazine, who they consulted with, how they communicated with rejected authors, and how they publically launched the magazine. Another high school teacher won a Rural School and Community Trust Global Fellowship to explore Holocaust sites in Europe and brought back into her classroom the artifacts and photography collected, integrating a new Holocaust curriculum into her classroom. This past year another ELA middle school teacher’s students conducted oral history interviews with their parents or grandparents’ about their experience with school and how school culture had changed over the years. Another teacher explored the possibility of teaching a novel centered on a local murder case. Finally, a recent graduate of our English education program has his students writing about the literacy of work, e.g. “What kinds of literacy does a waiter need to know? A sales clerk? A cook?” The work or projects these teachers produced are the outcome of a required inquiry into place conscious and community literacy theory and practice. Through research, these teachers looked to their own communities’ and students’ needs to fully conceptualize what it meant to be a place-conscious professional.
As I prepare future teachers and work with practicing teachers, I emphasize this importance of community literacy and engaged citizenship. Toni Hass and Paul Nachtigal of the Rural School and Community Trust continue to influence my work with their concept of the “five senses” we must instill in people to live well: a sense of place, or living well ecologically; a sense of civic involvement, or living well politically; a sense of worth, or living well economically; a sense of connection, or living well spiritually; and a sense of belonging, or living well in community. They write, “Community is how we together create a story about our place.” Christian Wessier and Sidney Dobrin write that as educators “we have a responsibility to invent a locally based, pedagogical ethic informed and inspired by an awareness of the need to think and act sustainably.” It’s essential for me to continue to consider the public good and ask myself, “What am I doing to contribute to the general welfare of people in my community? What is our wealth in common in Springfield, Missouri and surrounding communities? Is it not our most impressionable citizens, our young people?” For my students, future and current teachers of English/language arts, to enact their own student activism within their communities, they must be conscious of their place. Without inquiry into their place, how will they know this “res publica” or public thing? Before they lead their own students to make meaning about a place, they must first construct their own framework of the public good and what it means to be an engaged citizen. In a place conscious context, this framework might look different in each community where my students teach (or where pre-service teachers may teach in the future). Each community will require a specific kind of activism. As activist teachers and scholars, we need to provide rhetorical spaces for our students so they can speak with community members and believe their voices matter. We must offer our students authentic inquiry, authentic writing, and authentic audiences. We must offer them a chance to join with other “real” voices to tell the stories of our community.
Cathie English began her teaching career in Iowa after graduating from Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska with a Bachelor of Arts in Language Arts. She taught secondary English in Aurora, Nebraska for 21 years where she also directed plays and coached speech. She holds an MA in English and a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently an assistant professor of English at Missouri State University and co-director of the Ozarks Writing Project in Springfield, Missouri where she teaches English education methods courses and graduate courses emphasizing place conscious reading and writing and teacher leadership. She is the recent recipient of the Missouri State University Board of Governors Faculty Excellence in Public Affairs Award. She is married to Jerry and has two children, John (and daughter-in-law, Amanda) and Anna, and four grandchildren, Joey, Rory, Benji and Lucy.