It was a Friday. I was driving two of my 8th grade students to the Grove Street cemetery in New Haven after school so we could take pictures of 18th century grave symbols for a history project. As we drove past High and Elm Streets, at the corner just past the Doodle, Stephanie commented, “I really like that corner – something good happened to me there.” We drove on through the late afternoon traffic, rounded a few more corners, and parked outside the cemetery. We had no quarters for the meter but decided not to worry. It was a beautiful cool and breezy spring day. We had only twenty minutes before the graveyard closed.
Another student said, “Let’s hurry up; this place is creepy.” I responded, “How can you say that? It is quiet and peaceful here and such a nice place to walk and think about the people resting nearby.” Ana muttered, “If I step on their graves I will have nightmares and their ghosts will haunt me.” Stephanie nodded in agreement. I smiled – not worried about ghosts or ghouls – because to me the cemetery was a retreat.
A sense of place is a personal thing. I think of the phrase “
Cogito ergo sum
” and want to stretch it to “I am in a place, therefore I am.” Think of an introductory art class where the teacher suggests looking at the view forming outside the shape: the turns and lines and pictures are created by what is outside the vase and not the vase itself. Look at the context, the locale – the place. Without place we float free and being “grounded” (always something viewed as positive and healthy) is beyond our reach. My students showed me that
in the same place may not always be the same as experiencing the same place.
I think of the people who march across the textbook and shine through the primary documents of our American History class, and wonder if my students and I can capture a real understanding of the distant world of the past if we have ignored the sense of place that enveloped the people living back then? I have never taught history as merely a study of its artifacts; the documents, the battles, the structures, the ideas, can never stand alone and cannot be introduced to students only at the factual level. We have always used cause and effect and comparisons and analysis to work our way through the major topics of the curriculum. But is there a better way to help students appreciate America history and the link between past and present?
I began to rethink the way I presented content to my students when the seminar on
Sense of Place
collided with a long term curriculum project connecting archaeology, and science and history developed by the staff at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. The 7th and 8th graders at Troup are involved in this three year National Science Foundation grant that encourages the study of Native American “ways of knowing” through informal science learning and archaeological research at the 17th century Pequot fort site in eastern Connecticut. A core idea for the project is to show students that “the archaeological record of Native peoples in the Americas represents long-term histories of community adaptation and survival, processes which also reflect how scientific practices and knowledge are integrated into everyday life.” Students are investigating how historians and archaeologists study the past and they are experiencing first hand the tools, techniques and observation strategies that investigators use to interpret cultural activities at a historical site.
In spite of the training the students have received through this program, the 8th grade students continue to have a difficult time understanding the relationship of location, time, and place to the events and changes of history, and they struggle to see that artifacts and ecofacts might have a story to tell. I think their understanding of a different community, one that is unlike their own in another time and place, is restricted, not by their abilities, but by the framework they use to ask questions.
The students also have a difficult time knowing not only where the Pequot site is located, but where the site is in relation to their own familiar environments. Geographic locations and the distances between them are meaningless and the notions of place, location and region are hard to conceptualize. Some students who have traveled back and forth to Puerto Rico, or who have driven down I-95 to South Carolina for summer visits or family reunions bring some experience into the classroom. We all benefit when they share their travel stories but it doesn’t happen often. Not many students venture far from home and the world remains a very unknowable place.
However, if I ask a student, “Who has a community garden in his neighborhood?” or “Who fishes for bluefish off the Forbes bridge?”, or “Who lives in Monterey Place, the new housing area that replaced those eyesore red brick buildings in Newhallville?”, my students respond with descriptions, and details, and anecdotes of adventure and close calls and fun. We read a short book,
by Paul Fleischman, that told the tale of a community coming together in Cleveland to create a garden out of a trash filled vacant lot. The characters didn’t know they were building a community until the garden was flourishing. My students had similar stories to tell about exploring vacant lots, and leaning out of apartment windows, and hauling little kids in wagons around the block. The book reminded them of their own real-life experiences and they could connect with the story.
As in the novel, my students have seen changes in their neighborhoods as much as they take for granted what remains the same: in the changing and the preserving, they must be subconsciously aware that people shape the environment as the environment shapes people. In their travels from home to the family reunion or to a favorite vacation destination, or to church on Sunday, they experience traditions and patterns and the creation of memories. And, like all of us, they begin to take the familiar for granted, to count on the smells and feel and functions of a location, and miss them only when they are gone. Can I tap in to this ‘sense of place’ to connect my students to the traditions and memories and patterns of other groups of people?
With this personal context in mind, I think that my students can become interested in learning about other places and the sensibilities that people, groups, and cultures develop in response to those places, by looking at American history with a more reflective eye. If they can begin to appreciate that people in the past were as closely tied to their personal and public places as we are to our own, then perhaps the study of history will make more sense. We can investigate the facts and concepts that inhabited the past (recognizing, comparing, explaining), and can move to analyzing and evaluating those developments, by approaching American history through its landscapes.
I will use the concept of landscapes in a unit for my 8th grade students at Troup Magnet Academy in New Haven. We follow a survey course for American history that focuses on turning points. The New Haven curriculum encourages research, writing, and critical thinking; venturing in to explorations of landscape should provide new material, new stories to tell.
Ironically, while researching public and private places to include in the unit, I came across a book titled
Susan B. Anthony Slept Here
by Lynn Sherr. The book is written as a detailed guide to historic places, public and private, that represent the involvement of women in the events of the American past. In the entries under New Haven, Troup Middle School was included. Troup is an important part of the cultural landscape of 20th century New Haven, so the unit
Building historical understanding by exploring American landscapes
can begin with a landscape and “sense of place” very close to home for my students. Troup Middle School was built and dedicated in 1925 to recognize the contributions of Augusta Lewis Troup. She worked as a women’s labor organizer alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and moved from New York to New Haven with her husband Alexander Troup, to found and publish
, a newspaper dedicated to labor and union issues. Throughout her later life, Augusta Troup encouraged education among immigrant families in New Haven and spent her days involved in socially conscious projects for the poor. The original school was restructured in 1989 as the Troup Magnet Academy of Sciences. The magnet school model was developed with the expressed purpose of reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolationall notions that Augusta Lewis Troup would have promoted. The majority of our students are African American and Hispanic. In addition to open admissions, we actively seek to engage in urban/suburban exchange programs. It seems appropriate to develop a unit on “sense of place” for students whose school reflects so strongly the impact of people on the landscape.
Why landscapes and ‘sense of place’?
Anne Spirn in her book
The Language of Landscape,
says that landscape is “scene of life, cultivated construction, carrier of meaning. It is language.” She talks about reading the landscape and using its meanings to perceive pasts that we cannot experience and to use the insights to anticipate, envision and shape the future. Using the language of landscape to look at American history does not divide the study into categories of biography or economics, or politics or cause and effect. The conversation opens up. “A person literate in landscape sees significance where an illiterate person notes nothing.”
The study of cultural landscapes isn’t new. In the 19th century, the geographer Alexander von Humboldt coined the term ‘cultural landscape’ saying, “The earth and its inhabitants stand in the closest reciprocal relations, and one cannot be truly presented ... without the other. Hence history and geography must always remain inseparable. Land affects the inhabitants and the inhabitants the land.” Cultural landscape is “a
way of seeing
landscapes that emphasizes the interaction between human beings and nature over time.”
Cultural landscapes are not just the artifacts of man’s ‘collision’ with the environment, the affect of land on inhabitant and vice versa; cultural landscapes are what the viewer understands when he really looks at what the artifacts reveal. So, for example, my students can visit Plimouth Plantation and observe fences made of branches, and tiny cabins, and marsh grasses and sandy terrain and come home with a mind’s eye postcard of the early colonists, but more so, the students can think about how it felt on a winter day to live and work there – and ask how did the people survive? And they can wonder why would people travel to such a rocky and windswept place and how did the tools and utensils they needed get there and what were they used for? And they might also ponder what kind of a community would shape a cabin, a farm plot, a village in this way and what does its organization say about their society and its rules and order? And how can I find out??
The students will need to use primary sources to research the places of the past. If they want to ‘find out’ the story of a cultural landscape, they’ll need to find the words that narrate it. What exactly are these words? What language will we try to explore in our unit?
Language and landscape do not precede nor create the other. “Language comes into its own as language not insofar as it either passively records or actively creates…, but insofar as it fittingly brings forth and holds for thought the essential features of the environment.” Living in the environment over time, creates memories and a sense of place; the language that describes that environment includes the functions and subtleties of the location as well. An example from the southwest is the Grand Canyon: Samuel Cozzens described traveling through the canyon in the 1800s as “the Journey of Death” where “the walls are perpendicular, a blood-red color,…inextrible confusion…” Yet we think of the Canyon today as a national wonder, a place to visit. Cape Cod, and the New England shore in summertime is a retreat for vacationing city dwellers, yet that same coast for William Bradford in the 1600s was a “hideous and desolate wilderness”.
Studying ‘place’ will force my students (and me) to read the record, investigate the sites, look at the artifacts with as much objectivity as possible. We will be looking at ‘where’ things happened in the American past, remembering that “where is never a there, a region over against us, isolated and objective. Where is always part of us and we part of it. It mingles with our being, so much that place and human being are enmeshed, forming a fabric that is particular, concrete and dense.”
Spirn made it clear to me that the language of landscape is the expression of ‘sense of place’; the expression coming from those concrete and particular details of an individual landscape. I know that my students should be able to discern what ‘sense of place’ means in an immediate personal way. With effort and investigation, it might be possible to help them express that ‘feeling’ with the language of landscape. The unit then, forms a circle. It begins with the world the students know which opens a connection to the past, and then the focus returns to the present. Perhaps the students will have become more observant of the environment and more open to its differences.
Spirn urges us to “cultivate the power of landscape expression” by seeing and describing what is
functional, sustainable, meaningful, and artful.
So, to answer the question why use
to study American history, I have three explanations: students can begin with what they know (their own sense of place) to understand the language of landscape, learning to recognize, appreciate, connect, differentiate, describe, and infer; next, they can be aware of that language to shape their research and readings about the past, not only through the written text but through the study of places (public and private), and other “languages of landscape”; and lastly, they can begin to celebrate diversity: recognize the dialogs of a place, appreciate other stories, distinguish conversations, and “join the conversation”. Through this last endeavor, students hopefully will learn that “nothing stays the same and change shapes the present and the future.” In other words, students will learn that the landscape of their own world is in their hands, and they should accept the responsibility to care about it and shape it –they can “join the conversation” as active citizens.