Thursday, September 29, 2016

Casey Mathern and James Clinton - Red Wing’s Collective Community Stories Bubble Up From Its Underground River

Casey Mathern is Curator of Objects and Exhibits at the Goodhue County Historical Society in Red Wing, Minnesota. She holds an MA in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

James Clinton is the Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Goodhue County Historical Society in Red Wing, Minnesota. James holds a BA in History, with a local and environmental history focus, from Winona State University.

Strengthening connections between personal experiences and the physical environment has important consequences. Recent studies in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggest a positive correlation exists between a sense of place and environmentally-conscious behavior. Public engagement with the humanities disciplines – especially public history – is key to making the connection between place and stewardship. A central component of the Water/Ways project is bringing together a humanities-centered understanding of water and water stewardship.

The Jordan Creek used to flow through downtown Red Wing, MN, dividing the town in half. Pedestrian bridges were used to cross the ravine and railings can be seen in this photograph from the 1870s. The river has been diverted underground with culverts and landfill.

Story-gathering has been at the core of our We Are Water MN exhibit and program development. We had to do better than regurgitating the accepted, dominant narrative of Goodhue County’s rivers and streams. In fact, we recently mapped a walking tour that will interpret the Jordan Creek – now running underground – and trace its historical route through downtown Red Wing. The walking tour will be a feature of our local public program schedule when we host Water/Ways this fall.

Initially when we asked residents if they had a Jordan Creek story to share, we received puzzled looks. We discovered that appealing to people’s senses helped them articulate their connection to place. Their faces lit up with a smile as they named a precise location and offered us personal anecdotes; dairy farmers used the Jordan Creek in the basement of the farmer’s store to chill their milk cans, and you can only hear the creek during spring thaw if there has been heavy snowfall. When we entered Johnson Tire, a family-owned and operated business located directly over the Jordan Creek, we asked the owner if he had ever seen the Jordan Creek. We were quickly corrected: “You mean the Jordan River?” Until that moment, we hadn’t thought much about the distinction between a creek and a river – nor had we thought it particularly mattered. We were slightly taken aback. “Is that what you call it?” we replied. The owner’s response wasn’t rude, but matter-of-fact: “That’s what it is.” We listened to the store owner and knew to use the search term “Jordan River” in our archive, which yielded new results.

The Jordan absorbs individual stories and inspires a collective memory among residents that is concerned more with the ordinary quotidian than the rare, focused on the lived experiences of all rather than the exceptional few. In Red Wing, the Jordan anchors experience to the landscape and contributes to our community’s sense of place. We hope Water/Ways inspires individuals who take time to explore the exhibit and participate in some of the activities to realize their connection to place and advocate for the future of their local water.

Visit the Water/Ways traveling exhibit in Red Wing at the Goodhue County Historical Society from October 1-November 13, 2016. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rebecca Wade - Learning New Lessons at the Minnesota Humanities Center Educators’ Institute

Rebecca Wade is a special education teacher currently working as the Coordinator of Professional Development for the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Rebecca earned her B.A. in Language Arts, a 7-12 Secondary Teaching License, a K-12 EBD License, and a Master’s in Special Education from the University of St. Thomas. Rebecca has participated in the Educators’ Institute at the Minnesota Humanities Center as well as participated in curriculum development that incorporates absent narratives. Rebecca lives in St. Paul and enjoys spending time with her four daughters.

I’ve lived on the east side of St. Paul for 23 years and knew nothing of the Humanities Center for most of those years. About five years ago, I discovered the Humanities Center when they were collaborating with the Multicultural Resource Center on curriculum development. The curriculum collaboration was focused on the history and absent narratives of folks from the Rondo Community and the west side. At that time, I was teaching at Obama Elementary, which is located in the Rondo Community, and thought this looked like an exciting summer project. I had no idea that this project was going to open up so many opportunities for me to continue learning and working with the Humanities Center. Every single experience there has been filled with learning, collaboration, and joy, but the 2014-15 Educators’ Institute impacted and influenced me in ways I never really thought possible.

The Educators’ Institute focused on increasing student engagement, and as a teacher, I know that student engagement is vital for accelerating learning. But this kind of learning – about how to increase student engagement – was something new, something I didn’t learn in teacher prep classes or in any professional development I received while teaching.

Diving into absent narratives, the power of story, of place, and ways of knowing and being was energizing, invigorating, and challenging. I was forced to question how I allowed students to show up each day and how I let their voices be heard in the classroom. Were they able to be their authentic selves in our classroom?

And every day when I would walk into my classroom, I would think about the narratives and the story of each of my students. What did I know? What was I missing? How were their voices heard or silenced? And then my students would enter the classroom…and I knew. I knew that I was not fully honoring and valuing all the brilliance that they had within them, all the narratives and stories that were deeply buried that they so desperately wanted to share with each other.

When I reflect back on that year and all that I learned about my students, it is clear in my mind that the Humanities Center’s Educators’ Institute was transformational for my teaching and for me personally. As I continue on my life path, I am intentional in seeking out the stories of others and intentional in hearing and listening to the absent narratives of those that I connect with on a personal and professional level.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dr. Kim Heikkila - Oral History and the Power of Listening

Dr. Kim Heikkila is an oral historian, educator, and independent scholar. She taught U.S. and women’s history at St. Catherine University for more than 10 years, and is author of Minnesota Book Award finalist, Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011). In 2006, she won the Oral History Association’s Post-secondary Teaching Award for teaching community college students to conduct interviews with Vietnam Veterans for the Veterans History Project. She is a Minnesota Humanities Center Echoes of War Discussion Leader and will help facilitate community conversations about war, memory, and military experiences this October in the Echoes of War discussion series held at Carleton College.

We live in a world that emphasizes speaking. From the momentary stories captured in a tweet or Facebook post to those gathered for StoryCorps or Humans of New York, from digital podcasts to published memoirs, all around us people are narrating their own lives, speaking their own truths, often to powerful effect. Although sometimes this self-expression becomes mere self-promotion, in its best instances it reflects a desire to connect to others through story – one of the central goals of the humanities. Yet even the most compelling stories need an attentive audience for their true power to take full effect. In my experience as an oral historian whose work has focused on women Vietnam Veterans, I have witnessed the power not just of storytelling, but of story listening.

Oral history is a rigorous research method that seeks to enhance our understanding of the past by recording, preserving, and disseminating firsthand accounts of historical events from those whose perspectives are not typically reflected in the dominant narrative. For my book, Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam, I interviewed 15 nurses from Minnesota who served in the U.S.-Vietnam War, many of whom had shared very little about their service. They wanted to correct the historical record that had relegated their experiences to a footnote, but sometimes doubted that their stories would interest anyone else.

They needn’t have worried. Book sales exceeded expectations and large crowds flocked to events across the state to hear the nurses speak. Although it was not easy for them to share their war memories, almost all of them told me that they felt empowered for having done so, for having been heard. For the first time, one nurse told me, the people in the small town she’d left to join the Army Nurse Corps knew what she’d done during the war. Another said that the outpouring of love from male Vietnam Veterans who crowded into overstuffed rooms to listen to the nurses made the pain of reliving her war worth it. The benefits of listening also extended to those who heard: other nurse-Veterans who saw their experiences reflected in those of the Minnesota “sisters”; the former Navy corpsman who said reading the nurses’ stories helped him come to terms with his own service; the brother of one of the nurses, who stood up after hearing her speak at the Minnesota History Center and said, with tears in his eyes, that he finally felt as if he knew his own sister.

The power of oral history stems from its ability to bring storytellers and story listeners together. As Vietnam Veteran and author Tim O’Brien reminds us in his book, The Things They Carried, “Stories can save us. …The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.” In helping to give voice and audience to those whose stories have often been neglected, oral history sheds new light on the past, enhances our present, and points the way to a better future.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Scott Glew - The Humanities as a Bridge Over the Civilian-Military Divide

Scott Glew is a dedicated Veteran of the Minnesota Army National Guard from Elk River who clearly demonstrates his motivation to create a better world. After eight years of service, including a deployment to Iraq, he began his career as a social studies teacher. Motivated by a belief that a better future requires an informed and engaged citizenry and that education is its foundation, he is dedicated to creating a classroom environment where students are challenged to use history, civics, geography, and economics to deepen their understanding of the world and make a difference. Beyond the classroom, he is committed to improving and advocating for social studies education. Scott is an active leader in social studies curriculum and instruction within his school district. He serves on the board of directors for both the Minnesota Council for History Education and the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies and is conducting graduate research on citizenship and peace at the University of Minnesota. Scott is a recipient of the 2015 Veterans’ Voices Award.

Despite the fact that our country has been actively at war for nearly 15 years, the American people are more disconnected from our military than ever before. Collectively, we revere and love to cheer for “The Troops,” but we pay little attention to what we ask them to do, and we have a shallow understanding of what it means to experience war. In a democratic society, the consequences of this disengagement are dire. As citizens, we cannot properly empower policymakers to make good decisions about war and peace if we ourselves are not invested in the results. My concern grows even more when I think about my students, none of whom were alive on September 11, 2001. From their perspective, war is both normal and something from which they are disconnected. As our conflicts happen far away and directly involve only a tiny percentage of our fellow citizens, these connections will not develop on their own. We must consider how the humanities can help to bridge the divide between citizens and their military.

I have seen the Minnesota Humanities Center’s focus on “what connects us rather than what divides us” in action during the past year through their Veterans’ Voices program and I believe its current impact is real and its potential for the future is limitless. This Sunday, September 11, people from around the state will gather at the Veterans’ Voices Award Ceremony to recognize and hear the stories of Veterans who are making extraordinary contributions to their communities. This highly visible event is just one piece of an extensive program that is successfully connecting citizens to the diverse and complex stories of Veterans. Our collective understanding of war and peace will become richer as Veterans are empowered to share their experiences, as educators gain access to relevant professional development and resources, and as the general public comes together in dialogue to challenge conventional narratives and perceptions. The Humanities Center, through their Veterans’ Voices program, is making this happen.

My concerns are deep, but so is my hope for the future. I believe that the public truly cares about the service members and Veterans among us. While my cynical side often feels that our common expressions of support are superficial, the optimist in me believes that we want to do more, but aren’t sure how. Additionally, I get to work every day with students who are curious about the world around them and genuinely interested in stories of service and the topics of war and peace. They are also excited to collaborate and make the world a better place, and are hoping that we will show them how. It is imperative that we focus on the humanities in our communities and emphasize powerful social studies education in our schools so that we can share with each other-- as citizens--the opportunities and tools we need to grow together and develop meaningful connections with the people we send to war.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

David O'Fallon - A Proactive Response to Minnesota’s Education Gaps

David O’Fallon, PhD, is the President and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

Liberal and progressive Minnesota and its two largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. Repeat: in the nation. There are multiple education reform efforts underway to address this gap. These efforts have made little difference. Recent state test scores reflect that the “gap” was not significantly changed despite millions of dollars invested and years of multiple efforts, from the state legislature through the state department of education through city school systems, charters, private foundations, and multiple funders. According to Minnesota Public Radio in July 2016:
  • Nearly 70% of white students passed the subject tests in both reading and math. Black students saw proficiency rates around one-third (33%). Similar gaps exist for American Indian and Hispanic students. Those disparities remained virtually unchanged from last year.
  • Minnesota ranks 34th among all states for on time graduation, 48th for black students, and dead last, 50th, for Latino students.
Considering this, and drawing upon both research and experience with multiple education improvement and reform efforts at the state, national, and international levels, and drawing upon its work and partnership with the multiple cultures of the state, the Humanities Center evolved a strategy driven by these questions: What can the humanities bring to this challenge? What can the Humanities Center do in response to this continuing crisis?

We made the following observations:
  • To frame the education problem as an achievement gap is the wrong frame. This thinking has led to less than satisfying results because it calls for the wrong remedies.
  • A school is a complex human community—not a technical problem to be fixed with technical remedies (e.g., high stakes testing, narrow measuring tools).
  • Communities identify the source of the problem as a relationship gap—between teachers and students, between a school and its several communities.
  • Relationships built on authenticity and integrity are the foundation to student engagement.
  • This foundation of engagement of strong relationships is essential for sustained achievement.
  • Relationships live in community and culture.
The Humanities Center is emerging as a thought leader in education reform in Minnesota. The Humanities Center is reframing the problem through our resources and professional development opportunities based in the humanities, which build the relationships essential to education achievement and learning. Here are some examples of ways that you can get involved with the Education Strategy:
  • Professional development beginning with the foundational workshop Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives, offered on November 2, which serves as an introduction to the core strategies and concepts of the Humanities Center’s approach to community engagement through absent narratives— voices often left out or marginalized. Participants practice strategies that will help them engage others with respect and empathy.
  • Learning through an indigenous perspective with the Bdote Field Trip, offered on September 25,that establishes the importance of place in learning and relationships, starting with the Dakota. (Bdote is a Dakota word meaning where two waters come together—where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers converge is central to Dakota spirituality and history.)
  • Bdote Field Trip participants

  • More than 900 educational resources on the Absent Narratives Resource Collection, including original literature by Minnesota writers, online resources, videos, and our traveling exhibits.
  • A week-long Summer 2017 Educators’ Institute will provide educators with an ample opportunity to engage deeply with the Humanities Center’s proven approach to increase student engagement through absent narratives. This experience will help guide participants in developing classroom strategies for bringing absent narratives pedagogy into practice, while building a community of educators committed to relationship-based educational change in Minnesota.
    A team of educators from Rochester Minnesota
Learn more at