How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life. ~Katherine Mansfield
When I taught my middle school classroom of mixed 6th, 7th and 8th graders, we spent a great deal of time exploring the sense of place. This includes characteristics that are unique to that place, involving what humans have brought, their local knowledge and folklore. It is important for humans to identify oneself in relation to a particular place on Earth.
Our study often connected to students’ individual units, it informed what they did with setting when they were writing fiction, or connected to personal memoir when recording special experiences with family or friends. The Internet is a new experience with researching place in that it not only holds so many images that once could only be found in books or magazines, but one can access virtual trips at places everywhere in the world on YouTube.
However, in earlier years, before the Internet was around, my students studied maps, where roads were built, asked why; looked at waterways, the first and easiest way to travel; found books with stories of place descriptions by writers of long ago, then came to their own conclusions about how a place became what it was or is today. Sometimes I regret the easy answers that someone else has given on the Internet.
To begin such a research process that would be carried throughout the year, each year, but in different ways, it seems important to connect to a sense of place personally; therefore, one assignment I often began the year with is about students’ homes. It is a combination art and writing assignment. They were to find what they believed was a favorite place in their homes. It could be a corner of a living area with a special chair, a part of his or her own rooms, an area of the kitchen, and so on. Each sketched his or her special place and wrote a description of what it meant and why. When all was brought to final draft, the work was presented to the group and then displayed. This was not only the spark that brought various ideas to discuss as a group, but helped us begin to know each other as a community. We began to see parts of the classroom as “place”, and the traditions that were already there when these students came into it, like a blue fuzzy chair or a private spot on a warm rug in a corner. From there, we widened the studies into many kinds of place connections, and that I’ll write about another time.