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Far from Randolph County: A classroom runs through the farm

Hank Nuwer, now with the Winchester News-Gazette long distance. His column is called “Far from Randolph County”.

Chances are when you were back in school, one of your favorite educational activities was a field trip combining high-level learning with the fun of travel and the chance to interact with fellow pupils and your teacher on a more relaxed basis than in-class deportment allows.

I treasure the many field trips I sponsored as a former journalism professor in Indiana. Most unforgettable for me were a Paris-based course on Ernest Hemingway’s journalism and nonfiction and a Dublin-based course on the Irish War of Independence during which Franklin College students cried at the prison where the Eastern Rising captured rebels were hung by British soldiers. Franklin and Ball State University students from those and other long-ago field trips remain in touch with me to this day.

Which brings me to Mary McFetridge’s English 9 class at North Pole High School in North Pole, Alaska, and their study of setting in a story. Poet Robert Frost once told a professor of mine during an interview at Frost’s Vermont farmhouse that teachers shouldn’t teach students a story, they should show them a story. I thought this might make a good column for teachers in Randolph County.

That’s what setting in literature is all about, too. A writer creates a scene in which a story takes place, and the details the writer chooses are what makes us readers feel we are present as action unfolds. We all recall the symbolic, never-to-be-attained farm that John Steinbeck put into the imaginations of his fictive characters George and Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.”

McFetridge’s assignment fulfills a curriculum assignment calling for one expressive piece of writing, she explained in an email.

“Understanding setting helps students deepen their writing, and gets them to ask, when analyzing fiction, why here,” she said. “The author could have placed this story anywhere. What are they (readers) getting from this setting? Setting is more than just where this story takes place. It’s an element, a tool; it should never be just ‘a once off’ in their creative pieces.”

Hence, the visit to Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, a local non-profit, hands-on educational agricultural operation and a community partner of NPHS.

“While they were meeting the goats, sheep, chicken and rabbits, and seeing the sweeping gardens, beehive, skull collection and forest, students were tasked with considering the setting they were experiencing,” McFetridge noted. “How could they describe the setting? Which aspects of imagery would they choose to highlight?

The teacher anticipated the lush details the student writers might highlight and how they might use their five senses to capture the sights, sounds and touch of what they encountered. For example, she watched her students sniff the dank odors of farm animal pens and the sweet scent of straw bedding.

“So much to take in,” the teacher said. “The freshmen took many notes and enjoyed their time studying setting on Calypso Farm’s beautiful grounds.”

What outcomes did the students take away from the experience?

“I want to major in zoology in college, so the animals were my favorite part of the trip,” freshman Leia Gunn said in her evaluation. “Field trips are good because Alaska is filled with harsh and cold conditions, so it’s helpful to enjoy nature where you can. It is good to get out and learn more about your environment and have fun with your classmates.”

I’m not sure what grades McFetridge gave her students, but the old teacher in me assigns her an A, and that’s without grade inflation.