(Originally posted to Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, July 9, 2008)
I have just returned from Boone, NC, where I spent parts of two days with a group of K-12 educators who are spending a week at Appalachian State University studying the Parkway and its history. They are there for the first of two sessions of a new “Landmarks of American History and Culture” teacher workshop sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Titled “Not Just a Scenic Road: The Blue Ridge Parkway and Its History,” the workshop features scholarly speakers, Parkway area tours, hands-on experiences with historical documents, and practical sessions on lesson plan development led by master teachers. It focuses on history, politics, culture, race relations, construction, recreation, and the environment. You can read the full schedule here.
This week’s participants (almost evenly divided among elementary, middle school, and high school teachers) arrived from 17 states on Sunday afternoon and soon boarded a bus for a short Parkway drive to the Cascasdes overlook at milepost 272 in Jeffress Park. There, in a gentle rain, Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation Development Director Willa Coffey Mays welcomed the group with watermelon, cookies, and drinks and talked about the importance of public-private partnerships for the National Parks today. Then it was back to Boone for a barbecue picnic and rest in the dorm until the seminar got underway in earnest the next morning.
Project Director Professor Neva Specht, an ASU historian and the official ASU “Blue Ridge Parkway Liaison,” had invited me to deliver an hour-and-a-half opening address on Monday morning and to engage with the teachers in two smaller-group Q&A sessions.
This turned out to be a challenging assignment. On the one hand, I knew that, unlike most of the presentations I do, I would be talking to people who had probably already read my book (they all received a copy as part of their packet of reading materials six weeks ago). I also knew that, with a quarter of the participants being from North Carolina (none this week from Virginia), some would have long histories with the Parkway, while others would be completely new to the region. And I knew that in the afternoon after my talk, the group would be touring Grandfather Mountain, a place where having an informed, critical, historical perspective is crucial to understanding the significance of what is being seen.
After many false starts, I finally built a presentation with four major aims: (1) to probe what had drawn the teachers to this seminar and what they hoped to gain from it; (2) to launch them on what I like to call a “different journey” on the Parkway – one that gets beyond aesthetics, beauty, and design, and develops a critical perspective and an awareness of how conflict over important issues shaped the way the Parkway lies on the land; (3) to prepare them for the outing to Grandfather Mountain (Google Earth was very helpful in this regard!); and (4) to suggest some big ideas that would be transferable from the Parkway context to teaching about many topics. I may post some of this material in future blog entries.
Judging from the comments and discussion that followed the presentation, I think it was successful. At lunchtime, one teacher showed me a Grandfather Mountain ad in a local publication that she saw in a completely new way after knowing more about the history of that site. There is no better reward for teaching than feeling that you have empowered someone else to see something new for themselves.
Probably the most gratifying part of the whole experience for me, though, was that it was happening at all. After I began my Parkway research at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1991 as part of a graduate school seminar paper on the Cherokee opposition to the Parkway, I sought advice from some senior scholars on whether to proceed with a dissertation on the Parkway or on the Eastern Cherokees. One eminent scholar, whose work I respect greatly, advised that I work on the Cherokees, as she thought that there might not be that much else that was interesting to say about a road. I proceeded to ignore this advice, of course, and found that there was a lot to say. And even with my book published, there is still so much more to study, analyze, learn, and know about this road and this park.
“Not Just a Scenic Road,” and the enthusiasm and interest of the 80 teachers and 16 leaders and faculty members who have shaped this program is dramatic evidence of that vague sense of possibility that I had 17 years ago, and, I hope, the beginning of many more serious efforts to understand what this Parkway teaches us about our region and our nation. Thanks to Neva and her colleagues who worked so hard to organize this wonderful and worthwhile experience.