The closures and quarantines associated with COVID-19 put a damper on thousands of events and projects in 2020, including our proposed work last spring that would have expanded the scope of the oral history collection that my students did in Montgomery’s Newtown community in 2019. But we’re not going to let this bad ol’ pandemic stop us.
The Sketches of Newtown project, which is funded by a (follow-up) education grant from the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, will expand on the work done in the original Bicentennial-funded oral history project, carrying forward these writing students’ involvement in collecting and examining our local history. The small monograph of “sketches” will begin with Newtown’s stated founding date of 1836, a year situated between the city’s founding in 1817 and the Civil War in the 1860s, and end with an examination of what the future might hold for the community. Chapters will look at such subjects as nearby Cypress Nature Park, the Hale School (formerly Cemetery Hill School), and the longstanding Newtown Reunion.
Of course, the writers are high school students, who are working almost totally from home, while they do their other schoolwork, so we’re not writing a definitive history of the Newtown community. This won’t be scholarly tome or an end-all be-all. What the project is, though, is an effort to connect students to a subject within their local community, to ask, what is this place? what has happened here? who are the people who’ve lived here? My class is not a history class, it’s Creative Writing, so our goal with both the 2019 oral history project and this current project is not so much to find and report the facts of the place, but seek out then share the humanity in the place, and in that sharing, learn something about what it means to be writers.
The entire time I’ve taught, I’ve conducted projects like this, because I believe in the value of experiential learning and in the value of community engagement. In 2004, my second year in the classroom, I applied for and received a Teaching Tolerance grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center to conduct a project (similar to this one) about the Civil Rights movement, because I wanted to connect my students to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Selma-to-Montgomery March during the important anniversary year 2005. That little book of reflective essays was titled Taking the Time: Young Writers and Old Stories. Since then, I’ve organized other one-time projects, like a student-written publication about our state constitution titled More than a Century Later, as well as ongoing projects, like traveling to Northport’s Kentuck Festival of the Arts for students to interview artists or visiting Montgomery’s historic Oakwood Cemetery to choose a subject for genealogical research.
For years, I’ve also been teaching from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and every year, I put particular emphasis on this passage: “Go with what seems inevitable in your own heritage. Embrace it and it may lead you to eloquence.” In a time where education is so standardized, the teaching of local history and appreciation of local folkways is sorely underrepresented in how we as communities raise our children. Our schools may be teaching math and reading, but we’re failing to teach them to value the culture that surrounds them. It’s no wonder that so many young people won’t detach from screens— why should they? Few people point out what’s in their immediate vicinity as worthy of attention. I can’t do anything about that sentiment for millions of teenagers all over the nation, but I can do something for the couple-dozen that I teach. And that’s what this project and others like it are about. One of my other favorite quotes comes from an avant-garde artist named Guy Debord, who wrote, “It is not a question of knowing whether this interests you but rather whether you yourself could become more interesting under new conditions of cultural creation.” All I’m saying is: let’s put down the phones and look at something close to home for a bit. If they’ll do that, they’ll see why I wanted them to.
The work of producing Sketches of Newtown has already begun and will take place over the next month, with plans for a second oral-history event to be held in 2021, if COVID allows. Once the writing, editing, layout, and design are complete, the books should be available in early 2021 and will be distributed free of charge. There will also be a photographic component to the project, undertaken by our school’s Photography students.