Slice of Life: What I Wrote In Our WMWP Writing Marathon

Writing Marathon at SPAR(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I helped organize and facilitate a writing marathon for the National Day on Writing and Write Out on Sunday at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and like the 18 educators who signed up to take part in the event, I wrote my way throughout the afternoon, inspired by the museum and its archives. We had themed inspiration stations set up around the Armory to help spark ideas.

You can sense in my writing some the tension behind being inside a historical place that made the weapons that helped the US win wars through guns and arms. This is a tension I always feel when running programs for teachers and summer camps for middle school students at the Springfield Armory. I once wrote about this idea and titled it What To Do When Your Classroom is Filled with Guns.

Here are snippets and rough pieces of mine from each of the writing areas.

Writing: The Welder

Special Photo Exhibit

The Welder

Obscured by
flames and fire —
the welder molds
iron and steel
into arms —
the camera rebels
the bright heat light
shrouded by aura,
and those of us who watch
from time and distance
only notice the moment,
frozen

Writing: Dear Women of the Armory

Industry Display: Worker Group Photo

Dear Women of the Armory,

Thank you. I’m sure stepping into a national arms manufacturing plant — with the world at war and no end in sight — could not have been an easy choice. Maybe even you had your doubts — about war, about guns, about your own skills. I am sure Society’s story of you until now, as a woman, was at home, not here, but events forced Society’s hand. And you answered the call. You learned a complicated, intricate job. You were part of a team. You made a difference. Who knows what price you paid. Did you leave children each day or night at home to come here? Did you have a husband at war, always on your mind? Did you worry about the outcome of the battles abroad? Whatever it was that kept your mind concerned, you did your job here, and you did it well. You may not have realized it at the time, but your efforts and the efforts of many more women like you began a cultural shift in the way women would forever be seen in society. You changed the world. Thank you.

Wartime Sisters passages

Reading an excerpt of The Wartime Sisters novel and Taking the Character for a Walk (with apologies to author Lynda Cohen Loigman)

Millie rarely wonders too much at the gun beyond the assembly line, where her fingers move over the lock plate as if it were the most common task in the world. It’s all motion — this goes here, this goes there. Millie only sees the moment in front of her.

It’s at those other times, when everyone has gone home and her own shared household with her sister goes quiet, that she thinks more about what her work really is, and how what she is building day after day will be used. A bullet, in the chamber, fired down the long barrel, flying through air, penetrating a target. And the target, she knows, is a person, a human person, and that person might be killed by the very work she is doing.

She is the first step in the death of someone.

Or the first step in saving someone’s life, she tells herself, too. Not killing someone. Saving someone. A brother, or a father, or a husband, or a neighbor. She nearly convinces herself of the truth of it.

Writing: To Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Poetic Response to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Organ of Muskets’ (1844)

Whose dark future
hides in the barrel
of the guns in this
tune-less accordion —

surely, ours;

and I fear the sounds
grow ever louder, never
fainter —

Will it ever cease
into peace?

Or will the bullet travel faster
by the hour?

Why is it that power only finds
its home in violence, and never
in understanding –

Such silence

Peace (writing it out),
Kevin

 

 

#writeout #whyiwrite: Celebrating Teacher Writers in a Historical Place

We were inside. We were outside. We read texts. We wrote stories, and poems, and critiques, and journal entries. For the National Day on Writing, we hosted 18 educators at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site and invited them to explore the past and write with us.

Here are the series of writing prompts we provided as suggestions for the different spaces within the Armory Museum and exhibits:

Peace (in the past),
Kevin

#WriteOut: Making Connections to ‘The Wartime Sisters’

NOTE: For a writing marathon/party this afternoon, to celebrate Write Out and the National Day on Writing, we’ll be using excerpts from this historical fiction novel to inspire writing of participants. — Kevin

Reading The Wartime Sisters as someone who has been doing educational consulting work for the Springfield Armory National Historic Site for the past three years makes for an interesting web of connections to place and story.

Novelist Lynda Cohen Loigman, who grew up here in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, notes in her Author Notes that, like many of us who live here (including me), the Springfield Armory is often a forgotten part of our region’s history.

It has only been through many visits and by running summer camps for Springfield students and facilitating professional development for teachers through a partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory that I have come to more deeply appreciate the impact the Armory had had on this region, and also, on the country itself. Today, it is a museum. In its heyday, it was a manufacturing and innovative hub, one of two national armories (the other is in Harper’s Ferry).

The Wartime Sisters story is centered around two sisters whose complicated relationship and lives, and tragedies, revolve around the Springfield Armory in the time of World War II, when the Armory facilities were in highest gear with thousands of employees and a mandate by the government to produce more and more weapons. It’s also when women and immigrants flocked to the area for work, and for patriotic ideals, as a way to help the soldiers fighting overseas.

I’ve toured many of the old Armory buildings where the action takes place — including the Armory Commander’s house, now vacant and needing repair but still, with vestiges of the position the owners once held. I’ve walked through some of the manufacturing buildings, although many are now part of a community college. I’ve seen photographs of the gardens, the water fountains, even the swimming pool. We’ve taken students to the high elevation grassy overlook, the one that looks out over Springfield, where a huge and important concert takes place in the book. Armory Curator Alex MacKenzie, who helped Loigman with her research and spent time with her, has done presentations with our student and teacher programs.

And we’ve done whole units with students and teachers on the role of women in the Armory, and the way the war transformed society through work at the facility, bringing change to the communities even after the men returned home to reclaim their jobs. Like Loigman, I have listened to the oral history recordings of some of those women, and felt moved by their narratives. Also like Loigman, we have used the Armory’s own newsletter archives to tell the stories of the people, of where they came from, and how they lived their lives with the Armory at its center.

I would have enjoyed this book on its own merits, as a character study of two sisters and a community of women at a certain historical period of time. But the grounding of the Springfield Armory as the setting of the book, as a site with deep roots, made the reading of the book even more enriching for me. Loigman surfaces the stories of the people, using history as the door to show compassion and intrigue.

For a lover of books and of local history, what more can one ask?

Wartime Sisters passages

Peace (in the past),
Kevin

An interview with Loigman:

Stories and Place: WriteOut/WMWP/Springfield Armory

WMWP Writing Marathon Flier

Next month, the second year of Write Out will be taking place. From October 13 through October 27, with the National Day on Writing right in the center on October 20, we hope to engage teachers and students and park rangers and other public space stewards into looking at how stories inform our sense of place.

Here in Western Massachusetts, on the National Day on Writing, we are hosting a Writing Marathon on the grounds of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, with hopes of teachers exploring the museum, its history and primary sources as inspiration for writing, and to bring that sense of curiosity back to students.

If you live and teach in Western Massachusetts, we hope you will consider joining us for this writing celebration. We may even have a Button-Making-Activity! The Armory is even offering small stipends for registered teachers.

More information and registration link is available at the WMWP website

Peace (in the past),
Kevin

PS — you can sign up for news and information about Write Out at the site

Visual Reflection: Park in Every Classroom Retreat

Visual Reflection: Park in Every Classroom RetreatI was lucky to be invited to join a gathering of National Park Service sites from the northeast for a week-long retreat to learn more and to think more about how to connect park spaces with schools and students as authentic learning experiences. I came away from nearly a week of sharing, presentations and discussions with a head full of ideas that my partners at the Springfield Armory Historic Site and I will be mulling over in the weeks ahead.

I used a new tool at Visual Thinkery called Storyline to get some basic “aha” take-away moments down before I forgot … particularly with school about to start … but also, with the free Write Out project coming soon in October, where park and public spaces are seen as resources for learning for schools and educational organizations. I layered some basic-takeaways with photos I took while at the Delaware River Gap Recreation Area, where the PEC retreat took place.

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

 

What To Do When Your Classroom is Filled with Guns

Scott and Kids in front of the Organ of Muskets

Yes, my blog title was designed to be provocative. Thanks for following it here.

I am a few years into a partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project/National Writing Project and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site/National Park Service, and this topic of guns is often on my mind. The Armory, after all, as one of two main arsenals of our United States government for decades (the other was in Harper’s Ferry), is all about guns and weapons of war, and we use the Armory Museum itself as our classroom for summer camps (one just ended) and professional development courses for teachers (another one is planned for the fall.)

Reconciling the use of a building housing devices of violence with the rich history and the amazing primary sources it provides as windows on the past is one I still grapple with, although I continue to find the partnership to be fruitful and collaborative and informative at all levels. Still … guns. They’re everywhere in our learning spaces.

Here’s what we have done to try to balance or mitigate these two often conflicting ideas when we have worked with middle and high school students at our summer camp we run at the Armory itself (and also, some of these are how we work with teachers to use local history in their classrooms):

  • We focus on the engineering design and innovation of manufacturing. We don’t ignore that what was being built here at the Springfield Armory was designed for war. But we pivot to the ways that innovations at the Armory transformed our Pioneer Valley, and the entire country, as the Armory’s work influenced other elements of the United States government operations.
  • We focus on the workers — from explorations of how immigration patterns during WW2 helped the Armory expand its workforce to meet the demands of war; to the role that women played when men went off to war, and the generational impact that had in the years following the wars; to the racial divisions that often played out at the Armory as a microcosm of the United States itself.
  • We use the stories behind the weapons — either from the manufacturing side or from some of the guns on display that have been personalized by the user, with engravings of tales and years and battles, and humanize the soldier on the battlefield, not glorify the guns they held. The object as holder of stories is a powerful instrument of learning.
  • A deep look at Shays Rebellion — when farmers and former soldiers of the Revolutionary War rose up in protest over taxes and marched to the Springfield Armory with a plan to take the guns — allows us to make connections to the present ideas of community protest, and the fuzzy line between right and wrong, and acceptable and unacceptable use of force, and the role of the federal and state government in the lives of its citizens.
  • We use creative writing to push the idea of guns in the museum in other directions. For example, one prompt was to design a “gun for good” by creating a patent design, with labels and explanations, for a gun-delivery-system for something positive. Campers designed guns that sent forth ice cream, money, technology, music and, my favorite, new homes for the homeless of Springfield. Another prompt had them designing their own museums, using the Armory as a mentor text. And yet another was to design a board game about the Armory, with history as the springboard for play.

Four years into my partnership with the Armory (which began two years before I even came into the mix with other WMWP colleagues), and I still feel a bit unsettled by the weapons part of the museum. It’s an entire wing of weapons, including grenade launchers and machine guns and other advanced killing technology. Cases and cases of them, all tied to history, of course.

Manufacturing at the Armory

Even as a former soldier (infantry sergeant, National Guard) who was once trained on many of the modern weapons in the cases, I always encounter my own internal resistance to bringing young people in there. I am strongly in favor of gun control legislation and abhor the political work of the NRA to influence politicians to thwart any kind of reasonable measures to protect lives from guns.

Hopefully, by finding other ways to connect to the history of the Armory, we bring the importance of the building and the site to the surface for city kids who might not otherwise be aware. For some, the guns are what brings them to camp. This is the reality. Our job is to the show the toll of guns, and the role they played in America’s wars, but also to use them to tell the stories of the people behind them.

Peace (I mean it),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: Exploration and Inquiry at a National Historic Site

We just finished up our week-long summer camp for inner city students (middle and high school) at the Springfield Armory Historic Site. It was a blast, and we wove in writing with inquiry and history and a sense of place.

We

  • explored the art of mapping as a representation of time of a place — using historical maps of the Springfield Armory site itself on a walking tour
  • learned about how to closely “read” historical images that are part of the Armory’s curated archives
  • wrote into the day every single day on a variety of prompts, ranging from designing a board game based on the Springfield Armory to seasonal poetry
  • inquired about Shay’s Rebellion with primary source materials at the Armory, the site of the uprising and the firing on Shay’s men by the militia protecting the Armory
  • heard of Pearl Harbor and the way WW2 changed the Armory and Springfield forever, and then examined how different voices (Americans, Japanese, and Japanese-Americans) told different stories of the event
  • worked to understand design and engineering with a Lock Plate Activity that replicated the experience on the Armory manufacturing lines
  • explored immigration from many different angles, including the heritage of campers and the roots of many immigrant workers at the site

Yesterday, we had more than 40 family members join our campers at the Armory, for a celebration of writing and to explore the Armory Museum with campers. It was another great year of camp, as the video diary attests to.

And because Ranger Scott Gausen could not be there for the last day, we had campers do some writing for him, and sketch out his picture. His beard is a main facial feature, as you can tell.

Ranger Scott Sketch Collage

Peace (in explorations),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: The Scents and Smells of Learning

Armory Camp: Scent of HistoryOf all the senses that educators tap to help students learn something new, the sense of smell is often the one we use the least, right? Yet, scents provide deep learning experiences. Memories connected to smells are powerful, lingering long after the event. We saw that idea in action yesterday at our Springfield Armory summer camp, where a visitor who does historical demonstrations – Reba Jean — arrived with vials and bottles of smelly substances, and a quarantine sign on the door.

The theme of the day at our camp was immigration, and Reba Jean made distinct connections between migration and immigration (and emigration) and the Influenza outbreak of 1918, when millions and millions of people around the world died from the epidemic, also known as the Spanish Flu. Unless you were in Russia, then it was called the German Flu.

“Someone always wants to blame the other, the ones they don’t know or don’t like or don’t understand,” Reba Jean, who is a historical interpreter at another local history museum, explained, tying the discussion to something we had spent the morning on — the reasons behind immigration patterns and how newcomers are met at borders by those already there.

Yes, this was history — the Springfield Armory itself was a magnet for many immigrants across the globe during the World Wars because it needed workers and because potential workers wanted to help soldiers fight the wars — tied up with modern days news cycles of our southern border.

In the demonstration, Reba Jean had campers sniffing a variety of scents before telling them what it was they were smelling. All of the scents representing ways that people tried to ward off Influenza in the 1918 outbreak, which began at a military base in America and spread to the world when those soldiers were shipped off to war fronts.

Among the scents:

  • Pine oil
  • Vicks Vapor Rub
  • Camphor
  • Garlic
  • Vinegar
  • Listerine (Lister oil)

The looks on the faces of our campers — all middle and high school students from a social justice school in Springfield — was priceless as they closed their eyes to sniff out history in little cups. Reba Jean did a brilliant job of connecting the sensory experience to the topic of immigration, too.

Afterwards, I realized how little I have ever used the sense of smell in my own classroom, but how powerful it was. I could see it on the faces of campers, and afterwards, in reflection, they explained how they found the activity memorable, connecting what they discovered through their noses with historical information Reba Jean was sharing.

Peace (on the winds),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: Messing Around in a Maker Space

Armory Camp: Maker Space 3D ActivityYesterday was our first day of this year’s Springfield Armory Camp – a writing partnership that was first forged years ago between the National Park Service/Springfield Armory National Historic Site, the National Writing Project/Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and Springfield Schools/Duggan Social Justice Academy.

One of our activities was to consider the reasons why Springfield was chose (along with Harper’s Ferry) for a national armory by George Washington and other military leaders, and we used excerpts from a letter by General Henry Knox that explained the rationale — the nearby Connecticut River, the abundance of lumber and timber, the local community of experienced workers and the high plains bluff that overlooks the entire region.

HenryKnoxLetterActivity

We then had our campers work in small teams to create a 3D map of the main elements of Knox’s letter, visualizing how their community was chosen so many years ago to play a crucial role in the country’s history. It was fun to watch them plan out and try to build out these maps, with glue and paper and odds and ends of things. The resulting maps then helped spur some writing and some conversation about the geography of Springfield itself.

Peace (into Day Two),
Kevin

 

History, Writing, Mapping: Planning a Summer Camp Experience

WMWP Armory Camp promo 2019

The other day, I helped gather together another team of teachers together for another year of offering a free summer camp for middle school students at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site — as part of an ongoing partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory and the City of Springfield school district (focused on a social justice magnet school in Springfield).

This will be my third year as main facilitator of the camp — which we call Minds Made for Stories — and the sixth year of the camp itself, which has been funded over the years through a variety of support from the National Writing Project and the National Park Service, and other local organizations. This year, with no grants and with worries that there might be no camp, the Duggan Middle School in Springfield and the Springfield Armory itself stepped up to fund the work, and I am very grateful.

WMWP and Springfield Armory

The week-long camp takes place at the end of June at the Armory itself, and each year, we change the themes of the experience for the participants. We also have new folks from the middle school involved, as a way to provide more professional development to more teachers.

This year, we are using “Seasons and Maps” as our hook, with each day focused on a season and a historical theme (such as Autumn: Pearl Harbor and Winter: Shays Rebellion), while we work different kinds of mapping activities through the week to visualize history (such as mapping out the immigrant journeys to Springfield during the heydays of the Armory as the main manufacturing center for the US government). Our goal is to publish a Zine of student work at the end of camp.

At our planning session, we did our own mapping — charting out each day’s main events along themes, taking on responsibilities, tasking each of us with some different elements, and after two hours, the camp really took shape.

Now I just need to get through the school year (3 1/2 weeks left!) and then it is right into summer camp.

Peace (in planning),
Kevin