WMU News

Radio stations nationwide carry
'Voices of Southwest Michigan'

July 7, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- "I am from the sound of church bells that roll through a sleepy town"

"I live next to the tracks. The train comes by every couple of hours. I never hear it"

"My roots are deep and secure"

Describing the places and lives they know, the voices of a number of young writers and teachers from Southwest Michigan will be heard across the country this summer through a special program released by the National Writing Project to radio stations around the country.

"Rural Voices Radio: Writing about the Places We Call Home" features six half-hour programs of students and teachers from six states reading their original poems and essays about life in rural communities. One of those segments, "Digging in the Root Cellar: Uncovering the Stories of Southwestern Michigan," focuses exclusively on writings by students and teachers from schools such as Gull Lake Middle School and area schools in the communities of Gobles and Fennville.

"Rural Voices Radio" is the culminating project of the NWP's Rural Voices Country Schools initiative. Funded by the Annenberg Rural School & Community Trust, the initiative began in 1997 and charged writing teachers at six NWP sites to creatively document life in rural communities through their classroom activities. Those six sites include one each in Arizona, Louisiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Washington as well as the Third Coast Writing Project, which is based at Western Michigan University.

The Third Coast Writing Project's Rural Voices Country Schools effort included team members from across the state, but for the Rural Voices Radio project, the team focused on efforts to record rural life in Southwest Michigan.

"One goal we had was to give a voice to Southwest Michigan," says Corey Harbaugh, a high school English teacher in Gobles and project team member. "Radio seemed a natural way to do that and it has been powerful in ways we could not imagine."

Radio producer Deborah Begel, known for her National Public Radio programs "Selected Shorts" and "Fresh Air," produced the program, with the six sites coordinating local recording efforts. Students submitted writings developed in the classroom and team members and the program's producers selected which submissions would be recorded

"In this project, we were teaching from a sense of place, trying to center the classroom in the community by asking students to learn and write about where they come from," says Harbaugh.

Begel came to Southwest Michigan last year to record the writings in the voices of their authors. In addition, production members drove around Southwest Michigan searching for authentic sounds to accompany those readings.

Among the voices listeners will hear are that of student Meredith Adams, who describes the glass jars her grandmother used in canning, admiring how she would peel the tomatoes, "squeezing them to extract the last drop of summer from each one." At the same time, the teenager admits she wants to "avoid the life my grandmother had" as a mother of seven living on a farm with a husband who controlled all the money.

Elementary school student Mitch Parsons tells of catching a big bass in a simple three-line poem, while 13-year-old Chris Swaim describes who he is by where he is from:

"I am from a little white house on Elkhart Road with loose shutters, wobbly floorboards, cracked windows, yellow walls from smoke, little kids, lots of noise, wherever you go lights on.

"I am from an old blue truck rusted around the bottom, the dash covered with coffee stains. Whenever you leave, you are almost out of gas"

The program's three-CD set has already received high praise from broadcasters, including commentator Studs Terkel and PBS host and producer Bill Moyers. It has been distributed to those public radio stations nationwide who have requested it.

WMUK-FM (102.1) in Kalamazoo will begin airing Rural Voices Radio segments at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 12, during its "Afternoon Edition" program. The station will air a different segment of the program each of the following five Wednesdays at the same time.

Other Michigan radio stations that requested the program include WKAR-FM in East Lansing, WXOU-FM in Rochester, WNMC-FM in Traverse City; WUCX-FM in Mt. Pleasant, and the Sight Seer, a closed circuit reading radio station in Grand Rapids. With the exception of the Sight Seer, which will air the program in August, scheduling information for those stations is not yet available.

Dr. Ellen H. Brinkley, WMU associate professor of English and director of the Third Coast Writing Project, says that the Rural Voices Radio project succeeds in more than just recording snippets of rural life.

"It presents such a sense of what students and teachers can do and demonstrates how good public education still is," she says. "In a time when public education is under fire, people need to know that wonderful things happen in public schools and that teacher leadership is truly the way to lasting school reform."

The Rural Voices Radio program is the second public product of the Third Coast Writing Project's involvement in the Rural Voices Country Schools initiative. In 1998, the project had a book of writings titled "Home and Other Places: Voices of Southwest Michigan," published by WMU's New Issues Press and funded through the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Brinkley and Harbaugh say there is a third product in the works now. Project participants are preparing a book for teachers, designed to share what project team members have learned about teaching from a sense of place. It will include lessons, models and examples of best practices from team members' experiences.

"We want to go public with the things we've learned," says Brinkley.

Harbaugh agrees, saying that place-based education teaches the opposite of what most students believe--that their small town is nowhere and they've got to get out of there.

"It fights the idea that rural is bad," he says. "We want them to see that life isn't elsewhere, there is great stuff all around us and that we must value these places. We're not saying students shouldn't go away, but they should see where they are from very clearly and understand its value."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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