WMU Home > About WMU > WMU News

WMU News

Teachers experience America's agrarian past firsthand

July 9, 2007

KALAMAZOO--About 120 history teachers from around the state and country have signed up for a workshop that will have them doing actual farm work using many of the same tools and techniques American pioneers used.

The intrepid teachers will be in Southwest Michigan this month experiencing firsthand the rigors and rewards of such activities as harvesting loose hay and plowing a field with oxen.

"The American Farm in U.S. History" workshop is being offered in three week-long sessions July 8-13, 15-20 and 22-27 and was made possible through a $250,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to project directors Dr. Lynne Heasley, Western Michigan University associate professor of history and environmental studies, and Dr. Fred Dobney, WMU professor of history.

The curriculum was developed by WMU's Department of History and Tillers International, a local tax-deductible educational charity. The grant is part of an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture initiative that supports workshops for K-12 educators. Until now, the funded workshops have focused on specific historical landmarks, but the upcoming local workshop will be much broader.

"The 'Landmarks' grants are very competitive, so we were competing with projects at Monticello and Pearl Harbor, while our landmark is the American farm," says Heasley. "This is research-intensive, hands-on professional development that will give participants news ways of looking at agricultural and environmental history. We've had teachers from as far away as Hawaii sign up to come to the Kalamazoo area and work outside, on a farm, in July. But even if it's 100 degrees, they're going to have a terrific experience studying agriculture in the past and present. We will also be exploring environmentally and socially sustainable food systems during the workshops."

The central site for the workshops will be the 450-acre Tillers International farm in nearby Scotts, Mich. Tillers, which is based in Scotts and operates satellite farms in Charlevoix, Mich., and Wykoff, Minn., works to preserve as well as enhance low-capital technologies and land uses that will increase the sustainability of rural communities worldwide. The organization studies and combines the best agricultural practices and implements of yesterday and today, then teaches the resulting new strategies it comes up with for vitalizing small farms to people from around the globe.

By teaming up with Tillers International, Heasley notes that workshop participants will be able to take advantage of the organization's numerous facilities as well as many of the farmers and other experts who teach the various classes it offers throughout the year. "It's important for WMU to collaborate with local organizations like Tillers," she says. "I think the University should play a role in bringing together people to see the critical environmental work happening in Kalamazoo."

Workshop participants will receive training in animal-powered agricultural methods, household gardening, historical machinery and tools, and farm building design under the tutelage of farmers, artisans, teamsters, architectural restoration specialists, living history museum curators and archivists. Specific activities will include designing Victory Gardens appropriate for school settings; taking field trips to a nearby winery and the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, which is the world's largest cash-to-grower produce market; and working with Sharon Carlson, Director of WMU's Archives and Regional History Collections. New WMU President John M. Dunn, who took office July 1, will be observing the workshop early in the day on Monday, July 23.

The workshop will enable participants to improve their overall teaching as well as the instructional materials they use in class. They also will come away with a better understanding of the changing connections between farming and American life, how agriculture influenced larger events in American history, and how evolving technologies, social conditions, and governmental policies converged on the rural landscape. Several public school teachers from southwest Michigan will be attending the July 16-20 workshop. They will include teachers from Kalamazoo, Hartford, Centreville, Berrien Springs, Three Oaks, Bangor, Wixom, Richland, and Dowagiac.

An acclaimed group of rural historians, some of whom are farmers and gardeners as well as scholars, make up the workshop faculty. Among them will be Heasley, who is a member of the Tillers International Board of Directors and specializes in rural and environmental history and geography; Richard Roosenberg, founder and executive director of Tillers International; and Sarah Stewart, an award-winning children's author and celebrated heritage gardener from Mendon, Mich.

A complete faculty list, along with other details about the workshop, is available online at www.wmich.edu/history/landmarks. For more information about Tillers International, visit www.tillersinternational.org.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, (269) 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

WMU News
Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
(269) 387-8400