Sometimes we need to take a big step out of our daily lives in order to truly measure who we are and who we want to be. This week I have been hanging out in Pennsylvania with an edu-buddy from Coudersport in Potter County, a beautiful part of the world.
We began in Pittsburgh, the Paris of the Appalachians, which had its hey-day when the steel mills were pumping out millions of tonnes a year (and the plumes of dark smoke that so often were the shadow of industrial age progress). Now, a ‘meds and eds’ town its main industries are its universities and its medical research facilities. This seems to be the trend of many post-industrial success stories around the world: find a new industry that focuses on the knowledge economy and run at it with as much gusto as you did the smelters 100 years ago.
One of the most interesting parts of the city was the Cathedral of Learning, an astonishing building built (amongst many other things) by the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who made his money in steel but has left a legacy of learning for the entire city. Libraries, museums, art galleries and music halls arose thanks to his benefaction. The several universities and colleges in the region – the University of Pittsburgh having been established the year before Australia was colonised by the British – show that despite a fairly typical American colonial and industrial history, Pittsburgh has always shown a respect and awareness of the power of learning.
From Pittsburgh we travelled to Cleveland, Ohio, specifically to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This museum oozed cool and radiated the seductive and revolutionary history that was rock ‘n’ roll. It’s easy to forget how truly ground-breaking the changes in history can be, especially when ‘new’ becomes ‘normal’ and then ‘classic’. The fusion of different cultural and social groups, individuals, skills and minds was on true display as the early influencers of rock gave way to the 1950s, the Stones, Beatles and their musical brethren and children. The strands of history certainly knotted, frayed, stretched and split as new forms of rock established themselves based on the socio-political context in which their protagonists arose.
We then drove to Coudersport PA (via New York state – making three states in one day) which I feel connected to even though I’d never visited. Scott Robinson, a local History teacher, and I have connected a class for a Global History Project over the last four years and got the nod to present on it at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia this year. It was fortunate that I was able to come over beforehand to actually meet Scott where he teaches and even meet some of the kids who had participated over the years.
Coudersport is exactly how I imagined a small rural American city. Main Street, amazing scenery, beautiful houses and wonderful people. The streams full of trout, the forests full of deer and other “critters”, it’s a place that has allowed me to take a step back and think clearly after a crazy term. Long walks around a calm environment often with nothing but the singing of birds or the running of water helps shake the mind out of the busy city mental frame. Meeting the locals – including the Star Wars loving DA – and sharing stories with my host family allow me to expand my mind further than wandering around the accents, politics and lifestyle of home. Seeing an entirely different night sky at midnight in one of the darkest spots east of the Mississippi was particularly spectacular.
Recently The Atlantic published a story about the benefits of travel as opposed to the experience students get in school. I’d argue that travelling beyond your own culture is an essential part of being part of any culture. To have a human experience with someone who doesn’t know your language (Australian and American English can be quite different at times), who have different social and political contexts, who count distance in miles, who don’t have a local beach… is all important to know the boundaries of who we are.
I’m very lucky to be able to experience this kind of learning with truly wonderful people. If you have the chance to connect with someone beyond your usual bubble, I highly recommend it. You’ll grow as an educator and as a person, as I know I have.
Whilst I’m very much looking forward to the ISTE conference in Philadelphia, I can’t help feeling that I will have learned something much deeper standing here on the edge of a stream or staring in wonder at the stars above Potter County.
Be sure to check out the #ISTE2015 hashtag over the next few days – lots of learning will be going on.