Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Over the River

Over the River

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated,” wrote T.S. Eliot in the second of his Four Quartets, “East Coker.” Although the poem is not a testament to the importance of learning geography, this line provides an insight into the way children develop a sense of place. At Belmont Day, geography begins with the local and the familiar, gradually increasing children’s knowledge of the places, features, and people of the world.

We approach social studies by emphasizing respect for the locations and cultures that comprise our program, starting with locations that the students know best. A wonderful example of this practice is just reaching completion in second grade, where the students have worked carefully to describe their favorite places. This writing exercise encourages the children to provide rich detail about a spot in their world that is most special to them and to explain why. The purpose of the project is not to generate a list of exotic destinations but to develop a deeper understanding of what makes a place special. As we enter the winter holiday season, many of us are looking forward to spending time in places such as these—places that are important because of memories we hold, or people who live there, or celebrations that occur in those spots.

Thinking about special places gives us an opportunity to reflect on the human element of the world. We can know a place in terms of pure geography: where it is, what it looks like, how far away it is (and if you’re driving to Grandma’s, this may lead to the age-old question, "Are we there yet?"). We can also define a place in terms of time: what happened in this spot in our personal memories, family legacies, and traditions, or, as the 3rd graders' trip to Plimoth Plantation illustrates, we can learn about a place in terms of its broader historic significance. We may, in addition, consider a place in terms of anthropology: who lives here, what do they do, and what is the central nature of their culture? Each of these categories of geography receives its due attention in the course of our curriculum, as our students grow and gain a deeper understanding about what it means to locate a place in the world.

Incidentally, T.S. Eliot’s poem, “East Coker,” is named for a village in Somerset, England, near his family’s ancestral home. Near the end of the final poem in the Quartets, “Little Gidding,” the poet returns to the idea of knowing the world:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

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