Teaching Freshmen: Like Blogging in Person

I had a very pleasant experience yesterday on my first real visit to the Ferrum College campus. Unlike Virginia Tech or Redford, I found a parking place immediately and right outside the building I was to go visit! That was a great start.

It was gratifying to see forty students carrying well read (or at least well-worn) copies of What We Hold in Our Hands. But I was reminded what it’s like to try and generate dialogue with first semester freshman–as reticent as ever.

I imagined a world in which it was possible to see another’s thought bubbles — in which case the room would have been, I would like to think, with conversations and questions, challenges and epiphanies.

But like blogging, you put it out there, rarely knowing if it’s generated any thought bubbles or been heard at all. Sometimes you need to say it because getting it out changes YOU–the blogger, the author or the teacher in a silent classroom.

Then, before I had even left campus, I got an email from one student who wanted to tell me how one of the selections from the book had given her courage and hope in the face of change.

With regard to the larger issues of sustainability, these Ferrum students are being exposed to concepts and ways of thinking and planning that did not get up in the radar even a few years ago. They have so little comprehension of how much is going to fall on them to solve problems they did not create. But classes like the one I visited yesterday equip them to ask the hard questions, to look ahead and begin the shift in their thinking towards solutions that are just and which are appropriate for the sustainable future.

I was asked to read something pertinent to the topic of sustainability, and chose an essay not in either book that has to do with our responsibilities to other species than our own. The idea for the piece was triggered at a public meeting where I heard a neighbor, who loves cats, express his distain for “social justice and species rights.” Tilt.

This essay contained the notion of the necessity of a shift in our thinking and values, if we are to have a future where individual and collective well-being are still possible.

From the essay I placed some emphasis on the notion that we will need to move away from the discouragingly-prevalent emphasis on me-here-now and toward them-there-then.

It occurred to me on the drive down that our current political polarization is too a large degree along these lines of division of where we put our center of importance and the direction in which we cast our votes. Is it towards ME or towards WE? Is it focused no more than four years forward, or take a seven-generation point of view? Can we make sacrifices or limit our wants to keep from taking basic amenities from people not like us in countries we’ve never visited?

There is a lot of good energy down the mountain at Ferrum, and I hope to be part of it again in the coming months and years. I appreciate the faculty selection and the warm student reception of my very personal book, my “missionary book” as one reader called it, that would hope to gently and tangentially encourage changed hearts and minds, and movement towards reclaiming our general well-being.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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