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New Geography, English Initiative

By Anastasiia Vorobeva
On February 9, 2017

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In 2012, Dr. Joseph Manzo, professor of Geography at Concord University, came up with a simple but elegant idea to connect teaching of Geography and English classes together. As a result, middle and high school students can learn to understand complex environmental ideas through examples from popular novels. “Environment is a major XXI century problem” he says.

    Soon, Dr. Manzo had got National Geographic Society and Benedum Foundation on board to sponsor a pilot project titled, “Environmental Process Through the Novel: Merging Physical Geography and Literature in the Classroom,.” He started recruiting high school and middle school teachers in West Virginia to join the experiment. 

    By the end of the project in 2016, there were 32 high school and middle school teachers involved from 16 schools such as Capital High, Sissonville High, Morgantown High, George Washington High Princeton High and PikeView Middle to name a few. Each of the teachers was paid $2,500 to go through a week-long training and about four days long stay in Washington D.C. Also, they were provided with the books such as, “The Old Man” and “The Sea,” which were a required read for all schools but the rest were optional. Some other books used for the project were “The Kite Runner,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Hunger Games” and “The Heart of Darkness.”

    The key principle behind the project was to expose students to a novel and environmental processes ideas as collaboration between Geography and English teachers. “Teachers had to share the students, that was crucial. They could do it any way they liked it. They could have a club after school or teach at the same time and bring the classes together,” Dr. Manzo says. The goal was to raise a new generation of better voters. “The assumption is that education is better than no education,” Dr. Manzo believes, “Not everybody is going to be a scientist  but you want better voters, you want educated people voting on issues. The author [of most of the novels] usually gives you a setting, and that setting then allows you to a seg-way of environmental process. So we don’t tell people how to vote, we tell them ‘Look, if you are concerned about extreme weather conditions, this is what causes them.’ So they need to know this is naturally occurring.”

    Dr. Charles Brichford, professor and Division Chair of English at Concord, who was one of the consultants for the project, agrees with the idea that it is important to teach young generations to see connections between events. “Ability to think continuously to see connections is eroding. Anything that reminds people that it is all connected is very worthwhile project,” says Dr. Brichford. It is not the first time he is involved in a project with Dr. Manzo and he likes working with school teachers. “It is always interesting to work with the secondary teachers. They are anxious to get an opportunity to put new things together. The key to this project is the idea that literature always involves other things and other kinds of concepts. Like geography is a thing which has ramifications all over. It shows how interrelated everything is. That’s the point that students need to grasp, especially today,” says Dr. Brichford.

    “The use of novels in the geography classroom represents a long standing tradition,” says Dr. Shimantini Shome, professor of Geography at Concord and one of the consultants for the project, “This grant indicates the support of non-geographers recognizing the benefits of mixing literature and geography.”

    Overall, the project involved nine consultants and professors from Marshall University, Lincoln University, West Virginia State University, and Concord University. Consultants from Concord University were Dr. Joseph Manzo, Dr. Shimantini Shome, and Dr. Tom Saladyga from the Geography department and Dr. Charles Brichford and Dr. Amber Malkovich from English department.

    Now, when the pilot project is over and the reports are written, Dr. Mazo plans to continue the experiment. “We are going after two million dollars now and it is going to be the next stage,” says Dr. Manzo. The results of the pilot project were quite pleasing. Some teachers liked sharing the students enough to keep doing it even after the project was over. That is the goal of such projects, Dr. Manzo believes. He got some interest on participation in the new stage of the experiment from other states such as Michigan, Texas and Kansas. Even though the next stage might expand beyond West Virginia, the main concern is still improving West Virginian education.

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