Making history, one word at a time

Artifacts that Elizabeth Mosier brings to show students, who write essays to explain how an archaeologist might explain them.
Artifacts that Elizabeth Mosier brings to show students, who write essays to explain how an archaeologist might explain them.
Posted: June 17, 2012

Elizabeth Mosier  is the author of the novella "The Playgroup," part of the Gemma Open Door series to promote adult literacy, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College and in the Pennsylvania Young Writers Day program

"Writers are archaeologists," I tell the fourth-grade class at New Garden Elementary School in Toughkenamon, Chester County, on the school's annual Young Writers Day. "We dig up a piece of experience and study it, then we put what we've learned into words."

This metaphor comes from my own history: four years of washing, labeling, repairing, and cataloging the contents of Old City privy pits as a volunteer at the Independence National Historical Park Archeology Lab. There, I discovered that the point of urban archaeology is ethnography: learning about people from the things they used.

Archaeology is as tedious and absorbing as writing, a process as valuable as its product. As a writer, I teach from my own practice, and so I bring this hands-on lesson to the classroom today.

I show the students "artifacts" from my junk drawers and my husband's art studio: an antique key ring from the Warwick Hotel, a cart wheel, a paint sponge, a brass button embossed with an eagle, a tiny sock monkey, and a blob of melted aluminum shaped like a T-Rex or a praying woman, depending on which way it's turned.

The kids bounce in their seats, raising hands, reaching for the objects as if they're prizes. This, in a snapshot, is the difference between teaching in college and in elementary school: I don't have to teach the kids how to play.

Through this game I don't call writing, students practice literary skills: observing something closely, like scientists, and using sensory detail and metaphor to describe what they've found. To play is to experiment. Just as we aim to get better by playing a sport or an instrument, putting experience into words lets us come closer to the truth.

At the lab, the archaeologists' dedication is evident in the care with which they account for every last button and seed bead, slowly fashioning stories from their findings. The writer's job is similar, translating what the imagination sees into a clear picture for the reader. It takes time to dig deep, to reexamine old artifacts of meaning accepted as valid, to get the story right — or, eventually, less wrong.

The art is in the process, whether the story's being told in the pit or on the page.

I love visiting New Garden, a quarter tank of gas and a world away from my suburban neighborhood. On my way here, I passed old stone houses and faded red barns that confirm Chester County's horsey-set stereotype, and farmed fields and bright taquerías that counter it.

Inside the school, the halls are filled with tempera self-portraits of pink and brown faces (and the pungent scent of fertilizer from the mushroom farms nearby). In the Kennett Consolidated School District, one in five employed people works in agriculture, including Mexican immigrants with American-born children who attend district schools. The school's newsletter is two-sided, its Noticias de la Directora printed in English and Spanish.

I feel at home in this classroom with children named Marisol and Miguel and Javier, especially since my home state, Arizona, seems more distant these days. I'm lucky to be here — traveling with writers brought together by Mary Beth Lauer, the founder of Young Writers Day — because teaching teaches me. In a classroom, I'm reminded that a writer's practice is more than publishing.

In teams, the kids trace the objects, sniff them, tap them on the desktop, and toss them up in the air, studying their artifacts. I circle the room, studying the kids: ponytails, buzz cuts, and Bieber-sweeps; pink-painted fingernails and nails bitten to the quick; T-shirts honoring Phillies players and popular brands; two dozen variations on sneakers and jeans. Would anyone be able to paint a true and resonant picture of these kids just by looking? As a writer, teacher, and amateur ethnographer, I need to hear their words.

"Now pretend it's 50 years in the future," I say, "and you've found these things on the playground. Who left them here, and when? What are they? Were they lost or buried here for a reason? Why?"

And then we're off and running. From these questions arise character, setting, and conflict: the seedlings of kids' stories. Proof that in a plugged-in world, imagination thrives; proof, too, that collaboration changes a story. As the groups plant and prune plot lines, one member — the best listener — scribbles away, selecting and recording, shaping thoughts into sentences.

I've shown the same set of objects to hundreds of students at dozens of schools, and haven't heard the same story twice. As these kids observe and reflect and give voice to their experiences, like all of us, they bring their vision, their interests, and their biases.

Listening to them read their versions aloud, I picture a line of kids extending from the past into the future, passing these objects from hand to hand, looking them over, and assessing what's important and worth keeping. And I'm struck again by how the words we choose to tell a story — our own, our family's, our community's, our country's — make history, a record that future generations will dig up to understand who we are now.

Elizabeth Mosier is the author of the novella "The Playgroup," part of the Gemma Open Door series to promote adult literacy, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College and in the Pennsylvania Young Writers Day program. E-mail her at emosier1984@msn.com.

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