National Writing Project

Horn Island and Beyond: Mississippi Teachers Find Inspiration for a New Curriculum

By: Mary Ann Smith
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: Mary Ann Smith recounts her visit, along with 15 others, to a remote, uninhabited island off of Mississippi—where artist Walter Anderson spent long periods painting and writing—for the purpose of contemplating harmonic learning.

 

Undeterred by mosquitoes or the thought of alligators, teacher-consultant Connie Roth immerses herself in her writing as a participant in the Horn Island and Beyond project.
My backpack is ready to go when the knock on the door comes at 3:30 a.m. Sixteen of us assemble on a dock for our boat trip to Horn Island, Mississippi, where artist Walter Anderson lived, wrote, and painted for part of his life. Anderson's focus on place—in this case a remote, mysterious island—mirrors that of so many in the National Writing Project who write about places called home.

I have been forewarned of the alligators, water moccasins, and mosquitoes on the island, not to mention the stingrays and bull sharks in the surrounding waters. For a moment, I wonder why I said "yes" when Elaine White, director of the Live Oak Writing Project, asked me to serve on the board of advisors for the Horn Island and Beyond project. Maybe, I think, I should have simply read what was required about the artist and submitted book reports.

The island trip, it turns out, is the equivalent of the writing portion of the summer institute, when we write to understand in our bones what our student writers experience. Here, 12 miles offshore, we will try to learn what Walter Anderson experienced as a writer, artist, and student of science. The plan is to use Horn Island as a launching point for what writing project teachers do: immerse themselves in the learning at hand, share with each other, and create new ways of thinking—particularly thinking about how all learning is interrelated. James Moffett called it "harmonic learning." From this learning, Live Oak Writing Project teacher-consultants have a goal: to create an integrated curriculum for elementary classrooms, one that combines writing, art, and science, and that invites writing about place.

I take up residence in a tent with NWP Field Director Sherry Swain, our 12 gallons of water, and sacks of nuts and dried fruit. The island lacks a restaurant or, for that matter, amenities of any kind. For three and a half days, we will make do.

Our group includes Diane Ehrman, the master naturalist who designed the Horn Island and Beyond project. A year ago, Diane came across an article about the Live Oak Writing Project in the Biloxi Sun Herald and called Elaine White with an invitation to partner with her on the project. Diane's initial concept was to craft wilderness experiences for teachers to inform classroom lessons about the environment and conservation. When she read that participants in the Live Oak Writing Project Summer Institute wrote for real purposes and audiences, that they even wrote outside the walls of the institute, she made the match.

Also with us is John Anderson, the artist's younger son. John was the first ranger on the uninhabited island and knows it well from childhood trips with his father. He talks eloquently about his father's life on Horn Island and about his singular passion for nature and art. "He was the most uncompromised man I know," John tells us, as he prepares to leads us on our nature walk.

The Life and Work of Walter Anderson

Born in 1903 in New Orleans, Louisiana, American watercolorist Walter Inglis Anderson studied at the Parsons Institute of Design in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His informal education took place in France and Spain before he returned home to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to begin his career as an artist. Recognized today as a prominent artist, Anderson spent long periods of his adult life on an uninhabited barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, where he wrote and painted, inspired and entertained by nature. Paintings from his collection are now on exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. His logs and subsequent writings about him reveal his struggle to attend to both his art and his family. They also portray a man smitten with nature and with writing: "I think writing has a cleansing effect," Anderson claimed, "and although it is easy enough to keep the body clean, the mind seems to grow clogged" (Sugg 154).


We strap our bodies with writing pads, cameras, bug spray, sunscreen, and water. Many of us wear whistles around our necks in case of emergency: As impressed as I am with the life of Walter Anderson, I'm prepared to compromise if nature intrudes too near. We take off for the center of the island, stomping our way through swampy areas, waving our walking sticks from side to side, apparently to ward off the snakes. I have no confidence in this technology. Right before lunch we spot our first alligator in a freshwater lagoon. For some mysterious reason, my Mississippi colleagues find delight in this discovery. They whip out their cameras and binoculars as I march on by. I hear them calling to me, but I do not circle back. We run across our second alligator on the return to camp, proudly sunning itself on shore. More cameras and more shouts of joy. Someone gives the alligator a name. I fantasize a shower in a tiled indoor spot.

The sand is perfectly white on Horn Island, and the gulf water is warm, even in mid-October. Never mind that we must shuffle our feet along the ocean floor to warn the stingrays of our approach. This is the stuff of which resorts are made.

To cap off our adventure, we try to hunker down through a night of unfettered 35-mile-an-hour wind. The tents flap angrily, and several sprout wings. Ours implodes. We scramble to anchor it to the sand with gallon jugs of water. The moon moves ever so slowly through the night. I check it every five minutes or so and recall that Walter Anderson slept under his overturned boat on occasions like this one. Even Thoreau had a cabin.

But we also have our precious times—our campfire gatherings—when we talk about our teaching. I listen in awe, not just to descriptions of craft and of beloved students but to the passion, not unlike Walter Anderson's. These teachers know how to bring the stars in the sky into their classrooms; they know how to teach students to be storytellers, even as current tests negate the value of stories; they know how to use the sticks and shells they are collecting on the island for lessons in art, writing, and science. These are the kind of teachers who spend Sunday afternoons in their classrooms preparing for the week ahead.

For us, Horn Island turns out to be a physical "third space," described in Lieberman and Wood's book Inside the National Writing Project (2003) as a space that is not confined to one set of walls or another. Specifically, the National Writing Project exists outside universities or schools, allowing the strengths and concerns of both to be represented. In the case of Horn Island, we take advantage of the "web of relationships" created by the writing project and the fact that the NWP provides "opportunities for people to collaborate both formally . . . and informally, through interpersonal contacts" (88). Our contact, while brief, is another mirror of what happens when writing project teachers get together.

Indeed, writing project teachers are the perfect choice for the Horn Island and Beyond project. Yes, they know how to develop curriculum. Yes, they know how to compile their ideas and theories into new and better classroom practices. What's more, they know how to listen to children, to nature, and to each other, and they know how all these connect.

Best of all, they write at the croak of a frog. Here on the island, 16 of us scatter for hours on end, finding privacy for writing, drawing, and painting. Inspired by John Anderson, who reads to us from his father's essays on pelicans, and surrounded by monarch butterflies and 250 kinds of birds, we feel the urgency that Walter Anderson must have felt—to capture the moment, to make the most of every bit of life around us.

Two years after our trip to Horn Island, these same teachers are preparing to introduce a draft of their curriculum project to participants at the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL) conference in June 2005. At this conference, titled "A Gathering in the Mountains, Celebrating the Life and Work of Jim Moffett," they hope to get honest responses to their initial effort of creating academic materials for schools. But they also intend to share their experiences of harmonic learning—the joys of working together, of letting other distractions fall aside, and of bringing their individual perspectives to a common endeavor.

References

Lieberman, A., and D. Wood. 2003. Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting Network Learning and Classroom Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sugg, R. S., Jr., ed. 1985. The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

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