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Scott Riess, NEH Summer Scholar 2015

Literary Place

Lesson Plan by Scott Riess

Note: Place-based learning plans are, by nature, unique to their cultural and geographical context. As you will see, the following unit is quite unique to my students and my school.  Please take any and all ideas you find useful in this unit plan and adapt them to the context of your school community however you see fit!

Class Description


Length of Class Period: 65 min, year long

Class Size: approx. 20

School Context

Rivendell Academy is situated in rural New Hampshire, with students from both Vermont and New Hampshire small towns bordering the Connecticut River. The students are mixed middle- and lower-class. Many families have economic connections to the outdoors (logging, maple sugaring, farming) while others have only a recreational connection (hunting, mudding, snowmobiling). The school currently does not have any curriculum relating to the indigenous Abenaki tribes which lived in NH and VT before being pushed west or into Canada during the 1600’s.

Rivendell Academy has a large grounds, including a swing set (used more by middle school students), a large hill and field, a grassy courtyard with a few dilapidated picnic tables, and a basketball court. Half of the East Wing classrooms have doors that open onto the courtyard.

The school property is also home to the old school house, a three story brick structure built in the mid 1800’s. The building is closed and empty now, but was recently sold and will soon become an elderly living facility. Many students’ grandparents attended school in this building.

Rivendell Academy values project-based learning with authentic audiences for said projects, inspired by John Dewey’s theory of experiential learning. The school was formed 14 years ago and the administration and staff are continuously concerned with creating school spirit and a distinctive school culture. The Principal has pushed for student involvement at all levels of education. This includes clubs and student-run assemblies, as well as students taking responsibility for planning prom and other school traditions. At the end of last year, an anonymous student created an outdoor art installation overnight. The administration was so excited that students were taking ownership of the grounds. Student-ownership of the space they learn in is vital to their respect of said space and their learning experience. When students have agency and ownership of physical space, they feel safe.

Teachers are allowed to take students outside for classes. In my classroom, that usually involves sitting/standing in a circle on the grass and reading or doing an activity. The grounds are lacking a formal “space” for outdoor education, storytelling, gatherings, etc.


I can imagine teaching this alongside several texts I currently teach, but I would most like to create this storytelling space concurrently with reading Wind From An Enemy Sky by D’Arcy McNickle. The novel’s themes of storytelling, as evidenced by Bull telling stories to Antoine, and of coming together to discuss a problem, would fit well with the project, as would the notion of being outside (consider Henry Jim, who tries to live in the white man’s house, but goes outside to die). In Phase 1 of this project, students will research the taking over of the land they learn on by white settlers. They will make connections between that research and the enclosure of the land in McNickle.

Also, the historical usage of the Connecticut River, including ferries and dams, carry weight in connection to the text. I will try to get ahold of the documentary Place of Falling Waters and use it to discuss the real dam which inspired the novel.

I could also see thematic connections to other texts read before or after this one. For one, The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver, a standard of my school’s freshmen curriculum, would serve this project’s themes well, as it deals with notions of home, place, and indigenous oppression. The Bean Trees is the text I use for the thematic connection with the Social Studies westward expansion unit.

For another, Into the Wild, dealing as it does with the idea of creating instead of consuming, of the real and tangible as contrasted with the virtual and theoretical. The story of Super tramp’s life is fragmented, told through various mediums (magazine articles, Jon Krakaur’s novel, Sean Penn’s film, his own sister’s memoir, etc.). Thus, this unit deals quite a bit with myth, truth in storytelling, and other concepts perfect for a storytelling space.

I am imagining class broken into three parts: a discussion of the latest chapter of Wind From An Enemy Sky, a reading and discussion of native stories (in a combined class with my Humanities co-teacher discussing the historical aspects), and a very real planning, designing, and building project for our outdoor space.

For the purposes of this unit plan, I will assume that I am teaching this novel alongside either before or after the other texts and insert connections as appropriate. The Bean Trees and Into the Wild will be taught at some point during freshmen year, so they will inform this project.


Phase 1: Generations Behind (note: Phase 1 and 2 could be flipped, if more logical) 1.Students will research the historical usage of the land which Rivendell Academy is built on, starting with its most recent usage as a school grounds and tracing their way back through history, to agriculture and colonialism, then use by indigenous groups before that. They will utilize their teachers (some of whom taught at in old school building), parents and grandparents, town elders, town libraries, the Dartmouth College library (located close to the school), the internet and any other resources necessary.

2. Students will be arranged in groups of three or four, with each group responsible for coordinating and accumulating research on a specific time period. A few students will conduct research specifically on meeting spaces and on where the Abenaki are now. This is important for erasing the errant notion of the vanishing Indian.

3.Groups will present their research to each other. I will specifically push students to discuss the transition from indigenous to colonist habitation, and how to discuss that through the story space.

Phase 2: Generations Ahead

1. I will discuss concept of thinking with seven generations in mind. I will ask students to answer questions such as, “what do you want in an outdoor space?” “What are some ways in which classes might use the space?” “What will future classes want or need?” and, “How will this impact the school long-term?”

2. Students will brainstorm and even informally poll the school for ideas on the storytelling space and create a list of requirements and wants.

3. Students will brainstorm ways in which the space could acknowledge or honor the previous uses of the land in layout, materials, artistry, sustainable building practices, etc. Students will navigate the complexities of past use by two different cultures and honoring the original use of the land while acknowledging the encroachment of white settlers in the 1600’s.
 4.Students will each design their own mockup of an outdoor storytelling space, including a sketch with general sizes, possible materials needed, and a written rationale. As they design, students will be mindful of the original use of the land and the later use by English settlers. Will they design a circle, representing the idea of a story as circular (as opposed to the western linearity)? Will they include paintings on the seats with symbolism or representations of important concepts? Will their design acknowledge the Connecticut River, flowing just a hundred yards away? Will they include plants and vegetation, rocks, shade covering, interactive elements, etc? Importantly, how will they acknowledge the current state of the Abenaki? Each student will decide and present their mockups to the class.

4.  Students will discuss, debate, and potentially vote on aspects of each other’s mockups to come up with a final plan. This process will be messy, but important.

5.  Students will prepare and rehearse a formal proposal, to be delivered to the principal, the building and grounds manager, and the superintendent for permission and to the school board for financial assistance. In said proposal, students will discuss the rationale for an outdoor space to be used by classes to come, its connection to the land and the Abenaki tribes of the upper Connecticut Valley, and its importance to literature.

Phase 3: Let Me Tell You a Story..,

1. I will enlist my father, Mike, a construction business owner and excellent carpenter, and one of his workers, Buck (who attended Rivendell Academy, or “generations behind”) to assist in the purchasing of materials and construction of the space. A smaller group of students, Mike, Buck, and I will convene at the school for several Saturday work sessions in order to build the space. In addition to directing students and teaching them basic carpentry, landscaping, and other skills, my hope is to get Buck to tell some stories of his time at Rivendell, when it was much different than it is now (though some of the teachers are still the same. My students would love to hear about Mr. Reichert fifteen years ago!). I will provide lunch. I have a feeling this aspect will excite my mechanical and carpentry-minded students, the ones who are usually turned off by English class because it’s not “real” enough for them.

2. When the work is done, students and adults will sit in the new space and tell stories. I will ask my father to tell some stories about working construction with his father, and I will tell some of working construction with my dad. I would encourage students to tell stories about working on something, or learning something, from their elders.

Phase 4: Going Forth

1.  In class, students will finalize the project (painting, signage, etc.).

2.  If the students think it appropriate, they might plan a formal opening or dedication of some sort.

3.  Students have one more task: to connect with Native families in the community, Native tribal councils in Vermont and New Hampshire, and southern Canada, and investigate what the state of Native Abenaki tribes in northern New England is currently. This includes how people live and how tribal councils govern, including their relation to the state governments. It is important that this, like other research in this project, be undertaken by students. Student-led investigation garners deeper involvement, and teaches a myriad of secondary skills (interviewing, researching, professionalism) along the way.

4. The project is finished! I will bring students outside and use the space for reading, discussions, writing exercises, and of course, storytelling. The meaning and thought put into the project will be collected and disseminated several ways; in written reflections during and after building, in a story in the school newspaper, in a write-up in the trimester newsletter home to parents, and hopefully in a story in the local paper.


Research presentation Mockup and presentation School board presentation Storytelling space Written reflections Newsletter and newspaper story 

Division of Duties

Students must be broken into various committees (since we will have already read Lord of the Flies, students will be cognizant of inter-personal issues in democratic settings!).

Committees include:

Historians/research committee (past and future)

Public relations committee

Construction committee

Other committees as needed

Note: Most major planning will be done by the full class.


Students need to get outside! How can we learn about Indigenous literature, or any literature, inside two walls (remember the Sami quote from Harold’s PowerPoint?). Students will combine learning history with literature and with creating a storytelling space, emphasizing the connection between history and stories in indigenous cultures. Pedagogically, this is a holistic learning unit, underpinned by several different modes of knowing which are traditionally separated in secondary education. Furthermore, this unit allows students to take an active part in creating community in their school and contributing to said community and its future. Most assessments have an authentic audience.

Montana Office of Public Instruction’s Seven Indigenous Essential Understandings:

2. There is great diversity among individual American Indians as identity is developed, defined and redefined by entities, organizations and people. A continuum of Indian identity, unique to each individual, ranges from assimilated to traditional. There is no generic American Indian.

Through reading Wind From An Enemy Sky, students will understand the cultural practices of the Little Elk tribe, a fictional group created by D’Arcy McNickle which nonetheless is based on the history surrounding the Kerr dam.

3. Additionally, each tribe has its own oral histories, which are as valid as written histories. These histories pre-date the “discovery” of North America.

Through the Phase 1 research, the unit will provide students an opportunity to uncover the unique oral histories of the Abenaki tribes of the Connecticut River Valley.

5. There were many federal policies put into place throughout American history that have affected Indian people and still shape who they are today. Many of these policies conflicted with one another. Much of Indian history can be related through several major federal policy periods: Colonization/Colonial Period 1492 – 1800s

Through the Phase 1 research, students will grapple with the Doctrine of Discovery and the Colonization period responsible for the change of land use.

6. History is a story most often related through the subjective experience of the teller. With the inclusion of more and varied voices, histories are being rediscovered and revised. History told from an Indian perspective frequently conflicts with the stories mainstream historians tell.

This entire project allows native voices to be heard authentically, both through D’Arcy McNickle’s novel and the Place of Falling Waters documentary as well as through students’ research.


Works Consulted

Brown, Willy. "Tour of Payne Native American Center." NEH Orientation. NEH. 24 June 2015. Lecture.

Lipscomb, Brian. "Kerr Dam Lecture." Kerr Dam Site Visit. NEH. Tour Bus, Flathead Reservation. 9 July 2015. Lecture.

McNickle, D. Wind from an Enemy Sky. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1988. Print . The Place of the Falling Waters. Montana Public Television, 1991. Film .

Wilson, Michael D. Writing Home: Indigenous Narratives of Resistance. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2008. Print.