PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Jessica Brogley is rooting out uncelebrated stories from the classrooms of the Driftless Region one episode at a time.
An instructor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Brogley spent the past year producing a now-biweekly podcast that showcases educators from rural Iowa, Minnesota or Wisconsin who have woven into their instruction a sense of place.
“Teachers pour themselves into their work,” Brogley said. “To be able to celebrate that, I want them to know that … their work matters.”
The program, called “Proud Rural Teacher Podcast: Stories from the Driftless,” is one of several initiatives at UW-P that highlights a growing move to place-based education.
The approach stresses project-based, self-directed inquiry; utilization of community resources and resident experts; linkage of local issues to global contexts; and interdisciplinary research.
“Geologically speaking, the Driftless offers an endless supply of experience,” Brogley said. Add to that a rich history and large agricultural industry.
She hopes to inspire educators to leverage the strength of their rural communities in the classroom and foster collaboration.
A few months after her first episode in October 2019, the podcast received a financial boost from the Rural Schools Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that received funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to distribute the program nationally.
Brogley hunts for story ideas on social media, identifying teachers who are engaged in place-based activities.
“Every single time, they are surprised that I either found them ... or that someone wants ‘little old them’ to tell their story,” she said.
Brogley spends about six hours producing each episode, which includes preparing a list of questions, recording the interview and whittling down the soundtrack for a final product of about 25 minutes.
She recently interviewed Erica Manix, a teacher at Coon Valley Elementary School, located in a rural community east of La Crosse. Manix’s students researched the 2018 floods that swamped the area and methods to prevent them.
During their research, they interviewed volunteers through video conferencing apps, an accommodation necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was just a really neat way for the kids to see that their community still supports them even though we can’t be together,” Manix said. “There is so much history, so much knowledge living in the Driftless area.”
Rural Schools Collaborative recently partnered with UW-P to found the “Driftless Hub,” which aims to support rural schools by distributing information and obtaining grants.
This fall, UW-P also will implement a new place-based teaching curriculum for education students. They also can undertake teaching internships in southwest Wisconsin schools.
Jennifer Collins, director of the UW-P School of Education, said future teachers will benefit, whether they teach in an urban or rural setting.
Most choose rural. About 80% of UW-P education graduates end up teaching in such locales and 50% of those do so within 50 miles of the university.
“Why not lean in and own who we are?” Collins asked.
The curriculum also will prepare teachers to identify social inequities and spur change.
Although it is important to acknowledge that resources, funding and staff are often spread thin in rural school districts, Collins said community strengths go overlooked.
“When you come from a small town, it’s like the world exists somewhere else, but that’s not true,” she said. “There are great stories to be told. There is meaning in being part of a rural community.”
Brogley recently interviewed Maquoketa (Iowa) High School teachers Cassie Miller and Matt Lansing. They explored the development of the district’s Agriculture Learning Center, due for completion in May.
Maquoketa faces a declining population of students who are active in farming, the teachers said. Many are challenged by poverty. Miller and Lansing are working to expose young people to agriculture and attract new members to the school’s FFA.
“There are all sorts of different clubs and activities but only one student,” Miller said. “You are having to share that student.”
Brogley plans to produce the “Proud Rural Teacher Podcast” through at least the summer when her grant funding runs out.
“When you grow up and you’re teaching in a rural area, hearing as many voices as possible is impactful for an educator, a human being, anybody,” she said.