What high school kids want

September 4, 2013
Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

“The first reason why I chose to go on this field trip was to miss school. When I got there, I discovered it was actually super interesting.” So said a 16 year-old high school student in reflecting on her day at High School Friday during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

This year is the third year the Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, is sponsoring a free day of programs for high school students at the Wisconsin Book Festival. One hundred and fifty kids will come to downtown Madison on Friday, October 18 for this incredible opportunity to engage in the civic and cultural life of our city. Authors, journalists, poets, multi-media artists, and spoken word artists are bringing their stories and real-world experiences together for a groovy day of exchange, exposure, and memory-making.

The day provides an eclectic mix of voices, perspectives, and ideas that will be thought-provoking and inspiring. I can promise that some of the things said, heard, and seen, will stick in some of those kids’ heads and push them in new, and positive, directions. Humanities experiences make an impact, though the effect tends to ripple and roll and reach into unplanned nooks and crannies of the mind.

We all know that what sticks in one person’s head is not what is going to stick in another person’s head.  Impact is uneven and unpredictable. Some moments, some books, some teachers, some students, and some experiences end up having more impact than others. And that is perhaps the one TRUTH about education.

“The Romans didn’t let people study the humanities, not the people they had conquered. You know that, right?” my husband asked me the other night, out of the blue.

He is one of the most well-rounded, well-read analytical chemists you’d care to meet.  Amazingly, he still remembers so much of what he learned in high school.

He and I proceeded to talk about how the study of philosophy, ethics, and history would be kept from those they wanted to keep subservient for obvious reasons. An educated citizen is a more powerful one, more inclined toward big ideas, more likely to sway opinions, more prepared for leadership roles.

I married a chemist though I somehow got through high school without taking a chemistry class (He is responsible for pouring things in our house!).  I opted instead for languages, art classes, and uncommon experiences. I don’t really remember (m)any of the facts I surely must have encountered along the way, but I grew up to be a true humanist. The humanities in the real world means being intrigued by difference, looking for ways to connect ideas, being curious to hear other perspectives, and staying wary of any fact out of context.

I value those skills and wish them for teens and everyone.

As we crafted the schedule for the annual High School Friday, we were well aware of the Standards that  high school teachers must use to shape their lesson plans. Specifically, the Social and Emotional Learning Standards for grades 9-12:

Respect Others: Students will identify positive ways to express understanding of differing perspectives and use conversational skills to determine the perspectives of others.

Civic Responsibility: Students will evaluate the impact of their involvement as agents of positive change and analyze their responsibilities as positive agents of change in a democratic society.

Yes, bring on the humanities. And the Wisconsin Book Festival! October 17-20, four full days of conversation, inspiration, and opportunity to participate in civil society!

The schedule for High School Friday includes hip-hop and spoken word performers from the UW-Madison First Wave program, female sportscaster and author Jessie Garcia, the dynamic trio of artists/librarians/authors from “The Library as Incubator” project, blog, and book, and multi-media experts from the Madison Public Library media lab. Every participant will go home with a library card and knowledge about how to make the public library a source of continued inspiration, access, and power.

Please contact me by October 1, 2013 if you know some high school students from the Madison area who would like to attend!

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Wisconsin’s Literary Landmarks: From “Our Town” to “Citizen Kane”

March 6, 2012

Wisconsin’s Literary Landmarks

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn, WI

As hard as it may seem at times to give reasons for, there is more to learn about and excite the sentiment in the Badger State above and beyond milk and cheese (regardless of how deliciously impressive) and the Green Bay Packers (notwithstanding stunning Super Bowl success). Wisconsin has produced many influential authors and dramatists and served as the source for many great fictional bodies of work. In this article you’ll take a winding journey, from Pepin to Kenosha, on the path to discover Wisconsin’s unique ancestry of literary landmarks, storybook attractions, and scholarly sites, and how the unstoppable spirit of a few of its residents came to heavily influence the tenor of mythical Americana.

Sterling North Boyhood Home, Edgerton

In Edgerton, Wisconsin, tourists with the most bookish of bents will enjoy  visiting the landmark boyhood home and museum of Sterling North (1906-1974), world-famous author of Rascal, So Dear to my Heart, The Wolfling, and 28 other works.  In 1963 North completed the book Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. Set in 1917 when he was 11-years-old, the best-selling book chronicles a boy’s fondness for and friendship with a pet raccoon in the fictitious “Brailsford Junction.” The home, which is open from April 5 through December 20, Sunday afternoons 1:00 to 4:30 p.m., may be toured by appointment. Refurbished to its 1917 setting, furnished with period antiques, the museum showcases North’s desk, typewriter, photos, books and many family artifacts and memorabilia.

Lorine Niedecker, Fort Atkinson Poet

Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was a poet of eminent endowment whose life and work were long cloaked in anonymity. The introverted daughter of a carp fisherman, she spent most of her life on a flood-riven plain in southern Wisconsin. She was born and died on a marshy spit of land known as Blackhawk Island near Fort Atkinson. The Friends of Lorine Niedecker sponsors a monthly poetry reading in Fort Atkinson, which is rich with Niedecker-related sites, including W7309 Blackhawk Island Road, the location of Niedecker’s writer’s cottage and modest home. Both of which are private property, but access is allowed through an appointment with the Friends of Lorine Niedecker. Other notable markers include: Union Cemetery, County Road J north of Hwy 106, Cemetery Road, the burial place of Lorine Niedecker and her parents Henry and Daisy; 506 Riverside Drive, the home where Lorine stayed during the school year 1917-1918 with family friends; 1000 Riverside Drive , the home where the Niedeckers lived from 1910-1916; 209 Merchants Avenue, the Dwight Foster Library, home to Lorine’s personal library archive; 401 Whitewater Avenue, the Hoard Historical Museum, which operates a room with myriad artifacts related to the poet’s life.

Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, North of Baraboo

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac will be read and revered ad infinitum. This classic, featuring philosophical essays and natural observations established Leopold (1887-1948) as America’s preeminent environmental thinker. Published in 1949, shortly after Leopold’s death, A Sand County Almanac is a masterpiece of nature writing, widely referenced as one of the most seminal nature books ever penned. Writing from the vantage of his retreat shack along the shore of the Wisconsin River, Leopold mixed conservation and wildlife essays, polemics, and memoirs, in what has become a catalyst for the country – and world’s – evolving ecological awareness. “Outdoor prose writing at is best……A trenchant book, full of beauty and vigor and bite…All through it is (Leopold’s) deep love for a healthy land.” So raved the New York Times. The Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm is located near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Purchased by Leopold in the early 1930s, he converted a chicken coop, which he dubbed ‘the Shack’, for his family to spend weekends. Tours of the Shack are offered Saturdays, from Memorial Day through the end of October. Guided tours originating at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center are the only way to access and view the inside of the Leopold Shack.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Birthplace, Pepin 

It appears that every state wants to claim a piece of author Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957). Anyone who watched the Little House on the Prairie TV series knows that Walnut Grove is in Minnesota and there’s a bust of Laura on display in Missouri where she settled in her later years. Laura also lived in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Florida, New York and South Dakota. Near the tiny village of Pepin, Wisconsin, Wilder’s birthplace is commemorated. The Ingalls family lived in a small cottage when Laura was born, in 1867. You’ll find a replica of her log cabin at the Little House Wayside and an historical marker in Pepin Park. Plan on visiting in mid-September to participate in Laura Ingalls Wilder Days.

Zona Gale Home, Portage 

Zona Gale Home, Portage, WI

Novelist and playwright Zona Gale (1874-1938) achieved nationwide popularity as a writer and won the first ever Pulitzer Prize awarded to a female for Drama. Once she gained a niche in the literary world, she returned to her place of origin – Portage, Wisconsin – where she lived and worked the rest of her life. Zona Gale was born in Portage on August 26, 1874, and, barring a brief time in Minnesota, lived there until she entered the University of Wisconsin. At the time of her birth, her father was a Milwaukee Road railroad engineer, working at the time out of Minneapolis. Zona’s mother chose to be prepared for the birth of their first and only child at the Portage home of her mother. Gale first garnered attention for her short stories set in the fictional town of Friendship Village. Published in 1908, Friendship Village proved very well-liked and she went on to write a similar series of stories. Miss Lulu Bett shared best seller honors in 1920 with Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and the adaptation of the novel brought her the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in 1921.

Hamlin Garland Homestead, West Salem 

Hamlin Garland was born in a West Salem log cabin on September 14, 1860. After spending his teenage years in rural Iowa, Garland (1860-1940) became a teacher in the Boston School of Oratory. Between the years of 1885 and 1889 he taught private classes in both English and American literature. Some time was also spent lecturing on land reform in and around Boston, where he made the acquaintance of Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Bernard Show, William Dean Howells, Edwin Booth and other worthies. It was in 1917 that A Son of the Middle Border was published. The next year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For the novel A Daughter of the Middle Border he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best biography of 1921. In 1893, Hamlin Garland bought his parents their first home, called the Hays house, in West Salem, Wisconsin. The homestead, open weekends May through October, came to be known as “Maple Shade.”

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn 

At 9 East Rockwell Street in the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, stands the neat, modest, white Greek Revival style house where composer Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875) lived. He lived here from 1857 until his death in 1875, at the age of 56. Most of Webster’s more than 1,000 songs were penned during this period. Some of his classics are still well-known today. “Lorena” was heard and immortalized in the classic movie Gone With the Wind. Webster’s compositions were eclectic, including music for ballads, religious hymns, nationalistic drama, and a cantata – a vocal composition intended for musical accompaniment and a choir. The house, which served as a stopping point and sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, is open year-round to the public.

Thornton Wilder Birthplace, Madison 

Thornton Niven Wilder (1897-1975) was born in Madison, Wisconsin (at that time a town of eighteen thousand inhabitants) at 140 Langdon Street on April 17, 1897, the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a Wisconsin State Journal editor, and Isabella Niven Wilder. His twin brother died at birth, and Wilder grew up with an older brother and three younger sisters. He took to writing as a youngster, eventually earning his undergraduate degree at Yale, and graduate degree at Princeton. By the time he died on December 7, 1975, at his home in Hamden, Connecticut, Wilder garnered international fame as a playwright and novelist. To this day, his works are translated, performed and prized by audiences worldwide. Wilder’s most famous work, Our Town, explores the lives of people living in the quintessentially American small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It was first produced in 1938 and received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Madison was the first of three “our towns” in Wilder’s boyhood (he lived here until he was eight), and it is indicative of Wilder’s interests that each was academic – Madison, Berkeley, New Haven. Though primarily associated with Our Town, Wilder also earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A small plaque commemorates the birth site.

John Muir Park and Boyhood Home

Father of our national park system, farmer, inventor, sheepherder, explorer, writer, founder and first president of the Sierra Club, and conservationist John Muir (1838-1914) was perhaps America’s most rugged and prominent naturalist. Raised near a little lake outside Portage, Wisconsin, Muir’s family immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1849. They build a home (long since eroded) and started a farm called Fountain Lake Farm; Muir’s formative years in the Badger State instilled a love of nature and land. Muir published six volumes of writings, all describing discoveries of natural environs. Additional books and compilations were published after his death in 1914. Perhaps what is most important about his writings was not their number, but their sagacious content, which continues to hold an influential effect on American ideas and the policies that help to nurture and preserve nature’s elegant habitats. The park is open year-round.

Orson Welles Birthplace, Kenosha

The son of a gifted concert pianist and wealthy inventor, Kenosha’s Orson Welles (1915-1985) proved a precocious child, excelling in music, art, and even magic. By age 16, Welles had set out to make his mark in the dramatic arts. Within three years, he’d entered stage, film, and radio, and by 1941, he’d co-written, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. Born George Orson Welles to Richard Head Welles and Beatrice Ives Welles, May 15, 1915, Welles once said: “I never blamed my folks for Kenosha. Kenosha has always blamed my folks for me.” Built in the 1880s, Welles’ birthplace is a private residence, the front of which holds a bronze plaque commemorating the home town mastermind.

August Derleth, Walden West Festival 

August Derleth (1909-1971) was a prolific writer, publisher, and anthologist. Though best remembered as the first publisher of the horror writings of H.P. Lovecraft, he wrote in several genres, including biography, detective fiction, science fiction, poetry, and historical fiction. Sauk City’s August Derleth Society sponsors a yearly event the second weekend in October, The Walden West Festival. The festival includes satires, musical performances, speakers, a drive to Derleth-relevant sites, and an evening poetry gathering at the writer’s grave. Permanent exhibits linked to Derleth are located at Leystra’s Restaurant and the Cedarberry Inn in Sauk City, the Sauk City Library, and at the Sauk County Historical Society, in Baraboo.

–Brian D’Ambrosio



Lost and Found

February 6, 2012
Kurt Vonnegut UW Madison 2003

Author Kurt Vonnegut speaks in the Wisconsin Union Theater as part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate's 2003-04 Distinguished Lecture Series. Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart.

“If you want your child to be a writer, go bankrupt.”

The theme of the upcoming 2012 Wisconsin Book Festival is “Lost and Found.”  Every year the Wisconsin Book Festival accepts and encourages submissions from writers around the state and the country who would like to present at the annual fest in Madison. Publishers and groups can also submit ideas for authors and events. This year’s Festival is November 7-11.   It is a gathering for creative and passionate voices working and writing today in all genres. The deadline for submissions is March 30, 2012.

I’ve been thinking about writers lately. I’ve been on a kick since I saw “Midnight In Paris,” written and directed by Woody Allen. The main character of the film is quite lost. He then finds his courage and voice by interacting with the “lost generation” of writers living in Paris in the 1920s. It’s a humanities movie, in a fun way!

According to an article by David Kipen in the latest issue of the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, losing a fortune is one formula for raising kids who are writers. He cites various examples of well-known authors who had that experience (like Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck) and went on to make their mark in American literature.

Davy Rothbart at the Wisconsin Book Festival 2007

Davy Rothbart, founder of “Found” Magazine, at a Wisconsin Book Festival event in 2007. Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart.

In Paris or in a daydream, we wander and get lost. We lose a penny, or a fortune. We find hope. We find treasures.

What does the “Lost and Found” bring to mind for you?

Mark your calendars for November 7-11, 2012! Visit www.wisconsinbookfestival.org.

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council

Feeling Inspired?

June 15, 2011

What inspires you?

Is there anything that might make you inclined, for example, to shape concrete into life-size animals? More than once, even, until you had a full yard with horses pulling carts and cows suckling their young? It’s truly astonishing what people can accomplish, and the different things that drive us to spend our energies. I like reading memoirs quite a bit, so when I see a scene like the Wisconsin Concrete Park outside of Phillips, I start to build a narrative in my head about life that led to this point.

Wisconsin Concrete Park is on highway 13 just south of Phillips. Photo by Jessica Becker

As Michael Feldman writes in “Wisconsin Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and Other Offbeat Stuff,” which we keep in the car and which led us to Phillips, Fred Smith isn’t the only concrete-bag toting artist to have created a scene in Wisconsin. It is a medium that seems to work for some inspirations. It wouldn’t work for me, but I can admit to having just made two owl masks from scraps of old clothing purely because I’m charmed by my daughter’s current interest in owls. Mostly it’s the way she says owl so deliberately it has two syllables. She is also very good at hooting. That is apparently enough to inspire me these days.

What about you? Are you inspired by nature? By history? By the things you’ve seen or heard? The people you meet?

What is the difference between inspiration and motivation? I’m not sure. They are not identical, and yet the go together to get things done.

Looking out over the proverbial landscape, people are doing an impressive amount. As I review submissions from authors and publishers for the 2011 Wisconsin Book Festival, I’m amazed by the writing of Wisconsin authors; the breadth, the depth, the diversity of voices. It’s no small task, to sit down over and over and over to write a book. It takes a lot of both inspiration and motivation. Some days, it probably feels like hauling bags of concrete.

Fred Smith was a retired lumberjack who was inspired to realize his vision "for all the American people everywhere. They need something like this." Photo by Jessica Becker

Dean Bakopoulos is an author whom I actually know, and I think he does on occasion haul bags of concrete (at least he used to do dirty work on a horse farm). He is the founding director of the Wisconsin Book Festival and he has a new book out called “My American Unhappiness.” He is spending this summer in Wisconsin and his latest novel is set in Madison. He will be featured at the 10th anniversary Book Festival, October 19-23. In an interview, he says “it seems cliche to say, but my two children bring me more moments of joy than I’ve ever had.” When I see him in October, I’ll ask if they’ve yet inspired him to sew owl masks.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Last minute heads up: You’re invited!

October 7, 2009

I got a call last night from a friend saying there were a limited number of seats left for a special dinner being served at one of my favorite restaurants and she hoped I would join her. It was a hard invitation to turn down!

I had to hold back, though, because for the next five days I’ll be taking in my fill of tasty morsels at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Little bites of literature, presented by the authors themselves. I just get to sit back and savor, like a child hearing a good story read aloud.

For example, tonight.

It’s last minute I realize, but you are all invited to join me for a night of spoken word and poetry, performed by Madison youth, as well as wonderful West African food cooked by the fine chefs as Africana Restaurant. The event begins at 5:30 PM and will be amazing!

The young winners of the 2009 Bus Lines competition (sponsored by the Madison Arts Commission and City of Madison-Metro Transit) will be bringing their original works to the stage, then you can read the poems later printed inside buses around the city.

Also, the winners of Poetry Out Loud, a national program sponsored by the Wisconsin Arts Board, will perform. If you haven’t been to a poetry slam, or heard the voices of teens come alive with passion and pride, this is going to rock your world!

This short film about the national movement to make space in  schools, on public stages, and at festivals such as the Wisconsin Book Festival, for the talents of young people, and the oral tradition of poetry, is worth watching.

If you don’t make it out tonight, there is more! Check out the full Wisconsin Book Festival schedule: http://www.wisconsinbookfestival.com/schedule/events.php

I hope to see you there!

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Finding new things, Inside and Outside

September 29, 2009

I love discovering new things about the place I live.

My husband and I like to walk out of the house without a goal in mind and wander like tourists, finding new things along the way. We call it flaneuring, a verb some friends with a similar passion contrived from the French word with no English equivalent.

The following elaboration is stolen directly from Wikipedia:

[The term flâneur comes from the French masculine noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, “loafer”—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll”. Charles Baudelaire developed a derived meaning of flâneur—that of “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”.]

Occasionally I get the same sort of sensation when flipping casually through books, especially if the book has attractive photos.

Book cover, published by UW Press

Book cover, published by UW Press

When I first picked up Barbara Manger and Janine Smith’s book, “Mary Nohl Inside & Outside,” I felt I’d wandered into a new-to-me neighborhood along Lake Michigan and was peeping into the yard of someone very intriguing.

Mary Nohl, an artist who landscaped her large lakefront property and decorated her house with her own sculptures, paintings, carvings, and designs, is not a complete unknown. The Kohler Foundation owns the estate, which is also listed on the National Register for Historic Places, and Ms. Nohl was posthumously awarded the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

But, to trip unexpectedly into her world through the pages of the book was for me to see a new side of Wisconsin. The book authors write that Ms. Nohl hated being labeled, so I’ll try to avoid it, but she is one of the many less-than-world-known artists who have graced the Wisconsin landscape with magical fantasy worlds of their own creation. The more I stroll beyond the main route, drive off the thoroughfare, the more of these people I “meet.”

Book authors Barbara Manger and Janine Smith

Book authors Barbara Manger and Janine Smith

For those of us in Madison next week, Barbara Manger and Janine Smith, artist and bookmaker respectively, will be presenting at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Wednesday, October 7 from 5:30 – 7 PM at the Chazen Museum of Art. They will be sharing more insight, I’m sure, into the character of Ms. Nohl and her eclectic body of work.

If you are out flaneuring, maybe you will wander in. Or find something else of interest. You never know!

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Countdown to Wendell Berry and the Wisconsin Book Festival

July 30, 2009

Seventy three days from today, Wendell Berry will be appearing at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. Berry’s name catches people’s attention: he is well-loved as an outspoken farmer, prolific writer (he’s written 40+ books), and fierce advocate for the importance of connections between people and place.

Author Wendell Berry will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 PM on Sunday, October 11 (Capital Theater, Overture Center)

Author Wendell Berry will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 PM on Sunday, October 11 (Capital Theater, Overture Center)

It’s “a coup,” writes Jane Burns of 77 Square, an arts and culture Website for the Madison area, to get Mr. Berry to leave his Kentucky farm and speak to his adoring fans.

Sure enough, the Wisconsin Humanities Council has invited him every year since the inception of the Wisconsin Book Festival, in 2002. This year, it is really thanks to our friends at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, that Mr. Berry accepted the invitation and will be making the journey. He will be speaking on the theme of courage at a time when we all need a boost of inspiration to deal with varied challenges.

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”
–Wendell Berry

I’m thrilled that local media are already helping to fan the flames of excitement about Berry’s visit. Being in the business of creating and supporting public humanities programs, I know it’s not always easy to get the attention that events like these deserve.  Big names are the name of the game.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council will host Will Allen in Madison on Thursday, September 17. Location TBA.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council will host Will Allen in Madison on Thursday, September 17. Location TBA.

Will Allen, founding director of Milwaukee’s Growing Power, will also be presenting at a neighborhood-based event in Madison as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival’s outreach this fall. His is another “big name” these days thanks to his work in building an urban farm that serves the surrounding community and that is part of an international movement toward innovative, sustainable agriculture. And, Mr. Allen recently received a McArthur Genius Award.

Together, the star-power names in headlines might overshadow the fact that the Wisconsin Book Festival will have over 50 events, close to 100 authors. But, again, I don’t mind too much. At the Wisconsin Humanities Council, we are used to going under the radar sometimes. The more important thing is that our programs, and events, do what we believe is the most critical thing: use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life in Wisconsin.

For both Will Allen and Wendell Berry, these values are inherent in all that they do.  I am counting down the days, eager to hear what each has to say.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council