Teaching to the Terroir
A local teacher reflects on his students’ relation to our landscape
Illustration by Chris Reed
Last week a student said to me, “Look at this. I love the Hudson Valley — it’s a brutal, beautiful place.”
He was meeting with me to discuss his term paper for the poetry class I teach at Marist and caught me outside with a cigarette in my mouth. A simple enough claim, I think: brutal and beautiful. The student was from urban New Jersey and waxing poetic on the weather. As I recall, it was a bright Friday and the wind bit and clawed at the upturned collars of students and professors alike. I find, upon any sincere reflection, that teaching in the Hudson Valley is an education in experience as diverse as our environment.
Here in the Valley, I find students of all types. I’ve taught city-folk, fresh little 17- and 18-year-old urbanites unable to fathom the loss of all-night McDonald’s restaurants; I’ve taught students from deep, rural, Midwest towns who feel more at home here than some of the locals; I’ve taught adults three, four times my age and children a fraction of my age; and I’ve taught at high schools, middle schools, summer camps, community colleges, and proper universities. But what always stands out is the sheer variety of people sitting in chairs before me, waiting for a grade or a lesson.
It’s the Valley that allows me to reach into the deeply diverse lives of my students and show them their latent strength. When I teach poetry, I’ll spend extra time on Edna St. Vincent Millay, pushing my students to take a trip to Poet’s Walk and experience the fullness of the Hudson River School. And when I teach other students how to write papers for college professors who care more about a comma than content, I let them out of the classroom and into the world to write from their surroundings. I’ve taken groups of shy first-years into the Huguenot graveyard and pushed them to write as their predecessors would have — romantically about the past and their mortal realities.
More than anything else, the Hudson Valley offers students the chance to learn among an increasingly diverse crowd of people: white-collar workers, blue-collar earners, and veterans, too; working students, adult students, and formerly convicted students. There are rural-born, farming students and, of course, Long Island transplants.
A diverse classroom is a living, breathing creature that follows rules all its own. There are jokes that apply nowhere else and images that incense action or frustration among the cohort. But the conversations we share about our place give all my students a chance to experience more of life, more of the vibrancy of New York. Here, in the Valley, we engender diversity in every county and every school.
That is what makes teaching here such a boon — such a wonder. I have not and will never teach the same class twice, no matter how hard I try to standardize; it simply is not the way of the Hudson Valley.
Jason Weiss teaches English- and Literature-related courses at Marist and SUNY New Paltz. He currently resides in LaGrangeville.