Episode 21: Bare Bones: Place-Based Teaching Through Stories of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

January 27, 2021

A partnership between the Nebraska Writing Project and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument has developed the park's paleontological, geological, and early history of the plains stories into a series of workshops designed for teachers. In this episode, teacher-participants share how the workshop series evolved and impacted them as place-based writers and educators.

Plainstate: The Podcast, sponsored by the Department of English, is a podcast about the humanities on the Great Plains and beyond featuring interviews, stories, people, and places.




Thank you for listening to the Plainstate Podcast, a production of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. This special episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project.

You are listening to NWP radio, a production of the National Writing Project. This podcast episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project and made possible with a grant from the National Writing Project-National Parks Service partnership: supporting place-based learning and collaboration between National Writing Project sites and our nation's National Parks.



Welcome, listeners to this podcast, “Bare Bones: Place-Based Teaching Through the Stories of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument,” created by the Nebraska Writing Project as part of the National Writing Project and National Parks Service partnership. We'll get started by introducing ourselves.


Sounds good, sure. My name is Alvis Mar. I’m at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. I serve as Lead Park Ranger, meaning that I am responsible for the interpretation and education programming here at the National Monument.


Hi. I’m Jan Knispel. I’m a retired English teacher from Valentine High School and an adjunct professor for the Mid Plains Community College extension campus here in Valentine, Nebraska. My first Nebraska Writing Project institute was in 1986, and I have been a Nebraska Writing Project board member since 2006. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Diana Weis and Alvis Mar at the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, at the Homestead National Monument with other National Park Service rangers, and currently planning for a river experience known as a “river float” for the high school students at the Niobrara Scenic River with the National Park Service rangers here in Valentine, Nebraska.

WEIS: I’m Diana Weis, 5th grade teacher at Willa Cather Elementary in Millard, and I’ve been with the writing project since 2004 and I’m one of the lead teacher consultants involved with the National Park Service partnership, beginning with Agate in 2014 and expanding into Homestead.

Today, our podcast will examine the rich platform our classrooms and National Park units, like Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, offer place-based teachers. In this podcast, we will be focusing on the collaboration between the Nebraska Writing Project and Agate Fossil Beds; describing how we develop the paleontological, geological, and early history of the Plains stories from this park into a series of workshops designed for teachers; and we'll give an outline of our initial work and show how we built our yearly workshop centered on place.

Before we jump into our partnership with Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, I would like to share with you one of the writing activities that we used in the very first teachers workshop that we did with them.

We had taken the group up the Fossil Hills Trail to not only identify fossils, but to begin our writing marathon. And to start that writing marathon, we began with an adapted exercise from the book Into the Fields by Sobel [sic].1 We asked the participants to choose a space and a view that intrigued them, and they wanted to examine a little bit more—as we are asking you to do now with a pen in a notebook—and to draw the horizon line as they see it from their perspective.

When we were at Agate, we were above the horizon line, so it kind of put it at an interesting level. You can change your horizon line by sitting on the ground or whatnot, but go ahead and draw that horizon line. Once you have that filled in, begin placing in the detail above the horizon line. And when you're satisfied with that, you can begin to complete the detail below the horizon line, coming all the way up to you. You might even want to get really specific with a plant or an object that is close to you. All the while that you're doing this, you can either fill in words that come to you, either on the picture in the margin or on the opposite page, that just kind of pop up as you are drawing.


Be sure to note elements like the wind; the temperature; animal sounds; anything that comes into sight. These images and words can act as your writing, but they can also act as a pre-write to a larger piece.

Later in this podcast, Jan and I will share with you the poems we wrote to this exercise at the Agate Workshop back in 2015.

MAR: The genesis of this program had begun the fall before I had even started at Agate Fossil Beds in July 2014. Diana and one of the former park rangers here, Fred MacVaugh, discussed the opportunity to offer a teacher's writing workshop here at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. As a former elementary and middle school classroom teacher myself, this concept certainly caught my attention, and thought it was an easy project to invest in. We saw this program aligning with the call-to-action goal of connecting with and creating the next generation of park supporters and advocates. It was a way to connect new audiences with the National Parks, while showcasing Agate’s stories through writing.

WEIS: For those of you who have not had the opportunity to visit Agate Fossil Beds yet: Agate is located in the panhandle of Western Nebraska. It’s on the opposite side of the state from Omaha/Lincoln. It is twice as close to Denver, at four hours, than it is to us. It is a very unassuming park. It has one visitor center that is nestled in the basin of the Niobrara River. It has two trails: one, the Daemonelix Trail; one, the Fossil Hills Trail. But as I discovered on that walk with Fred, it has so many layers of culture and history, so it was really a no-brainer that the Writing Project link up with the Park Service to work with teachers and students in writing.

The park superintendent at that time was James Hill, and Robert Brooke was the writing project director. When we spoke to each of them, they felt that way, too. And that's pretty much how it started, true to writing project form: meeting the needs of teachers and interests of teachers and students.

As Jan and I have been through this project, we've come to just love being involved in it. It really has—even though the parts of Agate that I can bring back directly into my curriculum come late in my year—it really has reframed how I teach and how I think throughout the year. And I think that's an important part of being involved in these workshops. However many teachers have been out there in a workshop, you come back with a different perspective, and it's due to that different feel out at Agate. There's this presence—

KNISPEL: Mm-hmm.

WEIS: —this sense of calm that you carry back along with; this origin tale of the beginning of the river from there in the beginning of the grasslands from there; or even the story of Homesteading and pioneers. The place invites you to just rest and soak it all in.

KNISPEL: I think for myself, because I grew up in South Dakota and have taught all my life in Nebraska, that there's a certain sense of peacefulness and calmness and appreciation that comes to a person from being able to walk out on a patio at 7:30/8 o'clock in the morning. And if you haven't heard a meadowlark call at that time of day, or you haven't seen antelope or other native species wandering by as you're standing or enjoying your thing—libations, coffee, or whatever it is you have—I don't think you really can get the feel of the place as well as you can when you're at Agate. There's just a contentment that comes over your soul when you're in this place.

And then, when you move to the visitor center—where we have our writing experiences, and our historical experiences, our geological experiences—you're just overwhelmed by the fullness of information and experience that comes to you. But there, it's just like you're almost forced into a cognitive dissonance of what you knew versus what you've learned, and the problem becomes How do I get to share everything that I have experienced with other people? And of course, you can't share everything. But by having our National Park Service–Nebraska Writing Project teacher experiences—and hopefully, in the future, student experiences there—that we're able to share at least a modicum of all of the things that we have taken in as people experiencing this particular park.

MAR: Can I go back a little bit to just flesh out a little bit more about what you and Jan were talking about? In my experiences with visitors at this park and other parks, anytime you immerse them into multiple-modality experiences/multi-day experiences, they really have a different perspective or a fuller perspective after the experience. And so, they do care more for these places. And it's not unusual that people from all over the world experience National Parks in that way—whatever that National Park is.

WEIS: And Alvis, we get the feel that Agate Fossil Beds is a different kind of landscape—but it also holds a different story. Can you kind of encapsulate the story in the history of Agate for us?

MAR: (laughing) I will try my best to do that in a few sound bites. Basically, this National Park unit was established as a National Park because of its fossils. The fossils here are not dinosaur fossils. They're ancient mammal fossils from about 19 to 23 million years ago. Just to put that into context, dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, so these are much younger; but these are also much older than what people in the 1800s were familiar with. When the fossils were discovered here and studied by major universities and natural history museums from across the country, it was really significant. They didn't know about this time period, in between 5 million years ago and 65 million years ago. So, when these were found, it was a big deal. You have this huge gap of 60 million years that people didn't really know much about.

When the fossils were discovered here in the late 1800s and discovered to be mammal fossils, scientists from all over the country came to Agate Fossil Beds at the invitation of the Cook family. I mentioned the intersection between the natural resources and the cultural resources were really important here. James Cook and the Cook family—Kate, his wife—were central in the discovery of the first fossils here. They had friends who were paleontologists that gladly came here and excavated and found these great treasures. But there's these hidden stories of the homesteading time period of further scientific investigation, and so he didn't want to have any one organization or any one scientist monopolize the whole place. That's why so many different organizations were able to come out here.

Going back to the central figure of James Cook, the other major theme in topic of fossil beds is the story of the friendship between Red Cloud and James Cook. Red Cloud, the renowned Oglala-Lakota chief, had come into contact years before in the late 1800s, and the two developed this great friendship. Red Cloud came to the ranch—to James Cook's ranch—quite a few summers in a row in the late 1800s early 1900s, and they were two old friends that told great stories and continued to tell great stories. But Red Cloud also invited other Indian friends, and whether they were Lakota, or Northern Cheyenne, or Northern Arapaho, they came here. And one of the great things about friends is, when you go visit a friend, you usually bring a gift. So, these Indians came bearing all sorts of gifts that are in the collections in the galleries here at Agate Fossil Beds.

It's an unusual National Park unit, because it has such rich history and resources in both science and cultural history. I hope that encapsulates the stories here. (laughter)

But of course, within the National Park, there's also the natural history. When you talk about the animals—the modern-day animals, the antelope, or the birds, or the porcupine; the invasive plants trying to kill off the native plants, and the park service helping the native plants trying to regain that foothold in the landscape; that's what we do. That's what we, as the National Park Service, do at all these National Parks.

WEIS: With a park as unique as Agate, we wanted to capture that in the workshops, as well. We knew that the park itself is about 32 miles from the nearest hotel, and 50 miles from the nearest supermarket, so we decided a half-day would be needed for people to travel from the park. So, our first workshop was a day-and-a-half workshop, and we focused on exploring the bones of place: the geology of the Daemonelix Trail, partnered with the paleontology of the Fossil Hills Trail. We did a timeline writing project or activity with the winter count, as well. It was kind of a smorgasbord of activities that first time.

We found out that it was incredibly short and hard to put everything that Agate is into a day and a half, so our second workshop we opened up to two and a half days, and we narrowed the topic to exploring the language of fossils. We kept the overall structure somewhat similar to the first, with immersion in primary resources and artifacts, writing marathon, study of place-based writing from Kooser and Eiseley, and also getting out into the field. What followed every session that was led by a ranger or a speaker was a writing activity led by Writing Project teacher-consultant. But what was unique about this time is that Dr. Hunt, Professor Emeritus of Paleontology at UNL, joined us at the beginning to give us an overview of Nebraska's unique history as an inland sea and a fossil bed, and where that falls in the realm of world paleontology. The museum curator did a fantastic job pulling artifacts from the collection for us to look at, and write with, and write to, and write about. Adding some Nebraska authors such as Kooser and Eiseley was just icing on the cake.

What's amazing about a park like Agate is, once you get there, you uncover other pieces, as well. So, as we worked with the rangers and developing ideas for our next workshop, this story of women came up. And we decided to do our third workshop series, or third workshop, on women of the West. Because of the topic, we altered our presentation style a little bit, inviting women presenters out—one of which was Gretchen Meade, who is the great-granddaughter of James and Kate Cook and also the family historian. She was generous with her time. In the stories she had, whether it be about the actual true story of the homesteading or how Susan B. Anthony came to Wyoming, were fascinating.

KNISPEL: Within that workshop, we included women from the Cook family, Kate Cook, in specific; women who are Native American artists, to represent the Native American history of the area. We went to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to the Red Cloud Heritage Center, and met with a woman who was a traditional Lakota artist. She spoke to our group about the various art forms that she creates based on her traditional cultural background. We had a female paleontological preparator from the University of Nebraska speak to us about the paleontology-history and the geography of the area, and it was an extremely enlightening and enjoyable experience, I think, for everyone who was participating.

MAR: So, this year, we wanted to reach more teachers. One of the factors contributing to the lack of local participation—especially from the teachers in the Sioux County, where Agate Fossil Beds National Monument—is that many of the teachers are also ranchers, so they aren't able to attend summer workshops due to ranching obligations. To accommodate, this year, we took one of the writing workshops to them. The Nebraska Educational Service unit here in the Panhandle organizes an annual teacher professional development day on President’s holiday. They invite teachers from the 21 different school districts in the Panhandle. Between 1,000 and 2,000 teachers normally attend the concurrent sessions in the Scottsbluff–Gering area. We proposed a writing project style workshop, so the Educational Service unit invited us to present two two-and-a-half hour sessions in which we would expose teachers to the writing project methodology, and also provide some actual hands-on experiences that they could take back to the classroom, using Agate Fossil beds as source material and stimulus to writing. We had some great discussions. We integrated the paleontology, the natural sciences, and the cultural history aspects of the park with different writing activities and writing modalities that were also ready to be carried back into their classrooms. That was a great success. In fact, the workshop evaluations revealed that the teachers wished that they had more time to write—which is not a bad problem to have.

These sessions served as an invitation to a teacher and student writing festival in the park that spring, to experience writing embedded in actual place. We also had arranged to bring the Nebraska State Poet to Agate to participate in this special session. Unfortunately, we had to cancel that program due to COVID-19, but we look forward to doing it in the future years.

WEIS: Whichever workshop we were planning, we tried to target three main or central pieces. The first one was, of course, to immerse the teachers in the history; in the culture; in the place of the park. The second was to provide writing experiences that not only enhanced those stories of the park, but that were immediately reproducible within the classroom. And the third was to try to meet the teacher not only as an educator, but as a writer, as well.

To help reflect on these, we've invited some past participants from the workshops to share their experiences.

Brenda Larabee teaches in Stuart, Nebraska, and to say she teaches English might minimize it a little bit. She teaches computers; one-act; speech; drama; 10-12 English; she kind of does it all. She attended the Women of the West workshop and is sharing two of her favorite immersive experiences from it, as well as how she brought it back within her classroom.


One that really stood out for me was when we were visiting with the paleontologist Ellen Stapleton, and she was talking about how we were able to read the landscapes of the artifacts and things that were there at Agate. We walked around the day that we were with her, and studied, talked, touched things at the park that she was describing. And that study of paleontology never really crossed my mind, because as an English teacher, I just pretty much I’m stuck in that thought about literature and writing, but not actually historical or–Paleontology didn't actually cross my mind. But after listening to her, and the passion that she had for studying the landscape and the fossils, using that phrase “reading the landscape” is what made me wonder what other kinds of things I might be leaving out of my reading curriculum. Because it wasn't just words that we needed to be reading; it was also other types of material.

I wrote a lesson that incorporated reading within the parameters of paleontology and asked the students to write so that they could share that experience of reading the landscape. The lesson starts with really small nuggets where you look at a picture, or you look at rocks; ideally you want to be outside doing it, so that that they actually can pick up and touch items and really observe them, much like we did at Agate, where we were able to see the items close up and then write about that item. And sometimes, when we think about writing about those kinds of things, we write more about observations; but if encouraged a little bit, we can actually create a historical piece like we did at Agate. We imagined what it would have been like when the flooding happened, and the animals’ fossils then lay in the riverbed. The students can be encouraged to pull those imaginary things back into their writing. They can really write great historical fiction pieces that they can play on what they see and observe, but also add their own details.

My first memory of that is we are so eager to see inside this house that Gretchen had told us about because of the historical importance of this house where the Native Americans had trusted their artifacts to the Cook family, and they had been celebrating. She, Gretchen, had told the story of the birthday party, and just those moments—it was so exciting to be invited into the house. And once in the house, then, we sat and visited for much longer than I thought that we were going to be able to be welcomed, and Gretchen was just so warm in receiving us and we just had the most delightful conversation. The things that she remembered from the house, and she toured us through, and we got to see the places that were in the clip that she had shared with us. I can't remember the publication that it was in—

WEIS: It was in the Nebraskaland—and the story was called “A birthday with the Sioux.” I do remember us reading that story and just falling in love with the perspective.

LARABEE: Well, I felt like, as we read it, and Gretchen listened to us read, just watching her face as we were reading, and seeing her acknowledging nods, and just the smile that was on her face recollecting about being in that experience firsthand. I think hearing the words spoken back to her from the piece really moved her, and therefore created that bond between all of us being in that space at the same time and sharing that moment.

WEIS: Tess Sykes teaches English at the Henry Doorly Zoo Academy program here in Omaha. It's a program that accepts students from area high schools who are interested in studying STEM through the lenses of science, math, and English. Tess has attended two of the workshops out at Agate, and has also served as a teacher–ranger–teacher. She speaks on her experiences there and how they framed her teaching.


As a person, not only the place, but the people who were there—the fact that there were science teachers, and there were English teachers, and there were rangers, and there were scientists, and there were there were families who were connected to the land and to that space for generations—being in that environment and hearing the positivity, and how other people were working with our students, and the overall love for students and students learning, was really inspiring to me as a teacher. I really feel like both experiences at Agate really helped me fill my bucket, as far as being a teacher, and really focusing on students in that way.

The place in my teaching—oh my goodness. There is just so much there, whether it be the paleontology, or the archaeology, the history of farming and ranching in Nebraska. And the Cook family did such a fantastic job of preserving so much. There are so many resources there. Really, I thought what it answered best for my students, as well, is that we read a lot of literature or classics from authors who came from back east, and there's not as much focus on authors who are from where many of my students are from, here in Omaha or Nebraska. The volume of material available from the Cook family that the Nebraska Park Service helped me to collect—to help my students—was a fantastic resource. That is just invaluable to helping students understand really where they're from, and the amount of materials that are available for them to work with right here.

I have to admit, I have loved so many of the activities that we've done in the workshops, that when I am looking for something—or when I’m struggling to figure out how to connect students—I go back to many of the activities that were introduced at the different Agate workshops. And not only that, but I want to make sure and note—at the first workshop, I was introduced to a book called Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching, published in 1996 [sic].1 A lot of the activities that I use in my classroom, or the basic ideas for them, come out of that book. Very close to my heart, I think.

(Sighs) I don’t know. I think you get so much more out of it than the miles you put into it to get there. I think it's an experience that that everyone should have, and I think that they are so willing to help you get the tools that you need to be able to connect your students to the whole spectrum of their place—I mean, if Omaha is one side, Agate is kind of the other side of the spectrum—and to know that there's everything in between. To pick them up and try to show them someplace completely different, yet home, is a fantastic opportunity, and the people are so willing to help you do that in any way that they can, that I can't say enough of it.

WEIS: When we talk about meeting the teacher as an educator, it's a bit obvious, but when we talk about meeting an educator as a writer, it's a little bit more nuanced. It really allows people to cut to the essence of place and kind of own that as their own experience.

Read-arounds were always incredible and community building, and we didn't want people to leave thinking they didn't have access to that, so we built anthologies—digital anthologies—at the end of every workshop, containing photos and pieces of the participants writing so that they could look back as time that they spent not only for their students, but for themselves.

Since the purpose is really for the teachers to experience the place as a writer, then carry it back, I thought it would be appropriate that we would share some of our writing.

KNISPEL: Yes. This poem that I’m going to read for you is called “Reading the Rest,” and it was inspired by the geological and paleontological experience of finding a fossil, and thinking about how that fossilization, and finding a fossil, is indicative of a bigger life experience. This is called, again, “Reading the Rest.”


Living separate and unread
lives the breadth of what we
don’t know is
infinite and
The landscape of geological formations
such as a popcorn kernel,
the cause of the wrinkles
about your eyes, the biological
process of infection, rejection,
cure–thought to be understood
is so much more vast than my
mind can claim.
The layers of soil so definitive
that a geologist can locate its
identity and origin but not
understand the vagaries of
the woman next door who
doesn’t answer your hello.
We are the sum of
our geomorphicization:
nature versus nurture
Love lost; love gained
and the layers of our lives.

WEIS: Thank you, Jan. Hearing you say that—writing, as we know, really helps cut everything down to the important essence, and maybe that's part of the beauty; we allow people to cut to the essence of place when they write. And sharing that. So, in equal embarrassment, I will share one of my pieces. (laughter) This was—we were up on the hill, and there were these very, in Nebraska, very wispy striated clouds that kind of stretched, and they matched the striations of the rocks. Hence, it's called “Striations.” But it goes like this:


Striation after striations of clouds stretch across the Agate horizon, wrapping themselves into the bone bed. Here, the wind carries the story of place, sediment by sediment, over the top and down the advancing edge of rock, and it is left to us with untrained eyes, to decipher its message through the rock, through the plants and through the soil around us. Us, and the chatty flies.

KNISPEL: I always enjoy hearing people read what they wrote.

WEIS: I know, and reading it in the places is wonderful, too, but it does take you right back there, doesn't it?

KNISPEL: Yeah, it does.

MAR: Certainly, with the excitement that you two bring to the National Parks—not just here at Agate, but also at Homestead and Niobrara National Scenic River—I think it really has taken off. And it really has shown not only the Parks Service, but shown the different writing project folks, at even the national level. It sounds like that there's a lot of potential that people are hungry for these in-depth opportunities, whether it's for professional interest or for that personal interest. So, yeah. Good, good work.

WEIS: Yes. Yeah.

KNISPEL: I agree. I agree



Plainstate is produced by Robert Lipscomb. Post-production by Stephen Ramsay. Music by Shadows on a River. On behalf of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, thank you for listening to the Plainstate podcast. Tagline forthcoming.