Local Communities as Sites of Study: Postcard Reflections of Lancaster

By Amanda Forst

How do our immediate surroundings engage and inspire new ideas through complex content? Can an object inspire questions and provide answers? How can interactive learning stick? What makes content matter? Lifelong learners, academics, and educators are neglecting one of the most accessible ways to ignite interest and create deep understanding: local environments.

In the postcards’ reflections, the grad students expressed joy of discovery, connecting with people, appreciating the previously unnoticed, and realizing a gratitude to the town.

A walk through downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania, can spark a lesson on socioeconomics, infrastructure, art, community, local businesses, pedagogy and more. The Millersville University (MU) Archives found in McNairy Library can provide primary resources and objects that provide information that both inspire important questions and provide meaningful answers on relevant concerns about multiple disciplines. Millersville learners and educators should use our local community and campus archives as sources of study.

A group of graduate students – mostly preK-12 art teachers – benefitted from exploring the MU Archives and Lancaster city during the summer session of 2019 in Art 523: Curriculum Seminar taught by Professor Leslie Gates. As a participant, I learned ways to teach students how to discover knowledge through their own investigation, aside from teacher dictation. The goal of Curriculum Seminar was not to plan out the sequence and scope of our lesson plans for a school year, but rather to engage in philosophical and theoretical ideology that could tie into a variety of classrooms ranging from pre-k to high school to cyberschool. Visual, kinesthetic, and Community/Place-Based Education were covered throughout the course. Each topic focused on each student’s learning content relevant to their lives, both within and beyond the school walls.

ART 523: Curriculum Seminar included phenomenological learning experiences based in the local community, including art-making; collecting images, items, and stories in Lancaster; and visiting the MU Archives. Students were tasked with making postcards that consisted of artwork and written reflections based on the assigned readings and experiences. The postcards illustrate the value in using the locale for sources of learning and teaching.

In this article, I present a compilation of the postcards created by my classmates and me following two key learning experiences: 1. a day exploring Lancaster City, and 2. a trip to the MU Archives & Special Collections. Following the postcards, I provide an analysis of our learning and argue that teachers should not overlook their local communities as sites of study in any discipline.

Exploring Lancaster City

During a day spent in Lancaster City, Dr. Gates gave us three guiding tasks, suggested in Keri Smith’s How to Be an Explorer of the World: collect and document interesting trash, interview locals, and photograph accidental art, such as rust on sidewalks or random arrangements of objects. The following five postcards were created in response to those activities.

Figure 1. Postcard by Nicole Eyster. Text on back reads: “Today was by far the most enjoyable grad class experience I ever had. It was incredible to learn about Lancaster city and want to see where I can fit in to help the South East side of town. Looking for trash and accidental artwork was amazing and I fear I will continue to pick up garbage. I never realized how much you could learn about a town by looking closer at its trash. How could I create a similar experience for my students?”
Figure 2. Postcard by Bre Alba. Text on the back reads: “Day 8: City Tasks. Interesting Garbage. I focused on little details I would otherwise have passed by. I began to create stories for why and how the garbage got there. Local Lore. I did not seek anyone out; instead I had a group of boys approach me from a Catholic Church camp. A wonderful experience to have an unexpected connection to strangers. We prayed and they gave me a rosary. Made me ?. Accidental Art. Finding beauty and conflict in unexpected places. Excited that I could decide what path I would take and was comfortable letting my path evolve.”
Figure 3. Postcard by Ben Nelson. Text on back reads: “When possible, be a tourist in your own city. You’ll be surprised how much you will learn and explore. You will discover places you may have overlooked, dismissed, or taken for granted. Your own street, block, or neighborhood likely has a deep and interesting history you were unaware of.”
Figure 4. Postcard by Mallory VanLeer. Text on back reads: “As I wandered around the city, I found myself getting to know her secrets, stories, moments and culture. It felt familiar and new at the same time. I felt as if I had on rose color glasses. Seeing her in all her glory. My sense of wonder renewed and license to see renewed. This form of connection gave me context in a real and tangible way. Thanks Lancaster!”
Figure 5. Postcard by Jenny Steffy. Text on the back reads: “Today’s class was awesome! We discussed the Villanueve article and to me the most important take-away was that learning can occur anywhere. We need to be aware of our surroundings and communities to engage with our thoughts and preconceptions about them; it was really fun and inspiring to see how much could be learned about an area just by walking/talking/observing. Experience is so crucial to learning and being there firsthand allows various perspective from the learners. Also by placing our communities as a starting place to understand ourselves.”

Reflecting on Postcards by Graduate Students

In the postcards’ reflections, the grad students expressed joy of discovery, connecting with people, appreciating the previously unnoticed, and realizing a gratitude to the town. Using our local surroundings, as a medium for learning, employs our perceptions. The postcards capture knowledge and thoughts through image and text that would have been otherwise lost to the ephemeral nature of time and human memory.

I enjoyed the individual human quality of these postcards. In addition to the topics presented by our readings, I also learned about my peers’ ability to find interest or appreciation in trash and connections with strangers in the Lancaster reflections.

Investigating the  MU Archives & Special Collections [1]

Using local surroundings for learning engenders appreciation of knowledge, ideas, history, and community.

During our visit to the MU Archives and Special Collections, we were joined and guided by University Archivist & Special Collections Librarian, Dr. Marilyn McKinley Parrish. She began by asking us what evidence of our graduate student experience we may be generating while at MU. After brainstorming our possible historical footprint at Millersville, she discussed how to analyze primary sources and supplied us with a variety of historical texts, documents, and objects from the university. We perused and discussed yearbooks, school newspapers (The Snapper), an old travel bag of a past MU student, sketchbooks, and old course catalogs. The visit to the MU Archives is recorded through the students’ thoughts and artwork in the following five postcards. Perhaps they will make worthy evidence and be included in the archives for future students to discover.

Figure 6. Postcard by Heather Stepien. Text on the back reads: “Context. It’s something I don’t pay enough attention to. In the library today learning about MU. Never really thought about MU in this way before. ‘Place’ is easily overlooked and taken for granted. How can I involve my students in learning about the context of our school and other places?” 
Figure 7. Postcard by Jenna Shuck. Text on the back reads: “No tobacco, no fraternization, curfews, no skipping classes, Art. Leslie Jackson. (1928) Perspective. 1920-1948 Getting your fingers on old art department papers, the old smell, the marks that are made on the pages before as it’s faded and discolored but still in pristine condition… It gets my head spinning without purpose.”
Figure 8. Postcard by Luke Gawron. Text on the back reads: “Getting a chance to go through the Millersville archives like that was really neat. I’ve always been fascinated by old books, so it was great to see some example reading materials from different points in time. I was especially surprised to be looking through someone’s old school work. When I got home that evening, I looked through an old portfolio of mine. It’s strange how we can tell what professors teaching methods might be, just based off of sketches and minor paintings.”
Figure 9. Postcard by Jenny Steffy. Text on the back reads: “Loved being able to check out some of the archives and investigating art ed’s history at Millersville. I think it was essential to allow us to explore what we were interested in and not “assign” specific time periods. Again, this reminds me that students love to have the power and freedom to explore what interests them. Great segue into reading Ivashkevich and Gude’s articles on power and democracy.”
Figure 10. Postcard by Nicole Eyster. Text on back reads: “Spending time in the Millersville Library today was a total blast from the past! I was able to find photos of Grammy from 1957 in her yearbook and the Snapper. I have not seen that one for years. I also learned that in 1968 students could graduate with an art degree, not just art ed. It seems like art teachers have been teaching the same content for years without a clear answer of how to change that.”

Reflecting on MU Archives & Special Collections Visit

Employing our local surroundings for learning is an authentic and accessible way to incorporate ideal pedagogy.

In the postcards illustrating the time in the MU Archives, the students displayed their interest in context, the past, self-reflection, and the freedom to explore while enjoying the act of investigation. The act of making art or conducting a science experiment are traditional school activities that use body/mind interaction for cognitive stimulation and provide a sense of discovery through actions and observations.

I appreciated one peer’s amusement about rules of past cultural norms, another’s love of books, and another’s family heritage of having an MU alumni grandmother. The postcards and comments are snapshots into a recorded experience that reveal the ways the educators and graduate students make art, phrase sentences, and express what they find important, meaningful, funny, or interesting.

These postcards serve as an archive of ART 523 – Curriculum Seminar. Being an art teacher can often feel isolating when working at a school with no other art teachers. Participating in a graduate program has gifted me a community of art educators who have similar work-life struggles and motivations as well as intellectual interests. Reflecting through the post cards from ART 523: Curriculum Seminar in the process of writing this article has allowed me to learn from and feel more familiar with my peers. The quality of art and ideas makes me proud and grateful to be a part of this community.

Incorporating Techniques in the Classroom

Employing our local surroundings for learning is an authentic and accessible way to incorporate ideal pedagogy. Using a learner’s community as a medium for learning is authentic because it is naturally relevant and personally meaningful which allows the student to discover create meaning for themselves. The local community is accessible because it is where the students exist. The archives are a treasure trove of historical artifacts available to Millersville University students, staff, and professors.

The role of an educator is to facilitate an experience through which students can learn through their own discoveries.

Applied to a broad educational consideration, one advantageous aspect of using the local for learning is the fact that its accessibility makes it a socially equitable format for learning. Funding disparities should not affect the ability to incorporate community into curriculum.

Exploring a local space or an archival object requires movement, interaction, and observations, providing a sense of spontaneous self-discovery that can be used in any discipline. Using local surroundings for learning engenders appreciation of knowledge, ideas, history, and community; a phenomenon that transcends into gratitude and pursuit for happiness in our everyday life. Facilitating learning while simultaneously encouraging joy is an admirable outcome.

A walk through downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania, can spark a lesson on socioeconomics, infrastructure, art, community, local businesses, pedagogy and more.

Constructivist learning theory states that people learn and construct meaning from their experiences through their physical and social environment (Fosnot, 2005). The role of an educator is to facilitate an experience through which students can learn through their own discoveries. As physical beings, we experience events within our surroundings.

Using our local surroundings is one strategy to make content matter and learning stick. This article describes the benefits experienced from learning through local environments. I encourage you to use your local community and the archives available to you as sources in your own disciplines. Take time to explore the library archives, explore the community, and see what you can discover and learn.


[1] To learn more about MU special collections, go to https://blogs.millersville.edu/archivesandspecialcollections/about/.


Fosnot, C.T. (Eds.). (2005). Constructivism: theory, perspectives, and practice. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Smith, K. (2008). How to be an explorer of the world: Portable life museum. London, England: Penguin.

Suggested Readings

Gregory, A. S. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. The Phi Delta Kappan, 83(8), 584-594.

Lai, A. & Ball, E. L. ( 2002). Home is where the art is: Exploring the places people live through art education. Studies in Art Education, 44(1), 47-66.

Shuh, J. H. (1982). Teaching yourself to teach with objects. Journal of Education, 7(4), 8-15.

Villeneuve, P. & Sheppard, P. (2009). Close to home: Studying art and your community. Art Education, 62(1), 6-13.