Dundalk writers seek atmosphere

January 05, 1992|By Joe Surkiewicz

When students at Dundalk Community College are accepted into one of Dr. Bernadette Low's new writing seminars, they're advised to bring more than books, note pads and pencils when they come to the honors class.

What else will they need? A comfortable pair of walking shoes.

That's because every week the students will be on foot exploring Canton, Fells Point, Federal Hill and other Baltimore neighborhoods. The excursions, called learning expeditions, are a technique aimed at generating enthusiasm for writing -- as well as helping the students polish their skills.

Ms. Low, a professor of English at Dundalk Community College and a 20-year veteran of teaching freshman composition, explains why the two honors writing seminars she teaches include regular trips beyond Dundalk's campus.

"The major problem with beginning writers is their lack of interest, or even dread, of writing," said Ms. Low, who also is director of the Honors Program at the two-year college on Sollers Point Road in Dundalk. "And often, they have nothing they care to express."

That's where neighborhood walking tours and trips to Baltimore museums, cultural sites and historic locations come in. Students explore the city, gather data and evaluate their experiences, which helps them focus on workable writing topics.

In addition, the students learn other valuable writing skills at the same time. "It teaches them to observe more carefully, and see the extraordinary and the ordinary," Ms. Low said. "They learn how to stop and look."

In the "Baltimore -- City as Text" seminar that Ms. Low teaches, students also read selections by Edgar Allan Poe, H. L. Mencken and Anne Tyler, as well as view films showing the city's cultural diversity. Then they select a subject, research it and write a report. "Often, the topic is related to their own experiences," she noted.

The "Engaged Writers and Community Landscapes" seminar, on the other hand, reveals how community values are reflected in architecture and land use.

By visiting different locales in Dundalk and the city -- from Eastpoint Mall to the Inner Harbor -- students enrolled in the seminar learn to examine the human values reflected in buildings. At the same time, she adds, they discover topics for essays -- while having fun.

"That's because exploring the city is a lot more interesting than sitting in a classroom," Ms. Low said. "And it's easier for me to have conversations with my students, which enhances their learning."

By exploring the city, students enrolled in the seminars also gain a unique learning experience that can't be taught from textbooks, she added.

"For example, the students get very excited when we visit the Poe House," she said. "There's a real sense of Poe's being there. The tiny, rustic house has a haunting feel to it."

Ms. Low reports similar reactions from students who visit the home of H. L. Mencken, the late writer and editor known as the Bard of Baltimore.

"The students say they can feel the ambience of Mencken," she recalled. "One said it felt like a writer's house."

"We look at the different kinds of bricks used in residential buildings and how row houses evolved through history," Ms. Low said. "It generates interest in how Baltimore has changed over the generations."

The students also learn how city residents have adapted to urban life: One example is screen painting.

"In Highlandtown, people developed the art of painting country scenes on the screens of doors and windows, which changes a && barren, urban atmosphere into a more beautiful one," she explained.

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