Agate Teacher's WorkshoP June 2015

"In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument opened its doors to seven Nebraska teachers June 9th and 10th for a two-day teacher workshop, Exploring the Bones of Place. The workshop, offered in collaboration with the Nebraska Writing Project, was the first workshop of its kind in the state of Nebraska. The focus was merging place with science making both inviting and accessible to educators and their students.

Activities were centered on and modeled after the Nebraska Writing Project's (NeWP) mission to provide opportunities to improve, enhance and celebrate writing for classrooms and communities across Nebraska. Ranger Fred MacVaugh and NeWP board member, Diana Weis immersed participants in place-based writing activities combining the study of science with creative writing.

Sharing of the Wnter Count Activity

Activities were developed around Agate's rich geologic, paleontologic, and Native American histories. Pieces ranged from creating personal winter counts, writing from primary sources, and examining the works of placed-based writers Loren Eisely and Ted Kooser. One participant found that

"IT WAS EXTREMELY BENEFICIAL TO ACTUALLY DO THESE ACTIVITIES. I have to see and do to understand and implement."

Workshop discussion

Ranger Fred MacVaugh spent both days with the workshop teachers highlighting the park's unique history and leading hikes on the Fossil Hill and Daemonelix Trails. Ranger MacVaugh's passion for the park service and story came to life on the trails as he wove information about the trail's plants and rock formations together with the immense history and legends surrounding the areas within the park.

Hike to the petrified sand dunes on the Deamolinx Trail.

The Cook collection held particular interest to the group as it contained artifacts calling attention to the 34 year friendship between James Cook and Chief Red Cloud. Other highlights included an impromptu lunch visit from Dr. Bob Hunt, a leading paleontologist working with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He shared the extraordinary geographic structure of Nebraska as well as a current overview of the field of paleontology.

Overlooking the Niobrara flood plane.

Time on the trails was spent learning about plants, fossils, and geology. Though the richer moments came when the teachers immersed themselves as writers reflecting on the historical and scientific aspects of the park.

Looking out towards University and Carnegie Hills.

One such activity was the workshop's writing marathon, a common placed-based writing experience promoted by the Nebraska Writing Project.

Small Group Reading on the Writing Marathon

'Writing marathons involve a small group of writers moving together through a landscape, writing and sharing along the way. They help writers draw inspiration from their surroundings and from their fellow writers.'

The writing marathon seemed a favorite among workshop participants as the process brought the person directly into the community and place. The workshop's marathon followed an interpretive hike to Fossil Hills. Excited about both activities, a middle school teacher noted that,


At the close of the workshop, participants left with a sincere appreciation for Agate's geographic, paleontologic and Native American story. Many expressed their appreciation for a fuller opportunity to examine what makes Agate and place-based writing so unique. Jan Knispel, a former educator in the Scottsbluff area, echoed this in saying.


For more information about programs offered through the Nebraska Writing Project or Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, please click on the links below or find us on facebook.

Continue scrolling to read a sample of participant writing from the workshop.

Participant Writing

Deadly Error -Jan Knispel

Yellow Iris Flags

Flow with the Niobrara,

A toxic beauty.

(These iris are contributing to negative impact on the Niobrara environment.)

Writing Marathon - Kristine Denton

What is Fear?

The depths of water

The slither of a snake

The wind whipping your face on the rooftop ledge

The shudder of the plane as the shear whips by

The crack of thunder booming in the night

The whispers and shadows in the darkened corners


The unknown, the uncontrolled, the loss of power

Why do we need these intangible things?

Why is the moment so consuming, so overwhelming, so terrifying?

Why not leap, soar, fly, face these things that stop us from experiencing what we are meant to feel as humans?

Writing Marathon​​​​​​​​​ June 10, 2015

Hello. My name is Bill Wellner. I am a writer.

I find it terribly difficult to write without appealing to a cliché now and then. Right now, I’m stuck on “Use It or Lose It”. Before me is a most lovely prairie flower whose name totally escapes me. The thing is I used to know the names (common and scientific) of several hundred prairie plants but over the years have had little cause to use that knowledge. And now it is mostly gone.

People are often impressed by those around them that can come up with the name of this or that. At least, it impresses me. However, I am quick to tell myself naming and knowing are not synonymous. It’s any easy trap to fall into. We name something and our minds tend to leave it at that. Our thinking stops, especially that kind of thinking that creates relationships and with that, deeper understanding. I think most folks are mostly unaware of this characteristic of human nature.

School and especially the sciences place a high premium on the ability to name things. So maybe the “Name It-Know It Trap” is less human nature and more the product of our educational culture. As I conduct my science classes I try to put it to my students the danger of being able to name a thing. Nice yes, but what else can you tell me (or more importantly, yourself) about this “thing”. What makes it what it is? To me, the better part of science involves learning the “tools” to help come to know something for what it is instead of just being satisfied that it can be named.

Knowing the names of stuff is a necessary first step but it hardly constitutes the end of knowing. After all, “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” The pretty prairie flower by the side of the walking path just is and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sweat on the Trail -- Jan Knispel

Sweat, the magical liquid

Percolates out of the human body

To cool the system.

In more archaic days,

Only men would “sweat”,

Women would “dew”,

Being the delicate creatures

That they were, covered

In pounds

Of linen or wool or cotton lawn,

Masking even more layers of crinoline,

Camisoles, petticoats, stockings, garters;

Of course these delicate flowers couldn’t sweat:

Faint, yes; sweat, no!

I sweat—my personal cooling system

Works abundantly and frequently.

I sweat more on the right side of my face

Than on the left.

I sweat from my top to my bottom.

I sweat between my shoulder blades

And between my toes.

I sweat up and down.

I sweat back and forth

And all around.

I need a shower and gallon of deodorant.

Place Based Writing – Generating investigative science questions

By Kristine Denton

1. What did the environment in the past need to be like in order for these animals to have survived?

2. What features of the bones give you clues to how the animals survived?

3. Why would mass amounts of fossils be found in one single location?

4. What clues are in the rocks that imply what the environment may have been like?

5. How do the features of the bones of fossils compare with animal bones found today?

6. What is the lowest dosage/concentrate of herbicide that can be used to get rid of an invasive species?


Bill Wellner

The man is holding something but it is easily overlooked because surrounding him are mysterious and wondrous relics of a time long ago. Reconstructed leg bones taller than the man. Ribs six feet long form an arch over his head. Gracefully curved tusks seem to sprout from the walls. Wooden display cases protect their contents from untrained hands but invite inspection nonetheless.

And then there is the man himself, Erwin Barbour. Aging but not looking aged. He seems a bit uncomfortable standing there. The composition of the photograph suggests it was meant to be a portrait of the man in the classical sense – surrounded by his life’s work. Barbour was an early entrant in the young field of paleontology and his work did much to put Nebraska “on the map”. Indeed, his work helped to create meaning for these “stone bones” and provided a solid foundation for later researchers to build upon. Classic science!

But it’s what he’s holding in his hand that speaks loudest to who he was. Barbour is holding the object in an almost casual manner and yet it is front and center. Icon? Cypher? Totem? It’s like he’s flashing his membership badge but doesn’t want too much attention paid to the fact. Let those who know, know.

Successful science depends on many things: imagination, questioning, skepticism, and measuring. What Barbour is holding in his hands is a caliper, a quintessential measuring tool of the sciences. Then as now, to do “science” one has to measure some aspect of Nature. Numbers reveal patterns. Patterns suggest relationships. Relationships define the world we live in. Measuring helps us decide when distinctions are also meaningful differences. How else could you make sense of a pile of unarticulated bones whose age exceeds our imagination?

John Cook's Grave - Diana Weis

Sitting here

the wind freely whips my hair

urging me to question

my ability to remain still,

in one place.

Untranslated tales wisp past,

and sail into Cook's restful overlook.

Past, Present, and Forming Future

A vast openness of stories tangle,

preserved within the prairie gale

that formed this landscape with its friend river.

Leaving me

to ponder, to discern

what this spot meant to him,

brought to him

was for him.

My guess ... everything.

Created By
D. Weis

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