On July 10, Porterdale was the subject of study for a bus load of visiting school teachers looking at mill towns in the South as part of a summer institute, "The American South: Geography and Culture."
The 25 teachers, who hail from all corners of the States, were on a three-day field trip through the Atlanta area and Athens to examine the industrialization and urbanization of the South.
The month-long institute, run jointly by the Tennessee Geographic Alliance and the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, Tenn., teaches about the South through economics, history, geography and literature and is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Geographic Society. It's one of 20 such NEH funded institutes and seminars offered this summer on a variety of humanities topics to further the professional development of K-12 teachers. This is the third time the Tennessee Geographic Alliance received the NEH grant.
Part of the reason Codirectors Kurt Butefish, coordinator of the Tennessee Geographic Alliance, and Charles Aiken, professor of Geography at the University of Tennessee, wanted to conduct this institute was to address some of the misconceptions of the South that people seem to gain from popular culture.
"A lot of people think of the South as it was in the past, not as it is today," said Aiken, who directs the institute's curriculum.
Aiken, who studied the rural South while at the University of Georgia, said he chose Porterdale because it was one of the few mill towns still mostly intact. Mill towns moved from the Northeast to the eastern regions of the South after the Civil War, said Aiken, to employ poor whites who were pushed out of agricultural work by mechanization.
The class arrived mid-afternoon at Porterdale City Hall, where they were greeted by Mayor Bobby Hamby, City Manager Tom Fox and community advocate Patti Battle. Hamby gave an overview of the history of Porterdale and conducted a question and answer session. Afterwards, the teachers explored the Porterdale Mill Lofts, the Alcovy River, and the area around city hall.
Paula Nnamdi, a sixth grade teacher at a Savannah inner-city school, went behind the scenes and talked to some of the workers around the Lofts. "I didn't take the tour that everybody else was taking. I found that more interesting for me," she said.
David Paris, a high school English teacher with the 21st Century Academy, an inner city magnet school in Chattanooga, said he was impressed with the leadership and direction that Porterdale was moving in now.
"I come from a small Southern town. We don't have that advantage. It really takes people with vision to look at the whole, the ends of an era gone by, and see the potential," he said.
Paris, a retired iron worker who became a teacher as a second career, said he applied for the institute because he wanted to understand the changes he had seen in his lifetime.
"I remember a lot of things and they disappeared and I don't really know why," he said. "I was looking for answers."
Nnamdi said she had learned a lot that she had not known, even though she had grown up in the South. But some of that information, especially about the displacement of blacks in the rural and urban South, was distressing said Nnamdi, the only black teacher in the class.
"It's very true, but I felt like, 'What are we going to do about it? What am I going to take to my students?'" she said.
One of the institute's main goals was practical application of the information the participants learned.
For their final project, the teachers were required to present lesson plans that they could use in their classroom incorporating geographic methodologies, such as using mapping software and census data, and information they had learned.
Geography can give a deeper understanding of a topic because it's so interdisciplinary, said Butefish.
"You can't understand history with maps," said Butefish. "You can't understand history without economics. (Geographers) keep in mind many of the humanities disciplines as well as physical geography to explain why things are the way they are and where they are."