Education Guide

Unit 1Sense of Place

Sense of Place

I have been awakened a many morning hearing my daddy’s music on the guitar, violin, or banjo, and my mother in the kitchen. Oh, it just smelled so good, that country ham frying and making biscuits. It’s just been a wonderful life.

Etta Baker
Morgantown, North Carolina

If one of the purposes of education is to help young people make sense of their world, then they can start only if they can define their world. Understanding a sense of place is the first step in that definition. This lesson offers a model for studying sense of place through the eyes and voices of two very different artists from the same state: a Cajun weaver who lives in a rural area of southwest Louisiana and a New Orleans African American Creole costume maker and tradition bearer. Use this lesson or adapt it to study your own region and other parts of the United States by choosing other artists. Use this lesson in creative and expository writing; regional literature; local, state and national history; or mapping, geography and the environment.

How do we know a place? How do our senses tell us about home, community and region? Through the five senses, students explore their own sense of home and community as they examine the strong sense of place that informs some of the Heritage Fellows’ artistry. Whether they have lived in a place for generations or recently emigrated from another country, the Heritage Fellows evoke a strong sense of place in their art forms and life stories.

Cultural Insiders and Outsiders

I love to speak French, Cajun French. When we went to school, they wouldn’t let us speak in French on the school ground. We had to speak English, whether we knew it or not. I think at one time they were looking down on us, and now they’re looking up. They can’t have enough of Cajun style, Cajun food, Cajun music, and Cajun culture.”

Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Duson, Louisiana

We experience life both as cultural insiders and outsiders. We are cultural insiders at home, where sounds, smells, tastes and sensations are specific to our families. We are also cultural insiders in other groups that share common customs, language and other cultural expressions. Cultural groups are defined by age, gender, occupation, religion, region, community and so on. Cajun weaver Gladys LeBlanc Clark is an insider in her small southwest Louisiana town, where many residents grow cotton, speak Cajun French and share customs such as building a trousseau of handmade linens for brides. Someone from outside this region might not understand the language and might come face to face with unfamiliar traditions.

What would a cultural outsider make of our own homes, our communities? What can students make of these artists’ sense of place? Exploring sense of place sends students on a cultural scavenger hunt of sorts, as they search for clues to discover how these artists and people in their own communities represent a sense a place. Students will find clues in speech patterns and language, music and crafts, names and place names, as well as descriptions of landscapes and natural materials that people use in their art forms, occupations, foods, customs and beliefs. An exercise to introduce students to studying sense of place follows. You will need enough local telephone books for students to work in teams and use this ”secret weapon” to unveil clues about sense of place in their community.

Exercises — Cultural Insiders and Outsiders

  • Direct students to examine local telephone books closely. What clues about their community, such as family names and street names, do they find in the white pages? What businesses, restaurants and religious organizations listed in the Yellow Pages give clues about their community? Ask them to consider names as well as types of businesses (Magnolia Cleaners or Pacific Travel Agency, for example). Ask students to create an ad for the local Yellow Pages that would give an outsider clues about community, such as local names, occupations, places and “insider language.”

  • Students will find some Heritage Fellows who describe prejudice they have faced at different times in their lives, when they might have been viewed in a biased way by cultural “outsiders,” for example, Sikidi Conde and Clarence Fountain of the Five Blind Boys. Older students can debate whether such prejudice affected the traditional art forms of these Fellows. They can also study “insider” and “outsider” cultures in their own schools, working individually or in teams to identify and describe folk groups, or subcultures. They can make a glossary of “insider” slang, fads and clothing and hair styles for each group. To deepen their analysis, students can write a script for a video guide on how cultural “outsiders” might perceive each group. What assumptions do “outsiders” make? On what characteristics do they base their assumptions? Students can discuss whether people’s assumptions about a group influence that group’s cultural expressions. A video project can include interviews with students from different groups (see Unit 3 Sense of Discovery for interview tools).

Sensing Place Through the Five Senses

We sat on mats that were woven from the leaves of the pandanus tree and watched the reflection of the sun rising up the east wall of the valley, then dancing on the trees at the very top of the ridge before slowly fading out of sight. I sang my heart out. At that time I felt like we were singing the sun to sleep, so in the morning as he crept over the east ridge with his long shadowy legs, he would be warm and friendly and let us have another good day of swimming and fishing in the stream and doing all the things that little boys do in a day.”

Clyde “Kindy” Sproat
Kapa’au, Hawaii

Reflect back on where you grew up and where you live now. What are your memories of place? Be ready to share your stories of sense of place with students. Ask students first to think about how they sense a place through their five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. What do they see, hear, smell, taste and touch at school? A mini-field trip to observe the school cafeteria will challenge them to use their senses and prepare them for this lesson as well as for fieldwork research with family and community members. Arrange an appropriate time for students to observe. Ask them to be quiet and concentrate on one sense at a time as they carefully look, listen, smell, taste and touch things in the cafeteria. They can take notes in the cafeteria to expand upon back in the classroom, then discuss their findings in teams or as a class. Older students can make these fieldwork observations somewhere outside school and compare them through group or class discussion.

Before playing an artist’s audio samples, ask students to use their senses as they listen. First, prepare by studying the written artist bio; photographs; audio profile, interview or music samples; and video segments of the artist. You might want to accumulate things for students to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. For example, for Cajun weaver Gladys LeBlanc Clark, ask the art specialist for a loom; find pictures of looms and weavers from various cultural groups; check out a recording of Cajun music from the library; have some cotton on hand, as well as a variety of woven things from place mats to shoestrings; make lemonade and cookies; and even invite a local weaver to school.

Below are clues to sense of place that students could find by reading the artist profile, studying the photographs, listening to the audio profile and viewing the video segment of Gladys LeBlanc Clark of Duson, Louisiana. Use these activities as a model for listening to any of the artists and, later on, for assessing students’ fieldwork documentation of family or community members (see Unit 3 Sense of Discovery). Play the five-minute audio profile of Gladys LeBlanc Clark several times in class so that students may listen for different clues to sense of place and concentrate on the five senses.

Exercises — Sensing Place Through the Five Senses


Listen to Gladys LeBlanc Clark’s audio profile. What visual clues to sense of place does she mention?

  • Colors of the cotton thread she uses: brown, indigo blue, white
  • Patterns in different types of her weaving
  • Acadian loom made of cypress wood
  • Sitting with family members as they spun, carded and wove cotton

What else do students envision as they listen? Gladys at work on her loom? Her mother’s hands gnarled by arthritis?

What do we see outside our homes and on the way to school ― farmland or busy streets, suburban parks or mountains? What is the landscape, including housing and businesses, highways and sidewalks, as well as landforms and waterways?


What aural clues to sense of place do we hear from Gladys LeBlanc Clark?

  • Her regional accent
  • Words such as parish instead of county
  • Weaving terms such as card and spin
  • Cajun French

What else might Gladys hear that would “sound” like home? She might hear live or recorded Cajun music in the background, the sound of her loom as she works, the buzz of insects in the long Louisiana summer.

When we wake up in the morning, what do we hear? What is the soundscape of home―the garbage truck on Tuesday in the city, cows in the country, family members getting ready for school or work? What music do we encounter as we go through the day―in elevators or the family car, in music class, in video games or after-school TV? What are the noises of local industry and businesses?


What might Gladys LeBlanc Clark smell if she were sitting on her front porch carding and spinning cotton in rural southwest Louisiana?

  • A nearby swamp
  • Pesticides from a crop duster flying over a cotton field
  • Gumbo cooking on the stove indoors

The air indoors and outdoors smells different throughout the seasons. Smells can help us tell if rain is pending, cookies are baking and different kinds of factories are working. What smells remind you of home?


What foods does Gladys LeBlanc Clark recall from childhood “carding parties,” when she would sit with adults while learning to card and spin?

Lemonade and cookies

Research Cajun food to determine what else she and her family might eat. Cooking shows on TV often feature Cajun chefs, and the internet has many Cajun culture resources such as

Like smelling, our sense of taste evokes strong memories and feelings. A relative’s recipe, our favorite childhood sweet or the salt of the ocean might contribute to our sense of place. Make a list of tastes that remind you of home or of your childhood.


What might Gladys LeBlanc Clark touch that would make her feel that she was at home?

  • Patterns in various types of her weaving
  • Parts of a loom
  • Tightly held seeds in a cotton boll
  • Heat and humidity of the Louisiana climate

Roughness, smoothness, coolness and heat ―what do we sense through touching favorite objects at home? If we close our eyes and think back to childhood, we might remember the itchiness of grass on bare legs, the sharp edge on a jackknife or the soothing warmth of blankets in winter. Close your eyes and think about what you like to touch. What makes you uncomfortable? Choose an object and ask classmates to close their eyes and identify it by sense of touch.

Finding Clues to Sense of Place

I went to a two-room schoolhouse north of the Canadian River, Middle Well School. A lot of big ranches around there. I was exposed to the cowpunchers, and I wanted to walk and talk like them.

Buck Ramsey
Amarillo, Texas

In addition to using the five senses, consider the categories below as factors that you might ask students to consider in investigating sense of place. Others include geography, foods, local history, local legends, landmarks, customs, religion, ethnicity and migration patterns. Look at the clues found in the artist bios, photographs and audio profiles of Cajun weaver Gladys LeBlanc Clark from rural southwest Louisiana and African American Creole costume maker Allison “Tootie” Montana of New Orleans in the chart below. Although both artists have deep roots in Louisiana, they come from very different places.

Exercise — Finding Clues to Sense of Place

Students may use the Exploring Sense of Place worksheet as they research a Heritage Fellow, family member or local resident. Introduce this exercise by sharing and discussing these factors in your own life and in your community and by asking students to consider and share their own sense of place as they go through the lesson. Older students should provide more detail and can design a Sense of Place Spreadsheet to display and organize information on several Heritage Fellows.

Naming Traditions
Names of people, places, buildings and businesses often reveal settlement and migration patterns, historical eras, local history and other factors that contribute to a sense of place.

Dialect and Language
Dialect, language and folk speech vary not only regionally but among cultural groups of any community, from family expressions to regional accents or usages. Hints to sense of place may be found in many of the Heritage Fellows’ voices.

Music, Dance or Craft
A traditional music, dance or craft genre is often specific to a place. Such cultural expressions are influenced by settlement and migration patterns, climate, environment, occupation or religion.

Landscape and the Natural World
Geography, climate and ecology affect a region’s traditional culture, making some materials easily available, for example, or influencing indoor or outdoor customs across the seasonal round. City streets, waterways, mountains, plains ― landscapes also influence how we feel about “home.”

Religion and Belief
Protestant to Roman Catholic, Muslim to Buddhist, people’s religions reflect old as well as new settlement patterns. In addition to formal religions, people’s traditional beliefs underlie their worldviews, their values. Some beliefs might be connected to place, while many more will not be. For example, some cultural groups believe that landmarks are sacred or that the environment contributes to their well-being as well as to their traditional music or crafts.

Some customs are seasonal, some are widespread and others are specific to a family, region or specific cultural group. Customs help us to mark rites of passage and holidays. We pass along our beliefs and values through customary behavior and practices. Examples include Thanksgiving meals, back-to-school night, birthday parties and July 4 parades.

Occupations can tell us a lot about a place. Occupational culture includes work-related skills such as the knowledge, customs, traditions, stories, jokes, music and lore of different jobs. Many Heritage Fellows do not earn a living from their art form and so work at a different occupation to earn a living. Some jobs are specific to a community; for example, Silicon Valley in California is famous for its high-tech industries, and West Virginia is known for its coalmines. Our sense of place includes occupations.

Sample Sense-of-Place Chart

Make a blank work sheet for students to fill out for other artists.

1. Names of People and Places 2. Music, Dance or Crafts
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
French maiden name LeBlanc
Lafayette Parish (Louisiana has parishes,
not counties)
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Cajun weaving
Types of weaving: table runners,
Bed linens
Acadian loom
Allison “Tootie” Montana
Yellow Pocahontas Tribe
New Orleans
Uptown and downtown
Allison “Tootie” Montana
Costume making
Polyrhythmic percussion
Vocal and musical call and response
Second-line dancing
Masking, or masquerading
3. Language and Dialect 4. Landscape and Nature
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Regional accent
Bilingual, speaking English and French
Special terms for weaving such as card and spin
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Rural home place
Cotton fields and gins
Brown, indigo and white cotton
Cypress from swamp for Acadian loom
Allison “Tootie” Montana
Regional accent
Black ”Indian tribe” terms
Allison “Tootie” Montana
City streets and parts of the city
Warm climate suited for outdoor
5. Religion and Belief 6. Customs
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Roman Catholic
Pride in being Cajun
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Making a trousseau
Saying morning prayers in French
Carding parties
Allison “Tootie” Montana
Sense of connection to Native Americans
Gratitude for his father teaching him
Self-confidence in his ability
to make “just about anything”
Allison “Tootie” Montana
Making elaborate costumes
Mardi Gras
St. Joseph’s Night
Super Sunday
Masking, or masquerading
Rivalry with other tribes
Second-line dancing
7. Occupations 8. Other
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Cotton farmer
Cotton ginner
Gladys LeBlanc Clark
Allison “Tootie” Montana
Costume maker
Lather (making wood frames
for plaster forms)
Allison “Tootie” Montana