Deborah Fallows

Deborah Fallows is a Fellow at New America. She is the author of Dreaming in Chinese and co-author with James Fallows of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
  • ‘A River, Not a Border’: Report From Brownsville

    From the Brownsville side, the wall. On the other side is the Rio Grande, whose centerline marks the official border between the United States and Mexico in this part of Texas.
    From the Brownsville side, the wall. On the other side is the Rio Grande, whose centerline marks the official border between the United States and Mexico in this part of Texas. James Fallows / The Atlantic

    Brownsville is the southernmost U.S. border town with Mexico, down at the very tip of the map of Texas. Across the Rio Grande is Matamoros. Some 20 miles to the east is the Gulf of Mexico. If you drive 60 miles to the north and west along the Old Military Highway to McAllen, you’ll see stretches of border wall, irregular in their size and design. It was very hot when we were in Brownsville last month. It reminded me of Nanjing, one of the so-called furnaces of China, where the soles of your sneakers sink into the soft tarmac of the roads.

    Elon Musk has built his SpaceX site on the road from Brownsville to the coast. It is an assembly site for now, in a clearing that looks like half moonscape, half desert, with giant, surreal, bright-silvery sections of rocket being welded together. The plan is for rockets to launch from here one day. Just beyond SpaceX, the Boca Chica road fades to sandy coastal beach. It feels like the edge of the Earth.

    Border Patrol agents cruise the highways and roads around Brownsville. One afternoon, as I was driving the highway north from downtown, a silent ambulance cruised by, with a Border Patrol SUV, caked with dust and dried mud, right on its tail. I realized that I didn’t have a clue of all that was really going on in Brownsville.

    At Elon Musk’s SpaceX, near the coast outside Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Some things about Brownsville are easy to see. The buildings of the downtown—many tattered now, featuring discount goods for the cross-border shopping market in Matamoros—still have great bones, as the architects say, and are waiting for their second chance. Brownsville was too poor to raze those buildings when businesses went dark, an obvious advantage now. (As we have seen elsewhere.)

    Downtown structures with “good bones” on Washington Street in Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    A hip pizza and wine bar called Dodici opened recently in the old Fernandez building downtown. One of the owners is Trey Mendez, a lawyer who was just elected mayor in a runoff contest while we were visiting. The Market Square area is newly renovated, as part of a downtown-revival program under the mayor for the previous eight years, Tony Martinez. Brownsville has an outsize number of museums, including the Historic Brownsville Museum, which is a real gem. The Mitte Cultural District boasts “something for everyone,” with its zoo, pool, pavilions, playhouse, and much more. RJ Mitte (who played Walter White’s son in Breaking Bad) is of that Mitte family, and is carrying on the family philanthropic efforts of his grandfather. Other buildings are works in progress. More are still pipe dreams.

    Sam’s Pool, at the Mitte Cultural District (Courtesy of the Mitte Cultural District board)

    Of course, you cannot miss the border wall. The wall near downtown’s Gateway International Bridge has been there for about 10 years, long enough that the landscaping and vegetation along its river pathway and the Alice Wilson Hope Park on the U.S. side have grown in to looking normal.


    On our first evening in Brownsville, when the heat of the day had subsided a little, Jim and I decided to walk across the International Bridge into Matamoros. How could we not? We had no chance of entering the detention centers that have become so notorious in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border. We wanted to have at least a look at the routine daily flow north and south.

    Our crossing was entirely simple and uneventful, of course, just like it is for residents of both Brownsville and Matamoros who cross the bridge daily for school, jobs, shopping, dinners out, or visiting friends and family. (Brownsville’s population is roughly 95 percent Hispanic, and many people have long-standing ties across the border. The interconnectedness of the two cities’ lives is the central theme of an acclaimed recent novel set in Brownsville: Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares. When we were in town, then-Mayor Martinez gave us a copy of the book.) Along with a small handful of people also making the trip on foot, we deposited four quarters in the turnstile and pushed our way through to Mexico.

    Headed toward the Mexican side of the border on a Sunday late afternoon (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    I looked up and down the river, assessing it with my swimmer’s eye, thinking how surprisingly narrow and benign it seemed, maybe 50 yards wide. The river was dark and muddy, not in the least inviting, even in the heat. The Rio Grande appeared to have no current. But of course we all know that surface appearances can deceive, as they most certainly did in the horrific episode when Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez of El Salvador and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross it not far from this spot, a few days after we were there.

    The Rio Grande, between Brownsville and Matamoros (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Brownsville residents, who have lived all their life as part of a binational community extended on both sides of the river, have a different sense of the border from those for whom it’s an abstraction. “We don’t think of it as a border,” we heard from so many people that we stopped counting. “We think of it as a river.” I realized that it was just the way those of us who live on the border between Washington, D.C., and Virginia think of the Potomac.

    Beyond these impressions of Brownsville, there are data points that are more quantifiable. This is where the public-health issues come to the forefront, and they are stark. (My thanks to The Atlantic’s Faith Hill for help collecting these data.)

    The foot traffic headed back north across the border, toward Brownsville, on a Sunday evening in June (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Some 51 percent of the adult population in the area are obese; an additional 34 percent are overweight.

    Of children 8 to 17 years old, 54 percent are obese, compared with about 33 percent nationally. Joseph McCormick, until just recently the dean of the Brownsville campus of the UTHealth School of Public Health, wrote in an email: “These children have higher BMI, higher waist to hip ratios, higher systolic and diastolic blood pressures, higher triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), lower HDL (good cholesterol); They had higher insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), and elevated liver enzymes suggestive of fatty liver disease, a very common problem in our population in adults.”

    Some 27 percent of adults have diabetes, about three times the national level. About one-third of those with diabetes didn’t know they had it before being tested.

    Only 42 percent of Brownsville’s population have some kind of health-care insurance.

    For more positive comparative news, life expectancy in Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is about 80 years, four years longer than the national average.

    And Texas has one of the country’s lowest rates of death from opioid-involved drug overdoses: 5.1 for every 100,000 people, compared with the national average of 14.6.

    Brownsville is a poor town; nearly 31 percent of the residents live in poverty, 38 percent of children. The median income is $35,000. Some 87 percent of schoolchildren in Cameron County qualify for free or reduced lunch.


    I had lunch one day to talk about these statistics with Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a medical doctor who grew up in Brownsville, trained in Dallas, and returned to practice medicine. She soon turned to public-health advocacy and added a new role as an elected city commissioner. Gowen framed her thinking, advocacy, passion, and action plans for her hometown this way: “We traditionally think we need economic development and education, and we’ll get to health later or afterwards.” She added, “But later may be too late, and putting it off hinders progress in economic development and education as well.”

    Gowen is part of Brownsville’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), a network of more than 200 Brownsville residents and individuals from health-care, education, business, and community groups, and the UTHealth campus, which, with its newly appointed dean of the campus, Belinda Reininger, has been key in the founding and support of CAB. All together, they are pushing toward building a healthier population and lifestyle, in a very Brownsville-specific way.

    A map of Brownsville’s ambitious hike-and-bike-trail network, part of an effort to promote fitness (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Every community we have visited for our American Futures project and our subsequent book, Our Towns, has focused on the “local” as its guide and frame for plans and actions. In Brownsville, that eye on local seemed to us as compelling and powerful as in any other community we have seen, and maybe even more so. Sometimes “local” means a focus on physical assets, or geography, or demographics, or industry. In Brownsville, as we listened to citizens talk, “local” seemed to be mainly about culture.

    The culture of Brownsville was the backdrop to their master plan for health and wellness—and many other town issues. “We are fighters. We stand by our family. We are proud. We may be poor, but we do not think of ourselves as just poor. We think of ourselves as blessed to have our families, customs, and region surrounding us.” And Gowen added in talking about outsiders’ impressions of Brownsville, “You don’t hear that on the news.”

    Those traits translated into action. Brownsville is not looking or waiting for top-down solutions and proclamations. Members of its community decided to: make local-government regulations that support their goals. Get smart about seeking funding, from the government, foundations, and nonprofits. Not let rebuffs from big funding stop them; take it step by step; and find corners to improve. Educate the public and brand the message “Health and wellness.” Become a model for success.

    This kind of positive, panoramic, inclusive approach is one we’ve seen in niche initiatives and big plans in many of the towns we’ve visited. Libraries in Bend, Oregon. Arts and entrepreneurship in Fresno. Education in Greenville. Downtowns and Main Streets everywhere. Workforce training and new industry in Mississippi’s Golden Triangle. The entire town of Eastport, Maine.

    The restored Market Square in downtown Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Through its many initiatives, the Brownsville Wellness Coalition is all about healthy food and healthy bodies.The Community Gardens program teaches gardening classes and distributes free transplants and compost. Five gardens hold nearly 200 beds.

    People can buy produce from the weekly farmers’ market with cash or with vouchers from federally subsidized programs such as SNAP, WIC, and the Farm Fresh Voucher program, especially important in this low-income town. Plans are under way through a coalition of funders to renovate an old town cannery, the Gutierrez Warehouse, into a permanent home for the farmers’ market. When finished, the Quonset hut plans also call for accommodating a food bank and a “kitchen incubator” with a commercial kitchen for small food businesses. And for those who can’t get to the farmers’ market, the Fresco Mobile Market food trucks may come to them.

    The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre holds classes on nutrition, food preparation, and healthy eating.

    And for the bodies, the Wellness Coalition sponsors a walking-group program, the Walking Club, with motivational support and progress tracking.

    An annual challenge program organized by the city and the UTHealth School of Public Health, and drawing help from local gyms, nutritionists, trainers, and other experts, encourages not only weight loss, but also sustainable lifestyle changes toward better health. Nearly 7,500 people participated in the three-month program this year.

    The monthly CycloBia closes some Brownsville streets to cars and opens them to the 10,000 participating residents to walk, bike, skateboard, skate, and run.

    (Courtesy of CycloBia and the city of Brownsville)

    And for the timid, who may be the most reluctant to begin, the UTHealth School of Public Health has prepared online resources, Tu Salud Si Cuenta, where people can tiptoe into exercise and healthy eating and weight loss privately and solo. I found the stories poignant, and brave, and ended up rooting for them.

    Brownsville is also part of a multiuse-trail program (bikes! paddling! hiking!) throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley that will link several towns, beaches, preserves, waterways, and cultural sites over 400-plus miles, incorporating as well a dream of tourism potential.

    Is any of this working? According to McCormick, the rates of obesity and diabetes have dropped about 3 to 4 percent in Brownsville in about the past five years.

    Abraham Avila outside his 1848 BBQ. He regularly runs along the city hike-and-bike trail that goes right past his restaurant. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Trails through downtown Brownsville already give lots of folks options for daily commutes to school or work or, as in our case, a visit to 1848 BBQ, a slow-cook barbecue named for the year Brownsville was founded. As one who spent about five years living in Austin and got my graduate degree from the University of Texas, I feel that my Texas bona fides and palate entitle me to shout out Abraham Avila, the chef of 1848. Yeah, lots of calories, but sitting right on a hike-and-bike trail, you can worry about working it off later. It’s worth it.

  • When Small Towns Take the Big Stage

    A collection of Our Towns players from Ajo, Arizona; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Columbus, Mississippi. From left to right: Morgan Adams, Ben Speggen, Erin Williams, Ferki Ferati, Dairian Bowles, Stuart Siegel, Emily Siegel, Deb Fallows, Jim Fallows, and Chuck Yarborough, standing in front of the Chautauqua Institution's Hall of Missions.
    A collection of Our Towns players from Ajo, Arizona; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Columbus, Mississippi. From left to right: Morgan Adams, Ben Speggen, Erin Williams, Ferki Ferati, Dairian Bowles, Stuart Siegel, Emily Siegel, Deb Fallows, Jim Fallows, and Chuck Yarborough, standing in front of the Chautauqua Institution's Hall of Missions. Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

    The longer and farther that Jim and I have traveled with our earlier American Futures reporting in The Atlantic, and then with Our Towns the book, and now for this new Our Towns project, the more frequently people have asked some version of these questions:

    We admire how Greenville has rebuilt its downtown and Main Street from seedy to spectacular, but how do we do that? Or, Fresno had some creative ideas that had a big impact on its schools, but how can that scale? Or, Ajo, Arizona, came up with a master plan of reinvention that worked for a tiny desert town, but how do we come up with a version that would work for us in the Plains, or on the water, or in Appalachia?

    We’ve been thinking about comments and questions like these for quite a while now. And we’ve added some of our own. How can one town learn from another, very different town? Are there best practices for reimagining libraries or downtowns or health clinics? Is there a way to broadcast the successful messages with a bigger megaphone? How can we connect the people we have met, and how can we amplify their messages? In essence, how can we “biggify” this entire endeavor?

    In early July, we had the chance to try out one answer. We went small for starters, to “just get the puck onto the ice,” as one of our new friends said. We were at Chautauqua for one of the institution’s week-long summer sessions, this one on the theme of community. Right up our alley.

    The Hall of Philosophy (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

    Thanks to the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the chance to bring together people, in the august setting of the Hall of Philosophy, from two of our favorite places—Ajo, Arizona, and Columbus, Mississippi—along with our friends from Erie, Pennsylvania, just down the road from Chautauqua. We wanted them to meet one another, to share their stories with the appreciative Chautauqua audience, and to see what might happen as a result.

  • A Public Library Brings Opportunity to the Blind

    A shelf holds children's books in braille
    Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

    The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library system, is in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. It looks like another storefront, opening onto a sidewalk with overhead construction scaffolding, like so many buildings in New York City these days.

    I have visited many, many public libraries around the U.S., but I had never visited a braille library. So when Jim, my husband, and I happened to be in New York City in early June, I grabbed the chance and took Jim with me. We saw sighted and blind people entering—moms pushing strollers, younger people who looked like students, older people coming to bide their time. And we learned about yet another way in which modern libraries are serving their communities.

  • A Regional Approach to Rural Health Challenges

    Boxes of food awaiting distribution from 'God's Storehouse' in Danville, Virginia
    Boxes of food awaiting distribution from 'God's Storehouse' in Danville, Virginia Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

    We began the first morning of our recent visit to Danville, Virginia, at an early-bird breakfast with the Rotary Club, where my husband, Jim, and I heard several personal hopes, celebrations, and notes of gratitude from its members, as they pitched bills into the Happy Dollars bucket. One Happy Dollar for good wishes to a son about to deploy with the military; another for a granddaughter, a rainbow baby (Google that), who had made it to her first birthday; two for the boys whom the mom had hauled out of bed to come to the breakfast on their first day of summer vacation.  

    After breakfast, we gratefully followed one of the Rotarians to Gatewood Auto and Truck Repair to see Gary, whom we heard was very good and always fair, hoping he could fix the passenger window of our 19-year-old Audi, which was suddenly stuck open. Gary fixed the window, a repair that soon seemed minor compared with the day’s second auto surprise, when the bottom shell fell off the underside of the car, right onto the street. (I learned that the official term for this part was the “belly pan.”) Thank God for the networks of small towns, I thought, and for Gary Gatewood, and the friendly folks at Mr. Tire, who repaired that belly-pan issue.

    I continued a quarter-mile down the road to see Karen Harris, the executive director of God’s Storehouse, a food pantry serving low-income people along this southernmost border where Virginia meets North Carolina. On top of their other problems, rural areas that have lost industries and suffered long-term economic decline, like this part of Piedmont Virginia and North Carolina, often have high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-related disorders. God’s Storehouse illustrates one response. During our travels around the country, we have seen groups in many regions coming together to use strength in numbers to imagine ideas and create effective action around health, economic development, education, the arts, and many other areas.

    God’s Storehouse is part of the expansive Health Collaborative of the Dan River Region. It includes some 50 member organizations and 90 individuals, who approach the health and well-being of its residents to include not only healthy eating, but also access to health care, an active lifestyle, and inviting places to live, work, and play.

    God’s Storehouse opened in 1987, a collaborative effort of many faith communities around Danville and surrounding Pittsylvania County. Pooling resources, they figured, would be a win for all.

  • A Community Within a Community

    The Danville YMCA
    Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

    During our years of reporting for Our Towns, I’ve visited YMCAs all across the country. My quest began as a way to keep fit while traveling. I bought day passes to swim in Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Mississippi; Redlands, California; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Wichita, Kansas.

    If I couldn’t find a Y, I would swim at a local public pool, like in Holland, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Dodge City, Kansas; Winters, California; and Bend, Oregon. As a last resort, I turned to nature, jumping into the Snake River in Clarkston, Washington; Lake Champlain in Vermont; Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania; Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan; the freezing Atlantic in Portland, Maine; and the also-freezing Pacific along the West Coast.

    Recently I added another venue to my list: the YMCA of Danville, in the so-called Southside of Virginia, bordering North Carolina. Danville, once a thriving tobacco and textile town, has placed a big bet on its Y as more than a fun and healthy place to work out, or swim, or play basketball. It is an anchor institution for restoring the spirit and pride of Danville.

    The YMCA is a natural for this role, with its 135-year history in Danville and now a brand-spanking-new, $15 million, 50,000-square-foot facility on the Dan River. Spurred on by an initial gift from the private Danville Regional Foundation, which was followed by millions more from other foundations, institutions, and individuals in town, the new Y opened in 2014. The building is a beautiful, award-winning design of brick, glass, and exposed beams, with natural light and social space. It became the first development facing the river in more than 100 years, and in homage to that history, the Y also shows off reclaimed wood from the old textile mill that once stood on its spot.

  • When Libraries Are ‘Second Responders’

    The Columbus Metropolitan Library
    Above the doorway of the Columbus Metropolitan Library are the words Open to All. Deborah Fallows

    Everyone knows about first responders. I’ve come to think of libraries as playing a crucial role as “second responders.”

    In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers. After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge. And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours “to give them a sense of normalcy,” says Christian Zabriskie, who was a Queens librarian then. “Story time at the end of the world” he called it. In Orlando, after the nightclub shootings, the library hosted an art gallery for those who made art as a way to express and share their reactions. After the Thomas Fire, the Santa Barbara Public Library invited the public to share their stories and lessons, to help heal and prepare for the future.

    Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible. Pima County, Arizona, pays for a team of nurses to come to the library to help with medical questions for those who can’t or won’t go to a hospital, clinic, or doctor. In Charleston, West Virginia, librarians told me that they have launched searches for people to research health issues or concerns. In some libraries, librarians have Narcan training. In Bend, Oregon, a social worker has helped prepare the librarians to work with people who came in with sensitive, personal questions, such as how to meet their rent and mortgage payments.

    Others report that they have helped people figure out how to have a dignified funeral when they have no money for one. In Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, among the hardest-hit areas of the entire country during the 2008–2009 financial collapse, the leaders of the public-library system found ways to stretch and reprogram their budget to ensure that their system would stay open seven days a week during the crisis, because they knew their citizens would need its resources to cope with job loss, house foreclosures, and more.

    Carved in the granite above the doorway of the imposing flagship Carnegie Library in Columbus, Ohio, are the words Open to All.  I have seen homeless people line up waiting for the doors to open so they can spend the day inside comfortably and safely.

    In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I trudged to our local library during an extreme cold-weather episode a year or two ago and read a handwritten sign saying that the library was closed because of the cold, and pointing to the emergency shelters that were open instead. Librarians have told me that they’ve heard from homeless people about one of the important reasons they go to libraries: These are the only places where they are treated with respect. Librarians also told me about the various rules and regulations they impose about noise, sleeping, eating, “bathing” in restrooms, disruptive behavior, and storage of belongings. They say that occasionally people are placed on “sabbatical” from the libraries for infringements and are sometimes referred to public places where they can take showers. None have reported serious incidents to me, which suggests that respect is mutual.

    The most serious of these examples are testament to the trust that citizens place in their libraries and librarians. The Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of people say libraries help them to find information they can trust. Librarians are nothing if not discreet. I have asked librarians about their users looking at pornography on the public computers. They demur, kind of, and say that they don’t look at what people are doing on the computers, and others say that they only step in when someone complains.

    Zabriskie, who now works in Yonkers, points to the complexity of being a librarian these days. “Amidst glory days of librarianship,” he says, “there can be trauma. If every day’s work were just reading to toddlers, great. But sometimes those kids are homeless.”

    “Sometimes librarians are Batman,” Zabriskie says. “Sometimes they are ghosts in the machine. We have to resist hardening the space.”

  • Can Schools ‘Teach Students to Think’?

    Seniors at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science are shown on "senior reveal day" this month. They wore white lab coats, and then pulled them off to reveal shirts of the colleges they will be attending.
    Seniors at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science are shown on "senior reveal day" this month. They wore white lab coats, and then pulled them off to reveal shirts of the colleges they will be attending. Courtesy of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

    Last week I wrote about what Jim and I had seen on another visit to the (exceptional) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), a public, residential two-year school for juniors and seniors. We’ve been reporting on the school over the past five years. In the latest dispatch, I described the way a committed English teacher at MSMS, Thomas Easterling, was “teaching students to think” through a rigorous analysis of the novel Dirty Work, by the renowned Mississippi writer Larry Brown.

    In response, Paul J. Camp, a physics professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, writes to challenge the idea that a school like MSMS—a public high school, but one that chooses its students from around the state—can meaningfully claim to be “teaching them to think.” (And, to be clear, this was my claim—not MSMS’s.)

    Here are selections from Paul Camp’s long letter, followed by Thomas Easterling’s shorter response.

    Paul Camp writes:

    I thought you and your observations of this school were interesting, but it is a bit of a stretch to say that it demonstrates “how to teach students to think.”

    I’ve contended for years that a large part of the success of private schools and magnet schools lies in the ability to cherry pick their students. [DF note: As you’ll see below, Thomas Easterling challenges the “cherry pick” characterization.] They arrive already able to think, and the function of the school is less to teach a new skill than it is to refine a preexisting skill.

    When I was a research scientist at Georgia Tech, I worked in a cognitive science program that was involved in middle school science education. We were in both affluent suburban schools and poor urban ones. The suburban students were ready to go and had teachers knowledgeable enough in physics to be able to help them focus on the right phenomena.

    The urban schools had teachers teaching out of subject area—a biologist and a reading teacher in a physical science class. Their content understanding was little beyond that of their students.

    Nevertheless, the project based curriculum we developed was able to engage those children as well, and to at least improve their ability to design and conduct controlled variable experiments. We had kids fresh out of juvenile detention who were engaged in the projects. I’ll never forget one little girl who, in an interview, remarked: “It’s the first thing I ever made that worked.” That tells me a few things about her. She’s tried to make things to solve problems in her life in the past, which means she has the interests of an engineer. And what she finds valuable about the experience we provided is the design process that enables creating a thing that actually solves a problem.


    My wife is retiring this month from teaching in Title 1 schools for over a decade. These are schools that have a >70% mobility rate. Their families move from one apartment move-in special to another. They have no stability in their lives, no permanent circle of friends, no community resources for enrichment activities. They have a disturbingly high incidence of developmental and behavioral disorders. One kid on the autism spectrum insists on talking to his friends all through class. Another sits with his head in the closet. A kindergartner didn’t even know her own name ….

    And yet, you still find exceptional kids here. I do career day there every year, and I’ve also done some things with their talented and gifted classes. I remember doing an optics activity with them that was supposed to begin with them doing some informal observations using various types of lenses. Everyone except her just spent the time goofing off. She actually had a good observation of an image changing from upside down to right side up as she moved the lens closer to an object. When she tried to explain it to the rest of the class, they ignored her. That child has a nascent “ability to think” but I question if it is going to be able to develop in that environment.

    At Georgia Tech, we found that loose and open ended activities only work with high SES students who have teachers that understand the target content… For lower SES schools, we found the need for a highly structured, predictable cycle of activities that reflected the actual professional practices of scientists and engineers.

    The first group kind of knows how things are supposed to proceed, similar to the MSMS students. The second needs a more explicit road map to help them understand how what they are currently doing fits into an overall strategy and what should come next….


    I once interviewed at the Maine School for Math and Science which I venture to guess is similar to, if not above, the Mississippi school. Those kids were the equivalent of upper division college students. Calculus well beyond the introductory level was in their rear view mirror. They were writing Python programs to simulate problems in quantum theory.

    But their classes were essentially self directed. There was little to no overt instruction unless they ran into a problem. They knew what they were doing and where it should go next. They already knew how to think.

    I ended up, for family reasons, taking a position at Georgia Gwinnett College. This is a very different population. The mission of the college is to expand the pool of students capable of succeeding in college.

    My physics courses are usually majority minority, first generation college students, many first generation Americans, juggling jobs and family responsibilities with academic needs. They are, by and large, disciplined and intent on succeeding, but the open approach of the Maine school just would not work for them. I know. I tried it.

  • How to Teach Students to Think

    A building of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science
    Courtesy of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

    The only thing traditional about Thomas Easterling’s 11th-grade English class at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) was his short quiz at the start of the class. It was the last of the year, he told his students, and I guessed that this was his way to keep the kids focused on their final assignment. It may also have been a nudge toward the good habit of reading, for a generation of students with Netflix always at their fingertips. They scrambled beyond their laptops for bits of paper to write their answers on and handed them to Easterling, who assembled a messy little stack.

    MSMS is a school I first visited more than five years ago, and whose students, teachers, programs, and possibilities I’ve written about many times.

    Jim and I have been back again this month, and I wanted to be sure to pay another visit to see Thomas Easterling’s class.

    From the looks and names of the 25 students, I guessed they were a composite of East and South Asians, African Americans, whites, and Hispanics. Students at MSMS, a two-year public residential school on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women (fondly called The W), arrived there from all over the state. They came from the Delta or towns on the Gulf, from shacks and double-wides or fancy homes around bigger cities like Oxford and Hattiesburg. Two years later, they left their dorms in Columbus, once a Civil War hospital town with housing stock still rich with gracious, pillared antebellum homes, an architecturally beautiful downtown, and large stretches of run-down, low-income areas. (Median household income in the city is around $35,000, versus around $63,000 for the country as a whole.) MSMS students, from their wide variety of backgrounds, are headed for the Ivies, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Harvey Mudd, name your school. Easterling already referred to his class as seniors, and they seemed to comfortably assume that role.

    Sitting with the students, I found it hard to make a connection between the human and intellectual energy in their classroom and the “conversations” about education served up in public life. Life in this Mississippi classroom was happening far, far away from policy statements from the Department of Education, or editorials on charter schools, or debates about the burdens of required testing, or calculations of where American students place in international rankings.

    In Easterling’s class, I was witnessing the realization of a mission statement to teach children how to think. How? With deft, nimble teaching.

    On this day, the class had been reading Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, a book Easterling chose in part because he favored books not covered by SparkNotes and partly because they had worked together when Easterling was an editor at the Oxford American. (Brown was a renowned firefighter turned novelist who first earned acclaim with Dirty Work, which came out in 1989, and wrote a number of other successful books before his death of a heart attack, in 2004, at age 53.) Plus, I thought, what teacher in Mississippi could resist introducing his students to Mississippi writers? Dirty Work is a novel about Vietnam veterans; it is heavily layered, full of imponderables of the meaning of life, unresolvable questions, and gray areas, with mature themes and unfiltered language.

    Easterling moved on from the factual questions on the quiz (What does Braden ask Walter to do? What does Jesus say he wants, in a dream?) and plunged into issues that were complex, to say the least. The students started off a bit slowly, but soon wound up into a crescendo of comments, arguments, small-group debates, and references.

    One girl described a main character: “He was a drinker, a smoker, and he uses foul language. He’s not ‘Thou art.’” Others made informed references to the civil-rights movement, the Civil War, the Old Testament. They debated the terms of justice, the boundaries of violence, the value of diplomacy. The South Asian girl started a riff on Gandhi, to which the whole class murmured in a tone reminiscent of the burbling British Parliament. They had clearly heard her message before.

    The students were seated at tables arranged in a square, and Easterling roamed within its inner courtyard. He would read some passages like a storyteller, and if you closed your eyes you could hear Garrison Keillor, with a southern accent. He framed his class with permission and trust. An occasional student got up and left the room, presumably to go to the restroom, and returned. They were all working on their laptops. He told me later that he assumed that a number of them were clicking away on sites completely irrelevant to the class—but he called on them and engaged them frequently enough that they couldn’t let their attention drift for long. He asked the kids to return their books when they were finished, to lighten his end-of-year processing load, but assured them it was okay if they needed to keep them until the bitter end. He assumed his students knew his references, but made cultural checks from time to time. “What’s a candy striper?” he inquired. “Just checking—you never know … ” when they virtually rolled their eyes. He talked about certain movies from way before their time—including one even before my time (or his), The Young Lions, with Marlon Brando—and then suggested they might want to use some of their summertime to watch them.

    He never said their interpretations were wrong per se, but demurred to let them down gently: “I dunno; maybe or maybe not that.” Or if no one could come up with a comment, he would encourage, “Read closely. You’ll see. You’ll see.” A bit later, I heard a few soon comment, “Oh, I got it!” And it was easy to tell that Easterling knew which students could take a little ribbing and which needed to be drawn out.

    The walls of the classroom were surprisingly spare; just four posters with themes of Respect, Truth, Reading, and Trust. And a fifth of Joan Miró.

    Many of the people we met at community colleges around the country, from California to Oregon to Mississippi, would talk to us about their students getting a second chance at their lives. In Mississippi, these young students were getting a first chance.

    More from this series

  • The End of the Journey

    N435SR parked at its new home at the San Bernardino Airport in California Deborah Fallows

    Arriving in Tucson, we felt the inklings of coming full circle with our American Futures project. Only one more leg of our journey, about 400 miles, before we reached our destination of the San Bernardino airport, and on to a writing base at the University of Redlands in Southern California. For the record, here, here, and here are the three previous road reports since we departed from Washington D.C.

    I was very excited about finally getting to Tucson. During our several visits to Ajo, Arizona, about 130 miles to the west of Tucson, I first learned about one of the fearless, indomitable and I daresay under-appreciated women who left a mark on America. Isabella Greenway was Arizona’s first Congresswoman, as part of FDR’s New Deal Democratic majority. But before that she helped build and bring the beautiful copper-mining town of Ajo, Arizona to its heyday. We visited Ajo several times over the past three years, and have chronicled some of its creative rebirth.

    Arizona Inn (Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection, Wikimedia Commons)

    In 1930, after her time in Ajo and before her time in Congress, Isabella Greenway also founded and opened the Arizona Inn in Tucson, which was, I had heard, still thriving today under the family eye.

    Over our three years of landing in the towns of America, we could never be too choosy about hotels. We considered ourselves lucky if we found a place with “suites” in the name, as in “Homewood Suites” or “Best Western Suites” or “Hampton Inn & Suites.” This was mostly because “suites” suggested an on-site place to do laundry and a little extra elbow room, which were both welcome attributes when two people were working in the same space and also generating a lot of dirty clothes.

    So, a visit to the Arizona Inn was very special, and it turned out to be exactly what I imagined. Isabella Greenway herself described it as “a simple, home-like, cottage hotel” but it is much more than that, with high-ceilinged-oversized rooms, quiet green spaces, a big pool (almost 20 meters by my stroke count), wonderful food, and a hospitality still imbued with the family’s sensibility.

    On a whim, I emailed the current proprietor, Patty Doar, who is the granddaughter of Isabella Greenway. To my surprise, she emailed right back. We met the next morning with her and her son and co-proprietor, the writer Will Conroy, swapping stories and photos about the different pieces of the story that we each knew.

    We all had stories: Our updates on Ajo; their recollections of Isabella Greenway; connecting the dots between Ajo and Eastport Maine, where we also spent several American Futures visits; Isabella’s lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; and her visit to the Roosevelt’s summer camp at Campobello Island, right across the water from Eastport. Such serendipity was a special feature of American Futures that we had come to relish and appreciate.

    ***

  • In Flight

    Banking to the right, looking through the clouds toward the water and the ground. Deborah Fallows

    We took off west from Demopolis, Alabama, prepared for a lot of flying ahead on this last journey for The Atlantic’s American Futures project. (First two installments in the series, taking us from D.C. to Alabama, here and here. ) We passed over Meridian and Jackson, in Mississippi, just a ways south of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point, where we spent several reporting trips to the booming manufacturing center of the so-called Golden Triangle.

    I have always looked forward to crossing the Mississippi River. We’ve done that in just about every state through which the mighty river flows, especially in the upper Midwest: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois. There it would be today in the state of Mississippi, below us just around Vicksburg. I was worried about even getting a glimpse because of the low-overcast clouds, which we were flying above (on an “instrument flight plan” because we were expecting to have to land in cloudy conditions). We watched the navigation maps on the cockpit monitors, and just as we were about to cross, the clouds parted. Jim banked the plane so as to dip the wing on my right seat side, and I stole enough of a look to recognize the unmistakably mighty Mississippi.

    Being guided in for refueling in tiny Minden, Louisiana (Deborah Fallows)

    We stopped for fuel in Minden, just shy of Shreveport, aiming for Dallas to install the software patch that we needed for weather readings. There’s always something, even in this little plane; it amazes me that the big boys fly around with as few mechanical and technological delays as they do.

    ***

    By the time we were ready to take off from Dallas the next day, a cool drizzle had moved in, reminding us why we avoided winter during most of our flying in the last three years. For the next three hours after departure (again on an instrument plan), we were either in the thick cloud layer or just above it, barely seeing the vast stretches of west Texas below us or the sun above.

    There were hours of cloud cover like this over west Texas. (Deborah Fallows)

    I think Jim enjoys the challenge of this kind of flying. He is always on top of the instruments, pushing buttons of one sort or another, checking gauges, and testing the redundant systems. For me, this opaque flying is unpleasant, sometimes even boring. I don’t like the absence of orientation. Most pilots, I’ve learned, have a zealous passion for flying. It’s something they can’t not do, and they don’t seem to mind the conditions. For the rest of us, well, I for one consider flights like these functional. The plane is getting me west.

  • Flying Into the Deep South

    At the airport in Demopolis, paper mill in the background. Deborah Fallows

    We woke up in Demopolis, Alabama, on day two of the final journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic. We were one day out of Washington D.C. (first installment here) and already decades away in so many ways. The weather was balmy. In the Best Western breakfast room, Ms. Nettie was making grits and biscuits for us and the out-of-town workers who had come in to oversee the “planned outage” at the cement factory.

    Ms. Nettie’s tip box at the Best Western (Deborah Fallows)

    Jim was troubleshooting one of the weather apps in the plane; the software wasn’t communicating to bring in the current weather updates, including radar depictions of areas we needed to avoid. Before this technology existed, we had flown many years without such real-time information, but given the forecast for the next few days along our route to Southern California, we preferred to have everything working before we headed up again into the skies.

    Now, only two small things stood between us and progress west. One was the needed update part for our onboard-weather system. That would take a day to reach the nearest Cirrus-proficient service shop, which was in the Addison airport just north of  Dallas. The other was the real-time weather. The forecast crosswinds that afternoon for Dallas were gusting above 30 and even 40 knots, far exceeded the safe landing guidelines for the plane.

    Historic downtown of Demopolis (James Fallows)

    We decided to spend another day in Demopolis, and depart when the winds would be less fearsome and the weather-software part would have arrived. I loved this kind of on-the-go pivot in plans, which had led us to unexpected stays in places like Red Oak, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming and Toccoa, Georgia along our American Futures journey.

    Susan and Mike Grayson at Le Bistro (Deborah Fallows)

    ***

    The night before, at a cozy, delicious  Demopolis bistro, called of course Le Bistro, we ended up in conversation about the town with owner Mike Grayson, who it turns out had been the Mayor of Demopolis for the previous eight years. In small towns like this, we often found that the energetic folks wore multiple hats. In Eastport, Maine, the local theater stage manager by night was the morning barista at the coffee shop, as well as the nephrologist at the town’s clinic and new owner of the dog kennel.

    At the top of my list of Grayson’s suggestions was the Demopolis Public Library. Over the last three years, I often found that the local public library showed the heart and soul of a community. I wrote about many of them here.

    In Demopolis we strolled down Washington Street, past as many boarded up storefronts as there were ones in business, thinking that the bones of those buildings offered great potential for future success stories.  The public library was indeed the showpiece of the town. In a move showing great foresight, the city engineered an effort to purchase and renovate the former  Ulmer Furniture Company store and warehouse. It is a truly beautiful building, as elegant and graceful as any Carnegie library I’ve seen. The second story mezzanine has a wraparound balcony overlooking the main reading room, with wooden Mission style worktables and lamps. Oversized photos of some of the town’s historic moments lined the walls. There was Woodrow Wilson visiting nearly a century ago for the then-legal cockfighting at a fundraising auction to build a bridge over the Tombigbee River.

    Looking over the mezzanine level into the library reading room (James Fallows)

    Connie Lawson, the circulation manager and a librarian there for over 20 years, recounted detail for detail a more recent visit in 1998 by Bill and Melinda Gates, who came by to see how one of their first computer donations from the Gates Library Foundation was doing. Connie said that she and her colleagues, intent on making a good impression,  had spent days cleaning the library “down to the baseboards.” They were all so nervous, she told us, stressing that Bill Gates was the richest man in the world then, and it’s not every day you get to meet the richest man in the world.

  • Farewell to Washington

    Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus Four-Three-Five Sierra Romeo taking Runway One-Four, VFR (visual flight rules) departure to the west, Montgomery.

    Rolling down Runway 14 for takeoff from Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland. (Deborah Fallows)

    And with that, we were off in our small Cirrus airplane for the last official journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic, flying away from frigid Washington D.C. and its political turmoil, on a southerly route to California.

    We have flown over 60,000 miles during the past three-and-a-half years, from the upper Midwest to Maine, south through New England and the Mid Atlantic states to Georgia and Florida, sweeping through the deep south, to Texas and the southwest, up the central valley of California to Oregon and Washington, and closing the loop to Montana, all the while snaking in and out of the so-called flyover country, the middle of everywhere through Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and much of the rest.

    Map of the first few legs of our travel, as shown last year in Jim’s cover story.

    “Flyover” to us has meant landing in dozens of towns for jam-packed visits of a week or two, often returning for unfinished business, reporting, or nostalgia. The purpose of this last journey is a little different. Our destination is sunny, warm, mind-clearing and political soul-cleansing inland southern California, to Jim’s hometown of Redlands. We plan to ponder all we’ve seen and try to make some sense of it on a more composed canvas than the pointillist collection of hundreds of blog posts that we have written along the way.

                                                                       ***

  • Deborah Fallows

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    A Post-Election Field Report From America's Refugees and Immigrants

    Words and stories from the towns where the newest Americans live

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    The Treasures of Birmingham

    For almost a century, the local library has guarded its city's history.

  • A Renewable Energy Revolution in Small-Town America

    Across the country, moves towards sustainability are happening at the grassroots.

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    What It Takes to Settle Refugees

    The people of Erie, Pennsylvania, have welcomed immigrants and refugees, and believe that their town is better off for having done so.

  • Are America's Small Towns Really Struggling?

    A tour of three cities that are finding unique ways to mitigate the country's jobs crisis

  • The Truth About American Towns That Welcome Refugees

    A short film exploring the cultural and economic benefits of high immigrant populations

  • Deborah Fallows

    Life in the Air

    Getting from here to there by small plane