Recently at ArkansasIDEAS, five of us got the dream project of building professional development courses for teachers from Arkansas PBS’ popular “Men and Women of Distinction” series. As educators with soft spots for biographies, this work didn’t feel much like work. My colleagues and I each kicked back in our office chairs, streamed the shows on our desktops, and melted into the episodes earlier this year. Before the office situation changed for us all, we each of us took turns pulling off our headsets and sharing parts of the human stories we found endearing.
I’ve read the work of the widely acclaimed Arkansan poet Miller Williams for years, so I got lucky with the assignment of the Williams episode. I played and re-played sections of this portrayal that is part biography, part teatime conversation with Williams. Through interviews, historic photos, and backstories, we follow Williams from childhood — where he wrote poems under his mother’s hand and got his tooth knocked out by a racist bully — through marriages, childrearing, and academic life as a college professor. Host Ernie Dumas amplifies not only the poet but also Williams as a Southern storyteller. We chuckle when we hear him tell how his own college professor advised Williams to drop his English major because he had “no verbal aptitude.”
While we only need to read a few of Miller’s poems to know this is no bookish English professor, Arkansas PBS’s keen examination gives us a peek at some of Miller’s trials that molded him into an extraordinary poet, one with a plain, kind voice that sharpens in just the right places. No doubt, teachers will feel good about sharing his legacy with students.
One colleague raved about her favorite “Men and Women of Distinction” episode focused on Dale Bumpers. As the video chronicles, former Governor and Senator Dale Bumpers inherited his fascination for politics from his dad, who took him to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938. Although Bumpers attended law school in a big city, he focused heavily on environmental issues in his campaigns, and he made huge improvements to Arkansas's state parks during his time as governor.
As one who likes to hike with her dog, my colleague felt the film especially boosted her appreciation of Bumpers’ commitment to environmentalism. “It was neat to learn which piece of legislation he was most proud of and the things that he was so passionate about,” she commented. She also enjoyed Bumpers’ down-to-earth vibe. “I like to know that our politicians come from humble beginnings and are humans, just like me and you.”
Bumpers was proud to be called a trailblazer in expanding community college education in our state. Arkansas teachers may use the documentary as a tool to emphasize the accessibility of our college system and to show how people and government can work together to create opportunities.
One of my suitemates (when we’re in the office) noted that she especially appreciates flicks that feature strong women. It’s no wonder she’s on the lookout for good female role models — she's the mom of an eight-year-old daughter with another little girl on the way! Happily, she scored and was assigned the Jane Krutz episode. Krutz was a leader at our beloved AETN, now Arkansas PBS. My colleague stated, “I have always enjoyed learning about our state and residents who have made a difference but, as an employee of Arkansas PBS, this woman was extra special for me. Miss Jane was passionate about volunteer work with AETN and may be remembered as the ‘voice’ of AETN from the countless pledge drives she hosted.” Indeed, teachers may hold up Krutz as the consummate public servant.
Take it from educators behind the scenes: These are only three in the robust bank of 15 captivating courses based on “Men and Women of Distinction” episodes. This Arkansas history professional development series was designed to equip our teachers with the resources to spread the knowledge of important and influential Arkansans. And, if you aren’t a teacher and you haven’t seen all of our “Men and Women of Distinction” videos, you may want to take another dive into the series — just beware of the binge risk!
The “Men and Women Distinction” course series is now available to all Arkansas educators at ArkansasIDEAS.org.
Stacy Pendergrast, an education and instruction specialist at Arkansas PBS, is also a seasoned haiku poet and teaching artist. She earned her Master of Education from Rutgers University and a Master of Fine Arts from Chatham University.