Educators with the Pennsylvania State Education Association walk through the Ore Yard during their mini-tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, on of three activities offered during their open house experience in May 11, 2023.
PSEA Educators Take a Field Trip to the Carrie Furnaces
By Jordan Snowden
A rare, cloudless seventy-degree day in Pittsburgh set the stage for Pennsylvania State Education Association’s (PSEA) Open House at the Carrie Blast Furnaces on Thursday, May 11. Hosted by Rivers of Steel, PSEA teachers and support staff working at Allegheny County public school districts had the opportunity to not only take part in an educational tour of the historic landmark site, but also participate in hands-on experiences with metal and graffiti arts.
The combination of offered activities is what drew Jessica Whiting, a teacher at Homestead’s Allegheny Intermediate Unit, or AIU, to the event. While Whiting is a Pittsburgh resident, she was unfamiliar with the industrial site and said she was excited to tour a place she had never heard of or been to, get her hands dirty, and have a souvenir to take home.
After chowing down on a generous spread of fruits and cheeses, chicken and veggie skewers, chicken sliders, and grilled cheese, and in between industrial tours of Carrie Blast Furnaces, educators took turns crafting aluminum “make and take” artworks and spray-painting plastic-wrapped posts that boasted the letters PSEA.
While the aluminum scratch-mold session was a popular attraction for its keepsake ability—tools like dental instruments and forks were used to carve an inverse design into a 4×4 sand mold before 1400-degree melted aluminum was poured on top and left to cool—the graffiti art area had a steady stream of visitors throughout the evening, making for an out-of-the-box, interactive learning venture.
“A lot of teachers assume that there’s this inaccessibility with graffiti art, like it’s not meant for them because it’s an art form that exists in the urban world,” explained Max Gonzales, a local street artist operating the spray paint station. Through hands-on involvement, Gonzales helped change this perspective while providing background and context on the art form’s origins. “It’s important to not erase the history of cultures of where it came from, Black and Brown kids in New York and Philly who fought to have their voices heard, who were jailed to have their voices heard,” he said.
By the end of the evening, the educators had created an eye-catching collaborative work of graffiti art, flush with bright spring colors, to match the pleasant mood in the air.
Every five years, teachers in the state of Pennsylvania are required to get 180 hours of professional development credits, thanks to 1999’s Act 48. These hours can be fulfilled with standard educational courses, workshops, or modules, but rather than spend a culmination of seven and a half days in school-like classes outside of the classroom, Alisa Murray, region field director for PSEA’s western region, is always seeking ideas for attractive, unique activities that will satisfy Act 48’s requirements while providing teachers entertaining, interactive experiences. So when she discovered Rivers of Steel and its offerings, she set up what she hoped would be a delightful end-of-year event.
“We look for cool, fun things that we can do for them so they can mingle together, get together with their friends, and get their hours,” said Murray. “This seemed like it would be a super cool event for teachers because it is Pittsburgh’s history, and what we’re thinking is a lot of teachers will leave this event, then go back to their school districts and probably have field trips as a result.”
The activities presented to the teachers that day are the same experiences Rivers of Steel offers to visiting students. “Regardless of audience—educators, students, or the public—we are able to give context to our region’s heritage while engaging individuals in active learning that introduces them to new skills and artistic mediums,” explained Carly McCoy, director of marketing and communications at the local nonprofit. “The process of this learning is more about the future than the past.” However, even if educators don’t or aren’t able to bring their students back to Carrie Blast Furnaces, introduced skills like teamwork, creativity, community connection, and new knowledge of local history can be brought back and shared.”
“You see these places from the roads and bridges, and they look totally abandoned,” said Lindsay Cox, a first-grade teacher in the Moon Area School District. “So it’s a cool opportunity to come and see what they’re all about. The tour guide had a lot of great information. We learned about the history of Pittsburgh and why people chose to come here.”
Cox’s friend Aja Weston, an elementary special education teacher for the Mt. Lebanon School District, added that her favorite part was walking the grounds. “As a teacher, you hear about how things were run [in the industrial steel industry], you teach about these things as part of the curriculum, but actually getting to see it up close helps you realize what they were doing, how they were working, and what the conditions were.”
She plans to utilize what she learned in her life and functional skills lessons. “We look at different jobs and job skills, and it’ll be interesting to do an overview of jobs and to be able to discuss the conditions and the changes in how it used to be when you worked industrial jobs.”
Jordan Snowden is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh whose work has been published in The Seattle Times, Pittsburgh City Paper ,and elsewhere. She also runs @jord_reads_books, a book-focused Instagram account where she connects with other bookworms. In her free time, Jordan can be found with a book in her hand or DIYing something with her husband.