By Kristina K. Sullivan

“Knowledge of the nearest things should be acquired first, then that of those farther and farther off.” — Comenius, 17th C. educator (Dubel and Sobel, 2008)

On the day of my twenty first birthday, I arrived in the small Appalachian town of Whitesburg, Kentucky (population 2,000) on a university field study. Though not yet a credentialed teacher, I was assigned the position of reading specialist for a small group of unmotivated yet adequately intelligent 5th-7th grade students at Cowan School, about five miles off the main highway.

It took very little time to discover that the traditional methods of schooling were not going to work, the problem exacerbated by my status as a California “outsider”.  At that idealistic age despair was not a consideration; I had no choice but to embrace our differences. Rather than following a rote lesson plan, it seemed more promising to ask them questions about themselves.

“What do you do after school?”

“Where do you fish?”

“Tell me about the deep mine that shut down and the creeks nearby and the pond.”

Asking questions turned out to be an effective approach to teaching these young students. Our conversations led to local field trips and they took me to places near by, places like Lilley Cornett Woods, now a protected old growth forest and the fishing hole where they taught me to fish.  Our outings and their understandings of their local environment were the context for a book of stories that they wrote and read aloud in class. While their reading and writing scores improved, it was the time we spent together outside that I am sure we all remember the most. Returning to my life as a student, and afterwards to a career as a classroom teacher, the experience of teaching as a responsive and contextually integrated act has affected my work in the classroom ever since.

At that time, 1979, there was no terminology to define this approach to learning. It just made sense to use the local environment as a springboard to extend the skills taught in the classroom.   It was not until the early 1990’s that David Sobel, project director at Antioch University New England and one of the leaders in the place-based movement, gave the name “place-based” to this approach to education.

In part, the place-based movement is in response to the need to reconnect students to not just the land in general but specifically, their home. According to Megan Camp, Vice-President and Program Director of Shelburne Farms, “Educational Themes and strategies come and go like fashions.  Place-based education is enduring.  It is a lens to look at an existing curriculum that brings new meaning and relevancy to the learner; it is not an add-on to an already crowded curriculum”.

Among the most convincing of the place-based endeavors that educators across the nation can look to as a model is the work of Shelburne Farms, environmental education center, national historic landmark and working farm in Shelburne, Vermont.  The folks at Shelburne provide workshops for teachers as well as field trips for students in grades K-8 throughout the year about life on a farm and the local environment.  They also have an extensive place-based curricula and the PLACE program (“PLACE” stands for Place-based landscape Analysis & Community Education).

A partner to Shelburne Farms is the Vermont Education for Sustainability Project of which is included the Sustainable Schools Project.  Among the three schools in the Burlington School District participating in this Sustainable Schools Project is Lawrence Barnes Elementary where Vietnamese, Eastern European and more recently African families have been entering the district over the past two decades.  According to Jen Cirillo, coordinator of the Sustainable Schools Project, these refugee students are proving to be among the most advantageously affected by a place-based approach to education.

Although their school experience is limited and they speak a different language, refugee students often have a vast array of experiences that get tapped in a classroom that utilizes a place-based approach to education.   For example, when first grade teachers were looking for a literacy unit that could provide connections across the curriculum, they chose the topic of animal lifecycles that included a visit from a real live chicken.  The refugee students, especially the Somali Bantu children, became “experts” on the chicken, having had previous experience with chickens.  From there sprang a literacy unit about chicken lifecycles in general.

By starting with a first-hand concrete experience students were able to build on previous knowledge that came from a variety of sources. This is a common theme among the place-based classroom; students develop meaning from more sources than the textbook or the Internet but as well, a conversation with a farmer or the experience of walking through a forest or an actual interaction with historic buildings.

september-016c Chaska Richardson, an ESL teacher in the Burlington School District, understands how place-based education helps students learn a new language. When students are learning to count, they go apple picking and bring real apples into the classroom. Richardson then takes photographs of the students counting the apples and develops a personalized book for her students based on their experience. Her students are able to develop language because they have sensory experience that builds on their phonemic and contextual skills to support new reading.   Not only do they have the sensory moments of picking and tasting an apple, but they also have a photographic book of them counting apples to use in the classroom.

Across town, fourth and fifth grade students at Lawrence Barnes School were given the assignment to write a “neighborhood report card” when they participated in a Sustainable Schools Project program called “Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids”.  Clipboards in hand, they took a walk through the neighborhood checking off the quality of life in their community.

champ-barnes-nw-132In their subsequent evaluation and discussions, the students discovered that the town had overlooked signs in the neighborhood to caution drivers of the school crosswalk.  The kids wrote letters to city officials and presented their findings at the City Council meeting imploring them to correct the mistake.  As a result, the sign was put up a week later, despite the inevitable embarrassment of city officials. The students learned about decision-making and how to influence change, an advanced course of study for fourth and fifth graders.

“It is so much more powerful to write a persuasive letter, not about more recess time, but in order to really make a change in the neighborhood,” explains Cirillo.

No matter what the demographics of the community, rural or urban, small or large, there is an opportunity to use local resources to connect and revitalize student learning.  Neighborhood report cards, farm to school projects, local field trips and animals in the classroom, all provide a chance to bring life to abstract lessons.

Imagine the difference for a student when they are empowered to effect a change in community decision-making, as was the case for the 4/5th grade students who participated in “Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids” program, or the refugee children who became the experts when a chicken was brought into the classroom.  Place-based learning starts with small choices that the classroom teacher makes to connect learning in the classroom to life outside of the classroom.  And it often begins with a question.

Environment-based Education, Creating High Performance Schools and Students The National Environment Education and Training Foundation, Washington DC, September, 2000

Gruenewald, David A. and Smith, Gregory A. Place-Based Education in the Global Age Lawrence Erlbraum Associates, 2008.

PEEC- The Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative “concept paper”.

Powers, Amy L.  An Evaluation of Four Place-Based Education Programs.  The Journal of Environmental Education, summer 2004, Vol. 35, No 4 pp. 17-34

SEER Report, California Student Assessment Projects, The Effects of Environment-based education on student achievement, March, 2000

Sobel, David  Place-based Education, Connecting Classrooms and Communities.  The Orion Society, 2004