Book Review: Place-based Education

Book Review: Place-based Education

Enlivening Students


by Gregory A. Smith


Review of Sarah Anderson’s, Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (Lanham, Massachusetts: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)

or the past two decades, books and articles written by place- and community-based advocates have been largely focused on defining and justifying an alternative approach to teaching and learning grounded in local knowledge and issues with the aim of inducting children into a sense of community participation and responsibility. This literature was largely exhortatory rather than prescriptive. It did not often provide interested teachers with detailed guidelines about how to move from a broad vision to the challenge of creating and enacting curriculum and instruction not limited by either textbooks or even classrooms. These advocates asked teachers to be courageous and take risks, trusting in their capacity to experiment and learn from their failures and successes. And many teachers across the United States and elsewhere became early adopters of this approach, willing to embrace those challenges and risks. As place- and community-based education enters its third decade, however, something more is needed to make its implementation appealing and understandable to a broader group of educators. Sarah Anderson’s Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (2017) provides exactly the kind of guidance required to accomplish this end.

Anderson is a former student of David Sobel, one of the early advocates of this approach. For the past dozen years she has embraced what she learned while studying with him first as a middle-school teacher and now as the fieldwork coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon. Anderson’s work is especially powerful because of her concern about citizenship education and democratic practice. Place-based educators often focus primarily on providing students with immersive experiences in nature without necessarily engaging them in the cultural understandings, conflicts, problem-solving, and negotiation that accompany life in civil society. This is not to diminish the importance of those immersive experiences—which can be central to the development of a strong environmental ethic—but in themselves not enough to give young people the confidence or savvy required to become engaged community actors. Anderson’s work exemplifies how this can happen and how schools and communities can truly “get better together.”1

Her volume provides multiple examples of lessons and units she or the teachers she works with have developed and taught. Chapters describe ways that students can use maps to learn about their place, contribute to its human and environmental health through community science, learn directly about local history, partner with nearby agencies and organizations, explore the way different subject areas can be integrated to deepen knowledge and understanding, and develop a sense of connection with and empathy for one another and people beyond the school. The three chapters about mapping, citizen science, and local history provide detailed descriptions of units interested but uncertain teachers could profit from as they begin to incorporate local possibilities into their own work with students; they will be the focus of the remainder of this review.

Maps offer not only a good way to introduce children to their own place but to think about “What is where, why there, why care?”2 They naturally lead students to observe, collect data, and make inferences. At the Cottonwood School maps are integrated into the learning experiences of children at all grade levels. Early in the school year as a welcoming activity, everyone is invited to create and share personal maps of things special to them in their bedroom, home, neighborhood, or someplace away from home. Kindergarteners through second graders then create maps of their classroom and playground, sometimes using blocks and unix cubes to illustrate a space. Third graders map the school focusing on specific features such as sound. Fourth through sixth graders create maps to scale of neighborhood features such as parks and then compare and contrast in writing the data presented in their maps. Sixth graders map nearby features of their own choosing. They walk through the South Waterfront neighborhood and record the location of things like K9 restrooms (fire hydrants), bike racks, and food carts. They then create a formal illustrated map with compass roses and borders (and sometimes sea serpents in the Willamette River) to represent what they have found. Seventh and eighth graders go further afield and focus on the city and state. Given a map of the city’s boundaries and different districts, they identify major bodies of water, traffic routes, and one personally significant place in each district. This leads into a more extensive exercise in which they choose one data set to map. Possibilities include population, temperature levels during a heat wave, city parks, or the location of Starbucks coffee shops. They are encouraged to think about who has access to which resources by comparing demographic maps that focus on race and ethnicity. Maps offer a way to synthesize disparate but related information as well as integrate a variety of subject matter.

The school’s incorporation of community science offers similar opportunities to link lessons to students’ lives and create learning experiences that allow for observation, analysis, and curricular integration. Community science involves identifying local phenomena or issues worthy of study and action and linking these topics to the Next Generation Science Standards. One year, seventh- and eighth-graders identified the problem of animal waste in the neighborhood as an issue they wanted to explore and investigate. As they ventured beyond the school for a variety of learning activities, they found nearby sidewalks both hazardous and smelly. They decided to do something about it. Their teacher divided the class into teams who performed different tasks: one counted all of the pet waste in a six-block radius, another researched the environmental toxins found in dog poop, a third team investigated Portland laws regarding the regulation of pet waste, and a fourth researched similar laws in other cities. Once students had all of this information in hand, they analyzed what they had found and brainstormed possible solutions. They then wrote letters to public officials recommending that the city provide more public education about this problem and enact bigger fines for people who violated laws already on the books. Their letters resulted in a meeting with officials in city hall, and their ideas were incorporated into a “petiquette” campaign that the city had already begun planning. Extended units like these offers students a chance to systematically explore a topic, do so in ways that allow them to see its relevance to their own lives, and then make a contribution to the broader community. Such experiences match the call by framers of the NGSS to apply scientific concepts and practices to real life circumstances.

One of Anderson’s talents lies in her capacity to find ways to make the study of history local, as well. The third grade curriculum, for example, includes a focus on Native Americans. As part of that study, students visited the Oregon Historical Society, Portland State University’s Department of Archeology, and a traditional Chinook longhouse at Ridgefield, a National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State less than an hour from the city. Returning to the school, they transformed their classroom into a longhouse with a “fire pit” in the middle of the room. They also participated in PSU’s Archeology Roadshow where after having learned about the characteristics of meaningful exhibits at the Oregon Museum of Science Industry, they created a longhouse model and became the only K-12 students to share their work at an event otherwise populated with much older presenters. The opportunity to be involved with people beyond the school at PSU or City Hall demonstrates to children that they are as much citizens as anyone else in their community, lending them both a level of confidence and a sense of responsibility too absent in the education of this country’s future adults.

Learning experiences like these are deeply engaging for students. Furthermore, they demonstrate to community members the capacity of children to make genuine contributions to their common life.   Anderson’s book offers a useful and inspiring roadmap for other educators interested in realizing this vision of place-based education themselves.

1 Tagline for the Rural School and Community Trust, an organization that grew out of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, the first national effort in the 1990s aimed at disseminating the possibilities of place-based education.
2 In Brian Baskerville’s 2013 article, “Becoming Geographers: An Interview about Geography with Geographer Dr. Charles Gritzner (


Gregory Smith is a professor emeritus of the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He has written numerous articles and books about environmental and place- and community-based education. He is a fellow of the National Education Policy Center at UC-Boulder, a member of the education advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools, and a board member of the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science.


Garden of Wisdom

Garden of Wisdom

News release submission for CLEARING Magazine – February 2017

The Garden of Wisdom

A peace-building program among environmental educators and conservationists in the Middle East inspires children to love and nurture the natural world. Please help us to publish our first book, The Garden of Wisdom: Middle Eastern Stories for Environmental Stewardship.

s professionals who care passionately about the world around us, environmental educators are living through some challenging times. Now there is good news about something real that you can do to help bring about positive change in a troubled region while fostering a deep connection between children and nature. In recognition of its promise to transform the lives of many people, this project has been awarded the National Storytelling Network’s prestigious Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling. Your contribution will help us to promote environmental awareness and peaceful coexistence in the Middle East—one person, one organization and one story at a time.

For the past ten years, environmental educator Michael J. Caduto—co-author of the award-winning Keepers of the Earth® series of books and author of Earth Tales from Around the World and Catch the Wind Harness the Sun—has been directing an environmental education and storytelling project in the Middle East. The Stories for Environmental Stewardship Program involves more than 50 individuals and 20 organizations from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. This courageous community of professionals shares a passion for conservation and for encouraging children to understand and cherish the natural world.

The Stories for Environmental Stewardship Program is now ready to publish its first book: The Garden of Wisdom: Middle Eastern Stories for Environmental Stewardship. Artists and photographers from the Middle East are illustrating this anthology of children’s stories. This book will also become a steppingstone to an environmental education curriculum that reveals how nature is the root of a shared connection to the land that binds all peoples as one.

With your support this new book can bear fruit. Once the book is published, proceeds will be used to offer books and small grants that support the work of environmental education and conservation organizations from throughout the region. Please visit the Garden of Wisdom campaign at the following web page to watch the video and find out how you can help to make it possible to publish these inspiring stories:

Thank you!

Michael Caduto
Phone: 802-484-3484

Students’ Lived Experience

Students’ Lived Experience

Figure 9: Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Effective Education: Turning the Classroom Inside Out

By Indira Dutt

As a child at school I remember sitting in a stuffy portable looking out the window to the field and houses beyond. I felt constrained: my seat was attached to the desk, the classroom was just barely big enough to fit all of us, the windows were small, and the air was stale. I also remember the playground outside. I played hide and seek in the small stand of trees beside the field; I helped friends pile up the leaves in the fall and we all jumped in; I imagined an extraordinary museum of found objects–we made displays of the natural oddities that intrigued us and told stories about each treasure.

The two sides of the portable wall felt inexorably different and though I did well in school I was often wrangy in the classroom, wanting a little more of the freedom I felt when I was outside. Funny then that I should chose a career that keeps bringing me back into classrooms.

As a teacher I notice that, when the outside and inside feel completely separate, there is a problem. My teaching needs to be both connected and applicable to the everyday lives of my students and they need to feel free enough to be creative and capacious in their thinking so they can meaningfully participate in their education.

The literal and metaphorical notions of the outdoors are vital for me and so I work to soften the edge between inside and out.

One way I can do this is by creating and embellishing meaningful indoor–outdoor relationships. Connections between indoor spaces and outdoor areas are important “so that the outdoors becomes a natural extension of indoor learning” (Nair, Fielding & Lackney, 2009, p.111). This area of school design is sometimes overlooked or minimized by architects and educators, and this negatively influences students’ relationships to the natural world (Taylor, Aldrich & Vlastos, 1988).

Indoor–outdoor interfaces facilitate indoor–outdoor relationships. These interfaces are points, areas or surfaces that serve as a juncture between the inside and outside of a building. They include features that provide connection to the outdoors such as windows, skylights, natural building materials, aquariums, plants, interior living walls and porches. Even multimedia devices connected to the outside world via the Internet can bridge the gap between interior and exterior.

In 2009 I conducted a qualitative study that explored how intermediate students’ experience of the natural world was mediated by the design of their school building. My study site was the Bowen Island Community School (BICS) located on Bowen Island, a 20-minute commute by ferry from West Vancouver. The school was built on public land, parceled out of west coast rainforest. There are numerous large cedars and Douglas firs surrounding the property. I worked with grade six and seven students at BICS and collected data from two focus groups, semi-structured interviews, photographs and field notes.

One of the major findings of this study was that a school occupant’s experience of being inside their school building extends beyond the physical boundaries of the structure. When I asked students about their experience inside the school, they repeatedly spoke about the school grounds.

From a child’s perspective the whole school site as well as the school’s immediate A school occupant’s experience ofbeing inside their school building extends beyond the physical boundaries of the structure surroundings is a substantive part of their school experience. As well as being drawn to the outside, students expressed the significance of their sense of freedom, joy and beauty. Despite a focus on the fixed structure of the school building and school grounds, the student interviews were saturated with instances in which students reflected that indoor–outdoor connections deepened their freedom of movement, solitude, expression and imagination as well as the freedom to take mini-breaks from work. At BICS these instances of freedom were always associated with their connection to the exterior of the building. Students also recounted joy and places of beauty as critical in their learning.

I believe that my experience as a child varies little from students today. It is no surprise to any of us who have spent time in the classroom with children (of any age) that students’ attention is often drawn away from the topic or task at hand. I think that as teachers we get caught up in expending energy on refocusing, directingand corralling our students into the confines of the classroom, when instead we could find ways to capitalize on students’ desire to move outside. At times this movement is literal, but students’ imaginations can and do take them out in a figurative sense as well.

At BICS, teachers work with the imaginative drive and thirst for freedom that children have. The teachers at BICS incorporate the indoor–outdoor interfaces into the teaching process; they use the view from their classroom windows to highlight relevant elements of curriculum and they bring the children out into the hallway to stand or sit under the skylight and talk about the clouds outside. There is an active engagement with the outdoors from within the structure of the school.

While BICS is situated in what some might consider an idyllic teaching environment, certain aspects of the BICS students’ experience can be generalized to any location, rural or urban. If we can acknowledge the importance of freedom in the life of our students we can start to embrace and incorporate the interfaces to which we have access instead of thinking of classroom windows as distractions and covering them up using blinds or construction paper.

Pathways Illustration 1As a part of my research, I asked 55 grade six and seven students to draw an ideal school building, one that they thought would foster their connection with the natural world. I asked them to label important features they included. The most dominant features of these drawings were plants and animals. During my study I found that students expressed great joy witnessing the complete life cycle of plants. At BICS students could see the garden from their large classroom window. One student exclaimed, “It’s fun to watch everything [in the garden] because you go in the beginning of the year and there are little sprouts and then you go later and there are big shoots and stuff.” At a more urban school in Toronto each class grows a different kind of seed (grade one grows peppers while grade two grows tomatoes) and later in the spring they transplant their seedlings into the garden. In both these examples students develop relationships with food they eat in addition to having an indoor–outdoor connection.

When resources permit, adding indoor–outdoor interfaces by creating a “living things zone” (Nair, Fielding & Lackney, 2009) can delight students and inspire observation and investigation. I noticed students would consistently gather around a seaquarium in the foyer at BICS and watch the sea creatures inside. One student exclaimed with joy, “You don’t see a seaquarium everyday. It’s my favourite. Sea cucumbers, yeah, they spit out their guts for protection.” Students used their excitement about sea creatures and ability to watch them for long periods of time to write daily observations and creative stories in their journals.

Living things zones can include elements such as plants, sprouts, a window farm, living walls, an aquarium and small animals. In some Waldorf classes, one daily routine (first and last thing of day) consists of each child retrieving their potted plant from a table top, bringing it to their desk for the day and then putting their plant back on the tabletop at the end of the day, watering it when need be. Each child sees their plant change over time, while having something small for which they are responsible, and they always have a living thing close at hand. Even this very small and relatively easy version of a living thing zone has a profound effect on students.

If we take a broader view of nature, and humans’ place within it, we might even conceive that the very busy urban street below a school window has natural lessons waiting to be learned. Rich conversations result when we explore what is happening beyond the walls of the classroom regardless of where our school is situated.

With our students’ best interests in mind we can utilize existing indoor–outdoor interfaces to enhance curriculum. While I feel a particular affinity for green spaces and places where dirt and water and clean air are easily accessed, in reality many schools occupy sites with precious little green or naturalized space. We can find ways to incorporate the nature outside, be it the trees or the bustle of humanity on city streets, in our classrooms to create an expanded sense of freedom and joy in our students.


Nair, P., Fielding, R. & Lackney, J. (2009). The language of school design: Design patterns for 21st century schools. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, MI: DesignShare.

Taylor, A., Aldrich, R.A. & Vlastos, G. (1988). Architecture can teach … and the lessons are rather fundamental. In Context, 18(Winter), 31–38.

Wilson, E.O. (1993). Biophilia and the conservation ethic. In S.R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson (Eds.), The biophilia hypothesis (31–41). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Indira Dutt is a graduate of the Center for Cross-Faculty (Architecture and Education) Inquiry in Education at University of British Columbia. She is currently participating in a Participatory Design Process at Cassandra Public School and working at Outward Bound, Evergreen Brickworks. This article was originally published in Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education 2010 23(2). 


EE Research: Storytelling as a Tool for Young Learners

EE Research: Storytelling as a Tool for Young Learners

Using storytelling is the best way to engage very young students

from EE Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin, Editor

Research suggests that lasting attitudes toward nature and the environment form in the first few years of a child’s life; thus, instilling environmental awareness in very young children represents a key challenge and an exciting opportunity for environmental educators. Although firsthand experiences in nature in early childhood have been shown to contribute to environmental awareness, educators working in urban areas may find it difficult to arrange such experiences. In these circumstances, fictional or non-fictional narratives about nature and the environment may offer an alternate means of exposing young children to environmental subjects.

To investigate the effectiveness of storytelling as an environmental education tool, the authors of this study developed a short, fictional, preschool-level story about deforestation. The authors structured the story around the “binary opposite” concepts of security and insecurity (i.e., trees provide security, while deforestation leads to insecurity). Prior research has shown that this type of simple dichotomy, especially when paired with other narrative tools such as mystery, imagery, morals, and metaphor, can effectively capture the attention of very young children and help them construct meaning from new experiences.

In addition to the story, the authors designed a second lesson to present the same ideas in a more traditional expository format. Both the story and the expository lesson included information about important environmental regulation functions that trees perform, such as oxygen production, flood control, and air filtration.

The study took place in Southeastern Europe, a region heavily affected by deforestation. A total of 79 students from eight urban preschools with attendance from predominantly middle-class families, participated in the story-based lesson, while a control group of 80 students from the same schools received the expository lesson. Researchers assessed all students’ ideas about the importance of trees, and level of interest in tree planting as a free-time activity, prior to the lessons. A second assessment took place one week after the lessons, and a third followed about two months later.

In reviewing the assessment results, the authors found that students in the storytelling group demonstrated significantly better recall of key ideas from the lesson. One week after the lessons, when asked to explain why trees are important to humans, students in the story group focused almost exclusively on environmental regulation functions. Students in the expository group mentioned fewer regulation functions, and many students also mentioned raw material functions such as making furniture or paper. The differences between the two groups became even more pronounced eight weeks after the lesson, suggesting that the storytelling approach also improved long-term retention of the lesson material.

Both lessons increased students’ interest in tree planting as a free-time activity. Prior to the lessons, only a few students in each group chose planting trees in their hometown when asked to select two free-time activities from a list of seven options. In post-lesson assessments, over half of the students in the storytelling group and about one-third of those in the expository group selected tree planting. The authors surmise that the students gained new interest in planting trees as a result of learning about trees’ ecosystem functions and role in supporting human life. Students in the story group, who demonstrated a more significant knowledge benefit from the lesson, also exhibited a greater awareness of deforestation as a problem and a stronger motivation to act.

Despite the effectiveness of the storytelling approach, presenting very young children with vivid narratives about environmental problems does raise ethical issues.
As the authors note, stories that evoke powerful anxiety are usually inappropriate for young children. Children exposed to these narratives could develop negative feelings about the environment in general, and a desire to disengage from the natural world.

However, shielding children from environmental problems is both inappropriate and impractical. Societies will need long-term engagement from their youngest members to address these issues. And in many parts of the world, even the youngest children already have firsthand experience with the consequences of environmental degradation.
Given these observations, the authors conclude that stories designed to communicate both knowledge and hope can give young children a healthy awareness of environmental problems and help them contribute to long-term solutions.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Presenting information about an environmental problem in the form of narrative (fiction or non-fiction) may help raise environmental awareness among very young students. In this empirical study, students who participated in a story-based lesson about deforestation retained more key ideas about the problem, and demonstrated higher motivation to contribute to solutions, than did students who participated in a content-equivalent expository lesson. Stories aimed at young students should be structured around “binary opposite” concepts (such as security in a healthy environment versus insecurity in an unhealthy environment) and should include vivid imagery as well as elements of mystery and wonder. For young students in particular stories abut environmental problems should emphasize solutions and hope.

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction


Reviewed by Mike Weilbacher

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt. 319 pp. $28

We inhabit an extraordinary planet overflowing with an abundance of life: massive coral reefs built by billions of tiny invertebrates, rain forests teeming with uncountable plants and animals, frogs and toads singing in vernal ponds, bats flitting over summer meadows.

But we also live at an extraordinary moment when all of the creatures named above, and millions more, might disappear in our lifetime. And while climate change gets all the attention as an environmental game-changer, the loss of biological diversity, the burning of the Tree of Life, has too quietly slipped below the cultural radar screen.
Until now. Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the acclaimed Field Notes From a Catastrophe about climate change, has just published the definitive book on the biodiversity crisis. It is a must-read for every citizen of this planet.

As a science writer and reporter, Kolbert has few peers. Just as she did so effectively in Field Notes, Kolbert travels to the front lines of the issue, visiting the biodiversity hotspots you might expect, such as the Amazon rain forest and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But she also mixes in a ton of surprises, and much of the joy of the book is discovering where she ends up next: an Icelandic museum to visit a stuffed great auk, the last of which vanished in the 1840s, or the “Frozen Zoo,” a California lab that cryogenically stores cells from nearly a thousand species of extinct and nearly extinct species.

Kolbert begins in Panama, where she walks alongside scientists frantically searching for vanishing frogs, too quickly succumbing to a little-understood fungus. Frogs are amphibians, a group that “enjoy[s] the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals.” While creatures have always vanished throughout geological history, the natural extinction rate is incredibly small; amphibians, Kolbert reports, are now disappearing at a rate 45,000 times higher than normal.

The book also travels through the human understanding of extinction; these early chapters alone are worth the price of admission. She traces the history of extinction itself, the title alluding to five previous, natural, very large extinction events. The last big extinction occurred when that now-famous asteroid smashed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, wiping out T. rex and maybe two-thirds of all life on Earth; she walks us through the science that painstakingly led to the theory, then covers the ensuing debate.

How bad is the sixth extinction? “It is estimated,” she observes, “that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of all sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” That bad.

While extinction is natural, her book’s subtitle signals her impatience with anyone declaring the sixth extinction “natural.” Never before has one species so rearranged the planet, or so greatly altered the planet’s chemistry and biology, that so many creatures could die out. “This time,” one scientist says ominously, “we are the asteroid.”
The toughest part of the book is its last two chapters, where she visits not only the Frozen Zoo, but also the Neander Valley in Germany to see where fossils of our cave cousins – a separate human species that once lived alongside us – were discovered in 1856. Turns out that Homo sapiens likely killed off Neanderthals while, at the same time, intermingling with them (lots of us still carry Neanderthal genes). But “man the wise,” as our Latin name translates, seems to have been foolishly killing off life from Day 1. From Ice Age mastodons 10,000 years ago to flightless moas in New Zealand killed off in the 1400s, extinction has trailed in our wake for millennia.

We are burning tropical rain forests, poaching animals such as elephants and rhinos beyond their capacity to recover, and introducing invasive species everywhere (10,000 different species carried in ship ballast every single day worldwide). But the sixth extinction also has more subtle causes: Overheating the atmosphere with carbon dioxide changes land habitats, but also affects oceans, now acidifying from the excess carbon. Acidifying oceans are killing off coral – and possibly one-third of all ocean life as it does. The sixth extinction has multiple causes, but we are at the root of each.

Her last chapter, titled “The Thing with Feathers,” alludes to Emily Dickinson’s famous poem about hope, and she struggles to end on a hopeful note. “Though it might be nice to imagine there was once a time when man lived in harmony with nature,” she concludes “it’s not clear that he ever really did.”
Our “enduring legacy,” she ends, will be the sixth extinction.
The language of the Earth is losing nouns, names being plucked from the landscape: little brown bat, golden toad, Sumatran rhinoceros, Guam rail. While the book is not intended as a call to action, I hope its readers will rally around the burning Tree of Life, and agree that the preservation of this language is our highest calling, the necessary work of our time.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, an island of biological diversity in Philadelphia. He can be reached at