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Teaching a Sense of Place

By Cheryl Dorschner Article published February 24, 2004

Poleman
Lecturer Walter Poleman, shown here in his office at the Marsh Life Sciences Building, won a 2003 Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award for his innovative teaching approach in classes like Landscape Natural History. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

It was the last day of class for a clutch of students in Walter Poleman’s Landscape Natural History course. Students scattered on a ragged piece of hilly land where the December wind whipped the paper birches that edged the Lake Champlain shoreline. No lecture. No hands raised in question. Just students, silent, each sitting on a log. Observing. Listening. Looking for colors, shapes and disruption in the land.

Poleman believes that providing a stimulating environment is key to learning. “What works best for me is choosing great landscapes and letting the students develop their relationship to the place,” he says.

“He says that he lets the landscape do the teaching,” comments Thomas Vogelmann, chair of botany. “These are humble words from someone who has invested as much time and thought as Walter has in developing and teaching his extremely successful courses.” Poleman’s creativity and successful teaching earned him the Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award for 2003.

Poleman came to UVM’s field naturalist graduate program in 1993, armed with an undergraduate degree from Cornell and a decade of experience teaching marine biology. He studied with Jeffrey Hughes, director of the discipline's graduate program and became its associate director in 1996. He currently teaches two botany courses, one natural resource course and is the principle investigator for grants at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Poleman has a short formula for developing courses. “During my first year of teaching at the University of Vermont, veteran botany professor Dave Barrington wisely counseled me to ‘put yourself in the learner’s chair.’ It’s become my mantra – one that I try to apply whenever I’m putting together a field trip, lecture, assignment or exam."

Often as not, the learner’s chair is a fallen log in the forest or on the shoreline. Kelsey Cornelius, a junior in Environmental Studies, says Poleman’s classes were likely to find her “on my knees peering into a soil pit, or making observations from the passenger seat of [botany professor] Ian Worley’s single-engine plane soaring a few thousand feet above the Champlain Valley. There was canoeing on the La Platte River and hiking Mt. Philo and Bolton Mountain….The settings were breathtaking and rich with landscape strata that could be unfolded.”

“I want students to fill their toolboxes with a set of skills fundamental to landscape analysis,” Poleman says. “Every week I introduce a few new skills, such as tree-ring analysis or geologic map interpretation. Although students apprentice on the local Vermont landscape, I want to equip them with a tool box they can use, and add to, wherever they journey in their professional lives.”

In 2001, Poleman founded Place-based Landscape Analysis and Community Education (PLACE), a partnership of UVM and Shelburne Farms, that gives local people a way to explore the natural and cultural history of their town's landscape. UVM, local schools, town officials, historical societies and conservation groups join hands to create field trips, presentations, workshops and printed materials that bring into focus this complete landscape picture of a given town. PLACE blossomed into a wonderful forum for students to accomplish academic objectives while making a positive impact on local communities.

In its first year, in Richmond, about 60 adults attended each PLACE event, and six local teachers earned graduate credit for the learning modules they created based on the lectures and field trips. Since then, PLACE has convened in Jericho, Thetford and Shelburne. This year the focus town is South Hero, and that project links simultaneously to Poleman’s Landscape Inventory and Assessment course interpreting Round Pond State Park and the entire South Hero landscape.

PLACE, Poleman says, is the perfect example of what he specializes in – “linking the needs of community and students and making it service learning. Everybody wins. We take the resources of UVM into the community. It really ups the ante for learning, because the professor is no longer the audience. He’s the facilitator and evaluator.”

Vogelmann notes that in all of Poleman’s courses he succeeds in stimulating creative thinking by “analyzing something from multiple disciplinary perspectives and then assembling these perspectives into a more all-encompassing whole.”

But to the untrained eye on a windy day in December on the shores of Lake Champlain among the birches, it looks like students sitting on logs.

“This is what Walter taught us to do in our first class,” observes Cornelius, who was among those students. “Go off on your own and discover that being a naturalist means to be a still, patient observer of nature.”