Integrating Local Schools

Schools are integral to the PLACE Program, and should be incorporated at each stage of the community engagement process. They are a wellspring of local expertise and energy, and institutions that unite the community. Kids are future decision makers, landowners, and investors in the fabric of a community. Yet children can also actively engage in their community as youth. The PLACE Program works with teachers to provide opportunities for students to explore and learn about their community through the lenses of cultural and natural history, and promotes active community engagement by students as well.

The program encourages teachers to ask: What are the opportunities to connect my teaching to the local community? What town resources are available? How can my students become engaged in their everyday surroundings in ways that help them feel a sense of ownership and pride in their community?

Often teachers live in a different town than the one they teach in. PLACE program community walks and presentations allow educators the opportunity to engage in and explore the home of the students with whom they spend everyday. The PLACE program also strives to connect teachers with local experts – a plant or wildlife expert, historian or elder that can then become integrated into their teaching year after year. Additionally, Place-Based Education professional development opportunities offered through the PLACE Program give teachers the tools and context to promote utilizing the community when they teach. Both students and teachers are brought into the PLACE program at every stage: teachers attending professional development workshops and both students and teachers participating on the PLACE program steering committee, and attending presentations and field trips. Students and teachers themselves can also create a wide variety of community based learning activities and initiatives.

What Is Place-Based Education?

Place-based education is one of the primary approaches that the PLACE Program uses to engage local teachers, students, and sometimes the students’ parents in explorations of their landscape. Since the 1990’s, place-based education (also referred to as “Place-Based Learning”) has emerged as a distinct entity from the related fields of outdoor education and environmental education. At least in part, place-based education may have developed as a response to the call to arms for educational change issued by Oberlin environmental studies professor David Orr in 1994. Orr argued that most of our current educational systems and pedagogical techniques are shaped by “the drive to extend human domination to its fullest,” and to “attempt to reshape the planet to our infinite wants” (Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, 1994). He felt that students were essentially being narrowly educated to operate efficiently in a world that increasingly values technological savvy, specialization, and conspicuous consumption, when instead they should be educated to live and work sustainably in their own communities with an integrated understanding of the natural and cultural elements that support them.

A direct benefit of using Place-Based Education methods in local schools is getting students outdoors, into nature. A growing body of research, in line with Orr’s thinking, links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways, according to author Richard Louv. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder”, and with it launched a national movement to get children outdoors, both for their health, and the health of the planet.

According to place-based educator and teacher trainer David Sobel,

“Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their communities, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens.” (Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities, 2004)

The PLACE Program believes that the process of analyzing and interpreting the local landscape presents tremendous opportunities for engaging a variety of individuals and organizations in the community. Because human beings–no matter what their age or background–have an inherent interest in their surroundings, there is little problem finding a motivated audience of learners. One of the strengths of place-based education, however, is that the learning need not be passive or one-way. There are ample opportunities for community members, be they elementary school students or town elders, to actively participate in discovering and sharing information about the landscape. In place-based education, the boundary between teacher and student can become quite blurry. Everyone learns and everyone has something to share, and information is flowing in all directions. Place-based education also has the potential to transcend ownership boundaries and political differences, because the focus is on celebrating the landscape as our common ground.

More information about place-based education can be found at Promise of Place.