OF PLACE AND EDUCATION
By DAVID SOBEL
David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of
Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch's new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed—from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses, and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it. David advocates using students' home turf to study topics and issues related to sustainability, not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. David is the author of a number of books including
Children’s Special Places and
The First Day of School
Whether it’s third grade or middle school science, or teacher education at the graduate level, the tone of the pedagogy is set on the first day of school. The cultural norms are launched, the core values exposed. In my classes, on the first day with teachers in training, I want to tune them to the particularities of the local community and the natural environment. On the third of September in southwestern New Hampshire, what’s salient? First, it’s almost always uncomfortably hot for school. It still feels like summer. The feeling is often, “Do we really have to be inside on such a beautiful day?” Second, the swamp maples have started to turn. While most everything else is still velvety green, the swamp maples are harbingers of the autumnal blush. Third, from slime mold and stinkhorns in the bark-mulched parking lot islands to golden Fly Agarics on the edge of school playgrounds, fungi are cropping up everywhere. My challenge is to tune the curriculum to the particularities of this time and this place.
I’m up early to collect mushrooms—down through the dew-soaked field behind my neighbor’s house to the trail along Eliza Adams Gorge, a hemlock-shrouded stream with steep, schisty banks. Under the thick, light-sponging canopy of the hemlocks, no shrubs grow in the understory. Instead the undisturbed soil provides the perfect matrix for a variety of mushrooms—Lactarius, Corals, Russulas and Amanitas. Five days ago I had cruised the trail to make sure there was an ample supply of Amanita virosa, Destroying Angels, for my first class. I’ll need a dozen, one for each pair of people in my class to do a focused drawing and observation. I love the way the stark whiteness of their stalks and caps makes them seem to glow in the tree shadows. But a lot changes in five days, and most of the Destroying Angels are gone; I can find only six or seven.
Place-based education, just like vernacular cuisine, means working with what’s fresh, cooking with what the garden provides on that day.
Frustrated, I seek further afield and find myself in another grove of hemlocks, further down the stream, that I’ve never entered. It’s thrilling to find a new place almost right in my backyard and this hideaway turns up a number of Amanita citrinas. These are slightly lemony, not as statuesque as the virosas, but to the untrained eye, look very similar. My class today will focus on differentiating between the two species rather than focusing on just one. Place-based education, just like vernacular cuisine, means working with what’s fresh, cooking with what the garden provides on that day.
I drive to work, stash my shoulder bag and basket of fungi in my office and dash outside to gather leaves—40 each of sugar maple, red (or swamp) maple, silver maple, Norway maple and box elder, sometimes called ash-leaved maple. They all grow around the fringes of our small six-acre campus. To the west, we butt up against the K-Mart and Walgreen’s shopping plaza, to the north there’s a Greased Lightning and a convenience store, to the east a residential neighborhood, and to the south, a bike path and beyond that a little patch of undeveloped flood plain forest. We’re in the middle of the city, but there’s a verge of forest, a quarter acre ecopark and a little corner of aspens, gray birch and sumacs along the bike path. It’s not much, but then again, it’s similar to what most public elementary schools have, or at least what teachers and children have access to. So I’m dedicated to modeling the use of what’s available. When God gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Off to my first class, the Professional Seminar. The first semester ProSem serves a number of purposes. Primarily, it’s the context for the internship choice process. But we also solve problems, deal with emergent issues and get to know the local environment. After all, most of the twenty, thirty and forty-something-year-old students are new to Keene, New Hampshire and the Monadnock Region. Just as it’s a good idea to do a field trip around the school on the first day of kindergarten, it’s good to get adult learners out in their new community. And since it’s hot and sunny, we’re going swimming. We make quick carpool arrangements and drive north about fifteen minutes to a swimming hole on the Ashuelot River.
We park in a little gravel lot and head across recently hayed meadows toward the river at the base of Surry Mountain. I’ve chosen this spot because I know everyone won’t want to swim and the walk is as sweet as the swimming. Swallows swoop, the mountain looms invitingly, the grass glistens. Is this really school? A shelving ledge slips into the river; there’s a gravely little beach. The water is bracing but not too cold and you can ride a big eddy up to the top of a bit of swift water, move out into the current, ride down, and slip back into the eddy for another circuit. As we dry off, I place us geographically in the watershed: The Ashuelot rises in ponds about twenty-five miles north, passes down through here to the Surry Mountain Dam built for flood control protection of Keene, then through the center of Keene—where it was the economic lifeblood of the city for most of the ninteenth century—and on another thirty miles through other industrial towns into the Connecticut River in Hinsdale. I’m modeling watershed consciousness as a component of place-based education.
I lay out the purposes of the Professional Seminar as well. There’s something wonderful about our first formal seminar in bathing suits with towels draped around our necks on a sun-warmed slab of granite. We all wish we could spend the rest of the afternoon by the river.
My next class is Place-based Education, a required course for the twelve new students in the Science and Environmental Education concentration in the Integrated Learning program. My goals in this course are to teach some natural and cultural history content while at the same time teaching the pedagogy, processes and politics of education grounded in place. Instead of telling them why we’ve created this new term place-based education, I have them read a teacher-written article from Community Works Journal and have them identify the core elements of this teacher’s practice that are unique. I’m trying to model definitions coming up and out of primary source material rather than descending from on high. Then, because our first unit of study is on learning local trees and figuring out why leaves change color, we head outside for leaf identification.
The first long assignment is to do a six-week observation of a sugar maple tree as it changes color. I ask the students to chart the color change, do a series of whole tree and single twig and leaf drawings, and develop an investigation related to the tree’s preparation for winter. Against this backdrop we’ll also learn to identify twenty local trees, create service-learning projects in the local ecopark, work with a downtown historical museum to develop artifact-based programs for the fourth grade history and geography curriculum, learn about community treasure hunts, school audits, green buildings and how to connect elementary students with homelessness issues.
For their first homework assignment, each student has to find a sugar maple to observe near their home, and so I need to be sure that everyone can identify a sugar maple. Last year I found that when I assumed everyone could figure this out on their own, too many people observed Norway maples, which are often planted in urban settings because of their hardiness and tolerance for salt. And since Norway maples are boring from a color change perspective, I’m focusing on learning maples today.
Each group of four students gets fifty or sixty leaves. The challenge is to sort them into leaves that are alike. I’ve given them five different species, but I don’t tell them that. And I’ve chosen a range of leaves within each species—large and small, from the interior and exterior of the tree, some with insect damage, some in perfect shape. The students have to develop an understanding of the species distinctions in the leaf shapes and separate these attributes from the individual variations. Once they’ve created five groups, then they have to name each species on the basis of some distinctive characteristics—pointy deep valleys leaf, red stem jagged leaf, long stem soft U’s leaf—and create a list of these characteristics. Together we bestow their formal names and make sure that everyone can tell the difference between sugar and Norway maples. (The little bit of latex that leaks from the stem when you pick a Norway maple leaf is a diagnostic feature.) Finally, we all sketch a sugar maple, creating an outline of the whole tree. They will all do this on their own for their home tree, create copies of it, and use it to record color changes from week to week.
What are the underlying values in this class? I’ve tried to model a constructivist approach in both creating a definition of place-based education and in learning diagnostic attributes of different maples. I’ve used materials right outside the door of the school as the focal point for curriculum. I’ve tried to balance a focus on content (knowing tree species) and process (posing problems rather than delivering information). I’ve tried to pair more knowledgeable students with students who have less knowledge about today’s topic. And I’ve put an emphasis on beauty—my syllabus is graphically attractive, the leaves are presented in wicker baskets, the outdoor seating is arranged for coziness and to facilitate focus. I want students to feel comfortable, challenged and refreshed. I want my practice to embody what I preach.
My last class of the day is Problem Solving Science. Whereas the Place-based Education class is for first semester students, the science class is for last semester students in our four-semester (fall, spring, summer, fall) program. These students are in their second internship, eager to be done and have their own classrooms. My class is the last of the week at the end of Friday afternoon. Talk about senioritis! Therefore it has to be both fun and relevant, and though I try hard, I am not always successful.
Only about half of these students have taken the Place-based Education course, so we start with a similar natural science approach but then go off in different directions. This year I start with a study of mushrooms. Trees are conventional, friendly, recognizable—an easy place to start. Mushrooms, on the other hand, are weird, smelly, hallucinogenic and poisonous, and not normally part of the elementary curriculum. But mushrooms and all fungi are decomposers; they complete the nutrient recycling that the trees and other photosynthesizers started. They wrap things up and give things a new start, so they’re poised at the same point in the ecological cycle as the finishing students in my program.
Since most of my students don’t have much knowledge about mushrooms, they’re put in the same role as elementary students. And the oddness of mushrooms makes them an interesting curriculum development challenge. But I’m not really trying to get my students to teach about mushrooms; I want them to understand that our study of mushrooms is a prototype for how to approach any natural science topic—insects, rocks, butterflies, salamanders, gerbils. The rules of engagement are roughly the same. Finally, mushrooms make a good choice for the beginning of the fall semester because that’s when they’re prolific and it gives us all a good excuse to be outside in the woods before the tough sledding of November through March. (When the weather turns, we head inside and focus on physical science—clay boats to teach weight, volume and density; simple machines; light and sound; paper towel testing to teach the scientific method; and sometimes paper airplanes.)
We start by talking about science curriculum they will use for their classrooms in the next couple of months. We’ll be planning curriculum, addressing the standards, and creating assessments, so the first thing I try to make clear is that the course is designed to serve their science planning needs—a laboratory for their elementary classroom teaching. Matt describes the plan in his sixth grade class to have the mandated study of geology focus on the slate mining history in his town of Guilford, Vermont. We consider the possibility of having his students make their final presentation to our graduate class. Cara enthuses that she’s going to get to teach the oceans curriculum that she designed in the Integrated Learning class in her fourth grade internship in New Castle, New Hampshire. The rocky intertidal shore is just a stone’s throw from the edge of the playground at her school. Jana explains that since her inner-city school in Boston does an integrated social studies curriculum on immigration in the fall, and an integrated science unit in the winter, it’s going to be hard for her to do much science. So we brainstorm science topics that might actually enhance the immigration unit.
With the context set, we launch into mushrooms. A blank chart for mushroom terminology and mushroom questions is posted on the front wall. I delicately distribute beautiful white mushrooms in all stages of maturation to pairs of students in the class along with an observation sheet taken from Ellen Doris’ wonderful book, What Do Scientists Do? Their task is to complete an accurate pencil sketch of their mushroom, notice distinctive features and record questions they have about their mushroom or fungi in general. A sedate quiet settles over the room as they become immersed in drawing, but questions start to spill out as their drawings take shape. What are these funny rough spots of the cap? There’s a slug in mine; is it eating the mushroom? Is this mushroom poisonous? Should I be concerned about touching it? What’s the difference between a mushroom and a fungus?
Drawings completed, we discuss the observations as a group and we start to collect a list of mushroom terminology—the vulva is the sac at the base of the mushroom; the veil is the skirt of tissue on the shaft of the mushroom below the cap; the cap is convex on some but flat on others; the rough bits of tissue on the cap are called warts. Slowly we enter into this new world.
I lay out all the Amanita virosas on one table and all the Amanita citrinas on another table and ask a couple of students to put each group in order from youngest to oldest. (No names have been attached to any of the mushrooms at this point.) It’s an interesting task because it’s not a function of size. Rather you have to look at the shape of the cap, the character of the flesh, the shape and integrity of the veil. Without my telling them how to figure this out, a consensus emerges, and we have started to create a visual representation of the fruiting and spore-producing phase of the mushroom life cycle.
By this point, everyone is anxious to know what we’ve been looking at. I read an excerpt from an elegantly illustrated version of the fairytale Snow White. It’s the section where the enraged Queen retires to her secret laboratory in the dark recesses of the castle and concocts a poison apple that will kill Snow White even if she just takes one bite. At this point, I circulate around the room to show everyone the illustration of the witch’s lair. There on the workbench are deadly nightshade, a mandrake root and the white mushroom we have been looking at—the Destroying Angel.
Everyone is a bit shocked that we have been working with a deadly poisonous mushroom. But I have chosen to work with Destroying Angels to create a bit of cognitive dissonance and to assure that I have everyone’s attention. I clarify that mushroom toxins are not absorbable through the skin. But to drive home the seriousness of not eating mushrooms to children I suggest that whenever children handle mushrooms, they be required to wash their hands afterwars. Now, of course, there’s lots of interest in the class on how you determine the edibility/toxicity of mushrooms we’re going to find.
By 7 pm I am mostly alone in the building as I collect the mushroom detritus for appropriate disposal, clean the classroom and make notes for next week. It’s been a long but rich day of immersion in the water, leaves, fungal flora, classrooms and educational issues of the Monadnock region. The mycelial threads of place-based education are beginning to spread out from the Integrated Learning program into rural and urban schools across New England?
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