Teaching Opinion

A Sense of Place

By Sam Swope — April 15, 2005 17 min read
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David Sobel, an education professor at Antioch New England Graduate School, lives outside Keene, New Hampshire, on a wooded hill in a frame house with a wood stove. Although we’d never met, he’d offered to put me up for a night when I came to New England to visit two rural elementary schools with which he was involved.

CO-SEED's David Sobel advocates teaching kids about where they live, "because that's a place they can do something about."

I wasn’t sure what to expect. The 55-year-old Sobel had been described to me as a “rock star” and “guru” in environmental education, which made me worry he’d be full of himself. And then there was that New Agey message on his answering machine, which ended with “I hope you’re having a blissful day.”

In person, though, Sobel seemed a regular guy, part professor, part outdoorsman, with a tall, lumbering body, a bristle-brush moustache, and thick glasses. I met him at his office, we ate dinner at a local restaurant, and then we got in our cars and Sobel led the way up dark country roads to his home. He welcomed me inside, explaining, “I’m divorced,” then added that his daughter was in Costa Rica, working as an intern in an environmental school, and that his son, who lived with him most of the time, was at his mom’s that night. “My partner is usually here, too,” he added. “But tonight, she’s at her place.”

His home was tidy and comfortable. Because it was February, I was surprised to see the Christmas tree still up. “Yeah, I was a little embarrassed about that,” he said as if he’d suddenly remembered the tree on our way to his house and been chagrined.

Sobel has written several excellent books, including Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Although I hadn’t heard the term when I was teaching writing to grade school kids in New York City, it turns out that “place-based education” is what I’d been doing. It had come to me by instinct—or maybe out of desperation. As I told Sobel during dinner, I’d been horrified to discover that my students spent next to no time outdoors. But how could they? Their parents worked. They were too young to play alone in the city streets. Even in summer, they were cooped up in small apartments. Their school didn’t even have recess! To get the kids outside, I created a multidisciplinary curriculum based on trees, and a supportive principal that year let us spend two full days each month in Central Park.

Those trips were a lot of extra work. Not every one went smoothly. But when I got it right, like the day the kids scavenged all manner of nuts and seeds, then figured out how each was dispersed, or when they sat on rocks and wrote passionately about the trees around them, I knew I was teaching well.

Sobel told me, “City kids aren’t the only ones who don’t spend time outside.” A survey of 4th graders in Keene (a much smaller, safer city than New York) showed that only 25 percent played outside after school, he said. The rest watched television, even on a beautiful fall day. “Rural kids are as disconnected from their environment and as saturated in electronic media as urban kids,” he continued. And schools aren’t making it better. He complained that environmental education has been “marginalized to the point it’s devolved into 50-minute, cutesy programs on owls.” Even extended units—say, on the rain forest—may do more harm than good.

His own son, he recalled, came home teary-eyed from grade school one day, saying, “Daddy, did you know a thousand acres of rain forest disappeared while we were having lunch?” Sobel chuckled quietly at this memory, then continued: “Rain forest curriculums, especially in the early grades, impose a sense of doom and gloom on kids, engendering a sense of hopelessness about the environment. I mean, there’s not much a child can really do about a place so far away.”

He calls this kind of anxiety “ecophobia” and argues that it makes more sense to teach children about the environment in which they live and play.“Because that’s a place they can do something about,” he told me. For example, students can set up recycling bins in the cafeteria, monitor water quality in a nearby river, and help maintain local nature trails.

But place-based education, Sobel explained, isn’t limited to the natural environment. It embraces the school’s community as well, allowing elders to share their versions of local history in interviews or politicians to attend “town meetings” staged by a social studies class. In a sense, there’s nothing new in all of this. “Place-based teaching is really an elaboration of the Deweyan notion that you need to get kids engaged with real-world activities and real-world problem solving,” Sobel said. “And the real world needs to be, especially in the beginning, nearby and visible.”

These theories were put into practice in 1997, when Sobel and several Antioch colleagues launched CO-SEED (Community-based School Environmental Education). With foundation and federal funding, the group seeks to turn middling schools into better ones by making them models of place-based education. Selected schools sign on for three years, with CO-SEED providing ongoing professional development and advice; money for projects and substitute teachers; sponsorship of community events; and, most important, a part-time place-based educator with local expertise.

It’s a many-faceted approach, like a doctor administering multiple therapies in the hope that something will work. So far, 11 schools in rural New England and urban Boston have been, or are, CO-SEED sites (and two more, in Maine, will come on board next year). Sobel said five or six had been quite successful; I would be visiting two. One, he told me, made terrific use of its natural resources, the other of its human ones.

Gilford, New Hampshire, is northeast of Keene, in lake country. It was hard driving because the sun was bright against the snow, making me squint. Despite Sobel’s precise directions, I got lost somewhere around Lake Winnipesaukee, a body of water so huge it might almost be a sea. The lake was snow-covered, but I nearly went off the road when I saw cars driving across it. Here and there, holes had been sawed in the ice for fishing.

The town of Gilford is tiny, its center a crossroads with some clapboard homes, a country store, and a white-steepled church. Just half a mile down is Gilford Elementary, a K-4 school with 450 kids. It’s a nicely maintained brick building with a cupola. Behind it are fields and wooded hills. There’s also a nature trail back there. Before CO-SEED, though, few teachers had taken advantage of it. Now, all of them do.

Involving so many teachers was a gradual process. CO-SEED doesn’t descend on a school insisting that everyone get with the program. At first, it works with those who are interested, then it lets the news spread. “Eventually,” Sobel said, “others discover that place-based teaching is a more effective way of doing what they want to do anyway.”

Gilford’s principal, Sandy McGonagle, played a critical role in CO-SEED’s success at her school. She was a strong supporter from the beginning, and the collaborative atmosphere she’d fostered among her staff made it easier for teachers to learn from (and be inspired by) one another’s place-based projects. When I first met McGonagle, though, she seemed an unlikely CO-SEED ally. An attractive woman with coiffed hair and a stylish outfit, she looked more hostess than hiker, but she later assured me she’d been out on the nature trail many times.

As McGonagle walked me through the corridors, she greeted students and staff with a cheerful “good morning,” then delivered me to the school’s place-based educator, Cathy Duffy. (Although CO-SEED’s funding for this position had ended, the school district found it so valuable they’d added Duffy’s salary to the budget.) Known in the school as Cathy Co-Seed, the 34-year-old Duffy is a passionate woman with piercing blue eyes. She works at Gilford two days a week; the rest of the time she’s program director at Prescott Farm Audubon, a nearby environmental education center.

That morning, Duffy was heading to the nature trail with a 2nd grade class and their teacher, Kristie Katz. We all put on snowshoes, which took some wrangling. It was my first time snowshoeing and, like some students, I needed help getting mine on. They’re awkward things, like having tennis rackets for shoes, and I was advised to “walk like you’re wearing a diaper.”

Cathy Duffy (left), the place-based educator at Gilford Elementary in New Hampshire, and teacher Kristie Katz prepare Katz's snowshoed 2nd graders for a beaver-tracking session along the school's nature trail.

There were about 20 kids, and off we went in single file, duckling style, our snowshoes making muffled thump thump thumps. Every so often, a child would lose balance and fall or a snowshoe would come off, but it was a beautiful day and no one complained.

“You like being outside instead of in the classroom?” I asked a girl.

“Yeah,” she answered, but with a tone so matter-of-fact, I realized I’d asked a really stupid question.

“Wow, guys!” Duffy cried. “Check these tracks out!”

Tracking is a popular place-based activity, and Duffy had spotted some itty-bitty mouse prints leading from a teeny-tiny hole in the snow. But as the kids gathered round to see, a too-eager snowshoe plopped onto the tracks, erasing them. Oops.

No matter. Tracking wasn’t the main event of the day, anyway.

That past fall, Duffy told me, she had been out with Katz’s class on a plant-and-rock walk when they’d found the way flooded. Duffy imitated the amazement of her students: “We can’t get across! We can’t get across!” Eventually, she said, they’d figured out the flooding was caused by a beaver dam.

“It was wicked exciting!” she said.

And so began a yearlong beaver unit (planned in concert with Katz), which so far has involved writing stories about beavers, sketching and drawing habitats, measuring water depth, and identifying tree species favored by beavers.

“Hey, guys!” Duffy called. “Over this way!”

She took off at a clip—or as much of a clip as you can manage in snowshoes—and several kids matched her pace. It was like watching penguins hurry. I hung with the stragglers, and eventually we were all at the edge of a pond, in the middle of which sat a beaver’s lodge made of mud, sticks, and logs. It looked a little like a hut a hermit might have built. Duffy told us, “You know what’s really cool? The entrance to the lodge is underwater, but the beaver’s sleeping quarters are dry.”

When Duffy spoke to the group, her voice made an echo, and she often raised her hand to the sky, like a preacher.

I asked a boy nearby if he’d ever seen the beaver.

“No. They come out at night mostly.”

“What else can you tell me about them?”

“Um, they eat wood and sticks and bark.”

“Yuck,” I said, trying to make a joke.

“No,” the student corrected me. “They like it!”

“I see. Do beavers hibernate?”

“No. They’re active in winter.”

“Why do they build lodges in the water?”

“Some just so they can sleep in. And they stock their food underwater.”

“Why do they do that?”

“Because um ... maybe ... um ... no clue!” he said with a cheerful shrug.

“It’s because the beavers are very short,” offered a girl, “so it’s hard to get around in the snow.”

Another girl suggested it was too cold to go looking for food in the snow, but none of their thoughtful answers were on the money.We wouldn’t learn the truth of the matter until after several kids noticed a sinister set of tracks leading across the frozen pond to the lodge. For fear the ice might not hold, we couldn’t examine them. But when it was speculated that they might belong to a predator, maybe a fox or weasel, my imagination quickly connected the dots. Poor beaver!

“That’s why they build dams in the first place,” Duffy explained to the class, “so they can flood areas, which lets them swim further out to get their food. They don’t travel much beyond a hundred yards into the woods. And if they had to go out in the snow in winter to find food, they’d be a food target.”

Later I asked Katz, who’s in her 40s, what place-based learning has meant to her. She told me, “It’s the difference between teaching adaptation and habitats by reading them a story, showing pictures, trying to recreate it inside—and going out and seeing it firsthand, which makes a bigger impression.”

Katz’s evolution from traditional to place-based teacher is probably typical. Before CO-SEED, she’d skied and skated and enjoyed being outside, but she’d never considered nature a teaching resource. And even if she had, figuring out how to use it would have been too daunting. She told me, “Having the help of an environmental educator, who has the expertise and knows the resources, who can show you how it all connects to the standards you have to teach anyway—well, it’s just made all the difference.”

“Would you do place-based teaching without Cathy?” I asked.

Katz winced and said, “It would be doable, but it would be a lot harder.”

A couple of hours northwest of Gilford and across the Connecticut River is Bradford, Vermont, a town with a population of about 2,600. Its K-6 school, Bradford Elementary, has 250 kids and is surrounded by rugged, beautiful country.

“The school won’t be hard to find,” Sobel had told me. “It’s just past the army tank.”

Even though I was looking for the tank, it proved a jarring sight with its snow-covered barrel facing the road. Neatly positioned between two evergreens, it stood in front of a National Guard outpost from which many locals had been deployed during the past two years.

As promised, just past it was the school. Bradford’s principal, an affable man named Skip Barrett, wore a tie decorated with cartoon illustrations of children’s faces. He’d been working there for 30 years but had yet to shake his native Boston accent.

“How has CO-SEED been?” I asked.

“A breath of fresh air,” he answered.

“Why did you want to be a CO-SEED school?”

“Our average teacher had been here about 20 years, and there was a concern with—well, let’s just say I’ve always been a proponent that variety is as much a spark for teachers as it is for the kids.”

Bradford had been a CO-SEED school for two years. With one more year to go, the number of teachers taking kids outside had grown, but not as dramatically as at Gilford. More impressive to me were the many ways Bradford Elementary had embraced (and been embraced by) the surrounding community. Everyone I spoke to credited this success to Heather Toulmin, the school’s place-based educator.

Thirty-three and pregnant with her first child, Toulmin has had a meandering career that has included a stint at law school as well as work with prisoners, illiterate adults, and environmental groups. She has a wholesome, open face and a straightforward, unpretentious manner. Her thin, gentle voice often lilts up at the end of a sentence, turning it into a question, as in, “I’m not someone who’s ever said, ‘Gee, this is what I want to be when I grow up?’ ”

Toulmin has a genius for school-community projects. To name just a few she’s shepherded during the past two years: Kindergartners grew flowers in class, then planted them on Main Street with aid from the Bradford Beautification Committee; the merchants’ association and a local police officer helped arrange Bike & Walk to School & Work Day; and a dozen adult volunteers ran workshops for kids on hobbies like carpentry, photography, yoga, and golf. (Indeed, Bradford Elementary’s projects have attracted so many volunteers, the school had to write a grant to fund a community-parent coordinator.)

During my visit, yet another ambitious project was well under way. To get to know the community and understand its needs, Toulmin attends meetings of various groups. At a gathering of conservation-minded folk, she’d discovered that most Bradford residents didn’t know all the local lands open to the public. So she suggested that the 5th and 6th graders get the word out by making an informational brochure and map. The school’s enrichment teacher signed on to help, as did members of the conservation group. Toulmin also tracked down cartographers to help map the trails.

When the enrichment class met, I spoke with the students about the project. Joe, who wore a sleeveless T-shirt, explained, “We’re making a map for people about all the properties in this area so they know where they can hike and camp and stuff. ’Cause a lot of people like to hike and camp and go fishing and hunt, but they don’t know where.”

“Do you hunt?”

“Yeah, with my dad. I shot a deer last fall.”

“What did that feel like?”

“It felt good. I was surprised I even hit it!”

“What did you do with it?”

“We ate it.”

In Vermont, 5th and 6th graders at Bradford Elementary designed a brochure and map displaying local lands open to the public. Here they watch as a printer completes the job.

The kids explained that they’d divided into groups to work on different aspects of the project. Some helped with copy, some mapped, some did layout, and some, Joe told me, “did outdoor effex.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Like how to behave when you’re outside.”

I still didn’t get it, so Toulmin helped me out, saying, “He means ethics.”

Joe’s best friend, Sam, had a shaved head, blue eyes, and a tie-dye shirt. His group was responsible for the descriptions that would go in the brochure, descriptions they were now editing. There’d been research, Sam told me. “Like, if there were trails, we had to go see were they marked and how long they were, or if they were narrow or easy going or muddy, and we had to tell, like, the wildlife that’s in the area.”

“Plus tell where to park,” added Joe. “So we give them directions.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Sam. “And say if there’s restrooms.”

I asked the boys if they’d known these places before doing the project.

“Only some,” said Joe. “Like, I barely knew the Munsipall Forest.”

“The what?”

Again Toulmin came to my aid: “He means the Municipal Forest.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Muninsipall.”

“Will you go back to the Municipal Forest?”

“Yeah, I’ll go with Sam.”

Mentally, I ticked off subjects and skills this project addressed: geography, mapmaking, measuring, animal habitats, research, diverse uses of the forest, observation, descriptive writing, and editing. After speaking to a plump, giggly blond-haired girl named Courtney, I added social studies and public speaking, as well.

Her group’s job was to interview the landowners. She told me, “First we called the town hall to find their names. And I never even knew we had a town hall. So then we had to call the landowners and ask what they allowed. Like, could you hike there, bike, fish, snowmobile—whatever.”

“Did you know these people, or were you calling strangers?”

“Some were strangers.”

“Wow. Was that hard for you?”

“At first I was nervous ’cause I’m a really shy kid. But once I did it, I kind of got the hang of it.”

When a parent and a graphic designer (who’d volunteered to help the kids with the layout) arrived with a large van, the students, Toulmin, the enrichment teacher, and I left school to visit a print shop, where we saw firsthand how the brochure would be produced.

The enrichment teacher’s name is Michael Morgan, and this was his first year on the job. I said, “This whole project must be a lot of work for you.”

“A lot more than I’d expected,” he admitted.

“Would you do it again?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “The kids have this expectation now. They keep telling me, ‘We want to do this again!’ ”

It’s a sign of the times that I asked the principals at both Gilford and Bradford whether CO-SEED had improved test scores.

McGonagle said classes immersed in the program tend to do better than those that are not, and Barrett reported that math and reading scores in Bradford had improved and that disciplinary referrals had fallen an impressive 30 percent. “I stop short of making a direct link between CO-SEED, test scores, and discipline,” he added. “But in the culture and climate of this school, the kids are more engaged.” Despite the lack of an incontrovertible link, Barrett wasn’t taking any chances; already he was looking for ways to fund Toulmin’s position once the CO-SEED grant was done.

So what I wanted to know, and what I asked everyone, was this: “If place-based learning is so great, why isn’t the whole world doing it?”

Several obstacles were mentioned. There were the logistical problems of taking kids outside: permission slips, transportation, worries about liability, the need for substitutes. There was also the curricular element. Not every teacher’s mind works in a place-based way. Not every teacher, when teaching rock formation, thinks to do a unit on the local slate quarries. Not every teacher, when teaching the Civil War, brings her students to the local graveyard, where they can research the veterans buried there, then has them write about the soldiers’ lives and present the biographies to the local historical society.

Another obstacle everyone cited was fear—specifically, fear of high-stakes testing. Given the consequences legislated by the No Child Left Behind Act, many teachers are afraid to try something new. It seems safer to take no chances: drill and kill, drill and kill.

“The thing teachers need to understand,” Sobel told me, “is that you can’t really teach to a test. Because you never know what’s going to be on the test. So what students need are problem-solving and analytical skills to help them deal with whatever they encounter in assessments.”

What seemed to trouble Sobel most, though, and roused him to indignant eloquence was the way NCLB inspired such a limited view of education. “Of course academic achievement is important,” he said. “But the sole function of a school shouldn’t be to turn out good test-takers. Schools should also be developing the skills of civic participation, and students should be exploring their communities and helping to make them better, healthier places to live. If it’s only academics, you diminish the virtue and potential that a school can achieve.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as A Sense of Place


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