Unlike most teachers I know, I did not get into teaching because I wanted to mentor young people.
I graduated from college with a degree in American Studies and the lofty intention of reviving democracy in America. My thinking was, if people want happy, healthy communities, then they need to know as much as they can about where they live and how they can participate in the decision-making process. After working for a string of non-profits, I realized that authentic change is rooted in education. Antioch New England Graduate School was one of the only schools I could find that offered a program that almost perfectly aligned with my personal philosophies. That program was place-based education. So, in this roundabout way, I became a teacher.
How often have you been encouraged to buy local food? Support your local economy? It’s time we embrace local learning! Place-based education (PBE) is a growing educational movement that aims to teach students basic curricular content and skills through their local environment—the place where they live. By applying what they learn in their neighborhood, town, or city, students are able to understand how topics connect to them and how they are capable of affecting real change. Instead of standing on the outside looking in, students stand within their world, and work and learn as an active community member.
Southwest Charter School, where I teach seventh and eighth grades, reflects the mission of PBE. A good amount of learning takes place in a combination of urban and wild environments outside our school walls. All grade levels go for neighborhood walks on a regular basis, and the Portland Streetcar—made in Oregon by United Streetcar, the only streetcar manufacturer in the U.S.!—stops by our building, allowing students to explore downtown easily and to volunteer in local retirement living centers, community gardens, and businesses. Our seven-block walk to the Willamette River is an easy jaunt, and students often investigate the banks, scrambling over rocks and weaving through the snowberry bushes and cottonwood trees.
A few years ago, my seventh and eighth graders set out to identify one of the biggest problems facing our neighborhood. After many interviews and much deliberation, we concluded that too much dog waste littered our neighborhood. Stinky fumes accosted us when we went on walks, and the kindergarteners labeled the area “Dog Poop City.” We spent the next few weeks surveying neighbors, researching city policies, and mapping dog waste.
The solution we proposed and presented at City Hall combined education with increased enforcement. The Oregonian, a local newspaper, covered our City Hall presentation. We later received a letter from the city commissioner in charge of parks and recreation stating that our work influenced his decision to launch a dog-owner education campaign in city parks. The fact that so many adults genuinely listened to my students – and that their hard work actually affected change – was unbelievably powerful. My students felt deep pride in their work and learned that they truly have a meaningful voice in their community.
One popular misconception of PBE is that it is an “add-on.” Teachers have to cover standard-based content in their classrooms, and many feel that there is not enough time left over for project- or community-based work. However, I have found that it is possible to cover the standards through PBE. For example, an in-depth study of streetcars covers standards from science (engineering, electricity) to economics (costs and benefits of a city installing a streetcar system) to history (Portland was one of the first American cities to build streetcar lines in the late 1800s). Writing, reading, and speaking skills are applied and practiced throughout such units. And, students become adept at public speaking because they often present their work to authentic audiences—elected officials and other community members.
I think that many schools and teachers can implement PBE. It does, however, require a shift of thinking and a willingness to ask yourself, “How does this content connect to our neighborhood, town, or city? Who around here has a stake in this?”
For me, the biggest testament to the success of PBE is the transformation of students, especially if they have transferred from another school. I have seen kids come in timid and insecure, and leave confident, outspoken and mature, and I think it’s because PBE classrooms call upon their students to be an active part of their community. The lessons my students learn at their internships with the local senior center and pet shelter mirror real life. My students may not be as well versed in how to take a timed test or follow a structured class schedule, but they are practiced in key 21st century skills like working with others, creative problem solving, leadership, and communication.
Just as we constantly study and explore and familiarize ourselves with our local community, we do the same with the people in our classroom. Kids feel like this is a place where they can be themselves. I have several students who are self-professed “nerds” and one whose biggest dream is to be a rap artist. They talk openly about their passions for bird watching, astrophysics and goat farming – and they are safe to speak without fear of being teased or shot down. Many of my students refer to their peers as their family members, and I feel the same way. We learn together, fight together, solve problems together, come to know each other’s habits and triggers, laugh and cry together. What can be a greater lesson in the power and importance of community than this?
Place-based education has allowed me to follow my passions, become a teacher, and, in some small way, revive democracy. Through service internships, neighborhood walks, and city hall proposals, my students —though young—are engaged in their community and are impacting the democratic process in Portland, one dog poop campaign at a time. And I think our community is a little bit happier, and a little bit healthier because of it.
Sarah Anderson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is a middle school humanities teacher at Southwest Charter School, located in Portland, Oregon. She is currently in her seventh year as a classroom teacher. Before teaching at Southwest Charter, Sarah taught in an independent school in Annapolis, MD, led hikes as a teacher naturalist in the California Redwoods, and managed a garden crew on an educational farm in Vermont. Originally from northern Vermont, Sarah received her Master’s in Education from Antioch New England Graduate School.