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Introduction to this Special Issue

Originally appears in the Summer 2016 issue

Over the years, the word green has developed so many meanings and internal contradictions that its meaning in the public sphere has been diminished for consumers and activists alike. In contrast, Green Teacher magazine has been steadfast in its vision of providing practical, inspiring ideas that has buoyed the work of educators for more than two decades. In these pages, teaching green has come to be known as a rich mix of strategies to foster inquiry and discovery in the world outside the classroom and exemplary teaching practices that are inventive, energetic and inspirational. By presenting a view of education writ large, Green Teacher has maintained that this message is not just for classroom teachers but for all those who consider how to best educate youth, and offers the world as a place for endless exploration and inquiry. It has been an honor to serve as guest editor of this special issue on place-based education.

To begin, let’s take a step back to look at the magazine’s title and ask somewhat playfully: What makes a teacher green? If green suggests practices that will protect our earth—and our society—for future generations, then what are the different choices educators face about what and how students will learn? Teachers are under a lot of mandates these days—to teach to the test, to measure learning in strictly-defined outcomes, and to deliver socially accepted “important” knowledge—mostly in the classroom. Yet amidst all these pressures, some teachers manage to provide rigorous and worthwhile learning that involves taking kids out of school, meeting up with community partners, and orchestrating deep learning in different kinds of places. They carve out time in crowded schedules and find funding for buses. They grow gardens with local citizens—some of whom need the food that is being grown. They orchestrate field experiences where students collect data, observe phenomenon, restore wetlands and interview elders, town planners and world-changers. Educators are learning to listen to students in new ways and these conversations drive the agenda for more of the curriculum. These bold undertakings represent a huge commitment of teachers’ time and energy as they weave together different learning opportunities with a mix of skills, beliefs and strategies. They become adept at staying accountable to a variety of masters, sometimes in ways that counter or challenge what lies at the heart of green teaching.

This intentionally eclectic educational approach to learning outside the classroom has become known as place-based education (PBE), a practice closely associated with problem based, project-based and personalized learning. This blend of practices presents opportunities for teachers to aim for higher goals as they implement principles of sustainability, service learning and critical, democratic education. As a result, what is experienced by students is more useful, interesting and fun than “regular” school and the work that they do means more to themselves and others.

From a planning point of view, this vibrant mix of opportunities presents the educator with four elements with which to create curriculum: personal experience, acquisition of content, understanding of place, and a student’s future role in or service to their community. In my book, Placebased Curriculum Design: Exceeding Standards Through Local Investigations, I explore the implications of these elements
and pose them as four questions:
• How can I better relate school to my students’ life experience?
• How can I help students better understand how this big idea works in the real world?
• How can I help students better understand this place?
• How can I help students better understand themselves and their possible futures?

In this issue, educators from across North America share their unique answers to these questions. Their stories give testimony to the creative and intellectual capacity of teachers and their ability to craft original and worthwhile learning experiences that weave together these elements in different ways. While each article tells its own story, together they present a wide, vibrant portrayal of how we might better understand the power of learning in the context of place.

Place-based Education is not new. A fully equipped toolbox for the 21st century contains strategies that are both new and old. Its design includes looking back and gleaning the best of what we have learned and looking forward to the many things we need. Like many green ideas labeled as “innovative,” strategies referred to as new are often well-used, practical answers to how we might learn and live together.

This “new” wisdom embraces the simplicity of paying attention to what is around us, learning to notice the little things and hear people share their experiences. This commitment is apparent in our first article by Salvatore Vascellaro, who writes about his students’ community explorations. This very basic tenet of PBE highlights the powerful idea that learning is based on human connections.

Alison Elliott reminds us of the power of gathering together in community with her portrayal of her school’s ceremony held to pass down the caring of the school gardens. And there is a sweet do-ability to the idea of collecting items from investigations as suggested by John Paull in his invitation to make “pocket museums.” These simple practices show the value of exploring where you are and connecting
with others.

Such human interactions resonate with students on a personal level and provide a better chance that school experiences prove useful throughout their lifetimes. Such activities suggest that school should not be drudgery—that it might be a place of joy, relevance and personal purpose.

Place-based education is academically rigorous. While out-of-school learning has often been misunderstood as a fun add-on, without much academic purpose, green teachers find ways to embed these forays into the community with significant educational content. Standards, understood broadly as the way a system articulates what students should know and be able to do, provide teachers with reference points and goals they must attend to. Whether it is the specificity with which a STEM standard guides the building of a green house as suggested by Susy Ellison or the more future-oriented attributes put to use in the REEL project, the teacher translates these standards into carefully crafted learning opportunities.

When students take part in the authentic practice of the discipline, such as gathering evidence and conducting interviews, there is a level of engagement that invites more responsible scholarship. Daniel Shaw maintains this commitment when he invites his students to be practicing scientists and collect data in the field—information that is then shared with local scientists. He notes that when the work is used by others, it inspires young scientists to perform work of higher quality.

Place-based education involves new kinds of learning. It is a particular skill to orchestrate learning in a different setting. Teachers are surprised—and delighted—as they develop their talents as an organizer of these out-of- classroom experiences. They come to believe in the power of inquiry and learn how to step aside so students can engage with other teachers. As Mallory Primm advises us “Let the place be the teacher.”

Green teachers are active learners themselves spurred on by their own love of learning. As we see in Christa Dillabaugh and her colleagues’ account of their travels with teachers to the Amazon Rainforest, these teachers can generate boundless enthusiasm and good will when challenged. They learn about learning as they experience following their own questions in new situations.

Green teachers need 21st century tools! Armed with not just books, they come to work with everything from hammers and nails to the newest technology. Education gets noisier! It may entail the buzz of a drill, the sound of a shovel as it hits the ground, or the laughter of a room full of many generations sharing stories.

Place-based education is not just environmental education. While PBE draws many of its lessons and inspiration from environmental educators it is a newly-defined practice that intentionally embraces all environments. Similar to how we have learned to “read” the natural landscape, we now can apply the same techniques to understanding culverts, the slope of a roof or the complications of town planning. There are so many ways people come to know a place.

If we look at problems and perplexities in places, rather than through the narrow lens of subjects, or the sometimes confining view of “nature,” we are better able to understand the whole of things. One teacher might want students to know where food comes from or where water flows. Another might want students to be familiar with the stories of a place’s resiliency and how people worked together and helped each other in times of need. In order to understand these stories, students discover that places have many layers of meaning. Every place, and the story it tells, is unique. When students’ share their work publicly, new stories become known. Jennifer Ogden found a way to share a “hidden” story of her place when she learned about a lost herd of bison in her region. This history was mostly unknown in her community. Her students learned and shared the story— through art—in a public showing at the local mall.

Place-based education involves authentic work. In many iterations of place-based education, students are involved in active problem-solving and address real issues. Like the most innovative engineering feats that will shepherd us through the 21st century, students find completely new ways to address complex community issues such as energy use, homelessness and issues of social justice. Often these quests don’t resemble traditional learning—perhaps one of the reasons after-school programs and alternative programs have been the home to so much of PBE’s innovation.

Authentic assessment comes to mean whether the project actually works. Did the job get done? Are the corners joined? Will the roof stay on? Real life provides the feedback on a job well done. This planned relevance is considered in Weible and Zimmerman’s article as they explore what learning is involved for students to become life-long stewards of their place. In their research, they sought ways for ecological issues to be more connected to students’ daily, lived experiences.

To address real issues in authentic ways, it means that teachers develop an ability to deal with the unexpected. Their job becomes more of supporting the students in their search for a solution and less about telling them what to do. The teacher asks: What do my students need in this [new] situation? Students design their own answers. The Cody Youth Ambassadors in Michigan learn to collaborate with multiple partners to address community issues and together tackle projects that emerge from a collaborative examination of what the community needs. New situations require concrete knowledge and skills, nothing is set out ahead of time. You build it as you go.

Jennifer Cody and her colleagues give us an example of how this planned flexibility might work when they suggest the need to learn new vocabulary to understand the local zoning issue they studied. They suggest we can learn to “unpack a local controversy” in order to better address what students need to learn to navigate the complex world they live in.

What emerges from all these different possibilities is a survival kit for the 21st century. There are many entry points and ways that teachers weave together their obligations to the student, the subject, the place and our collective future. Teaching green in the 21st century can and must be a more fluid undertaking of merging students’ needs and dreams with community issues and looping through the myriad of “school tasks” to complete a tapestry that wraps each learner in purpose and possibility.


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Amy Demarest is a former middle-school teacher who now works with both formal and non-formal educators in a variety of settings. She teaches watershed and place-based education in northern Vermont and elsewhere around the globe when opportunities arise. Her most recent book: Place-based Curriculum Design: Exceeding Standards Through Local Investigations (Routledge, 2014) provides teachers the rationale and the tools to create meaningful place-based learning in their communities. Connect with her via her website:

Special Thanks go to Emily Barrett, a graphic designer and editorial assistant whose creative and boundless talents as a writer and organizer have contributed significantly to this issue. Emily also provided the cover idea and created the tool icons used to illustrate this article.