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Reading the World, Not Just the Words

Originally appears in the Spring 2015 issue

I remember the moment when I fully grasped the power of learning outdoors. I was on a bird walk with over 20 fifth-graders when we happened on to a pond. It was spring. The water was full of frogs’ eggs, tadpoles, and detritus from the previous year’s growth. Crawly and slimy things galore! All of a sudden they were observing, hypothesizing, analyzing. They were scientists! Amid shouts of glee, they shared their findings with me and with each other. My plans for birding went out the window as I stepped back to let the pond be the teacher. That day led to many more adventures as I learned the rewards of making space for students to engage with the live happenings outside of the classroom in a practice called place-based education. While my learning began in a natural place away from the school, all teachers have lessons awaiting them in the built and natural spaces closer to their classrooms.

Place-based education brings students out into the communities to learn subject matter in deep and lasting ways and better understand the places where they live. Students learn to ask questions about nearby places and engage in worthwhile work. To answer their questions, students and teachers come to rely more on the people and places in communities and not the traditional text in books. Students learn to read the world! Teachers learn to use not just printed text, but human beings and local happenings as curricular resources. This article explores that shift and outlines some of the challenges and benefits of learning from and in the local environment.

Getting students out of the building is challenging but teachers find it energizes the learning experience. As students search for answers to their questions in new and different places, the teacher in turn finds new ways to teach. The student is more involved in the choosing of “texts” and the reasons why a certain source will be useful.

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Amy Demarest teaches standards-based curriculum design, place-based and watershed education in northern Vermont. This article is abridged with permission from her book Place-based Curriculum: Exceeding Standards Through Local Investigations. See description below. She can be reached via her website:

Place-based Curriculum: Exceeding Standards Through Local Investigations

Taylor & Francis/Routledge, New York, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-13-801346-9 (pb); ISBN: 978-1-13-801345-2 (hb), 172pp, $47.95 (pb)/$155 (hb), from 800-634-7064, Enter the code FLR40 to receive a 20% discount.

This new book provides both the rationale and tools to create meaningful, place-based learning experiences for students, while being accountable to federal, state, and district mandates. The book presents ways to connect curriculum to students’ lives, use local phenomena and issues to enhance understanding of discipline-based questions, engage in in-depth explorations of local events within cross-disciplinary learning experiences, and create units aimed at fostering social and environmental renewal. You’ll get inspired by stories of teachers who have “followed the honey” in their local communities to develop deep understanding of content, connection and context to their planned curriculum.


[i] Friere, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.

[ii] Guajardo, F. (2007). Teacher, researcher, and agent for community change: A South Texas high school experience. Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective, (2)1, 26-42.

[iii] Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

[iv] Demarest, A. (1997). This lake alive! An interdisciplinary handbook for teaching and learning about the Lake Champlain Basin. Shelburne, VT: Shelburne Farms.