“Since the ecosystems surrounding schools…vary as dramatically as the nation’s landscape, the term ‘environment’ may mean different things at every school; it may be a river, a forest, a city park, or a garden carved out of an asphalt playground.”

- Gerald Lieberman & Linda Hoody, 1998

What Kind of Places?

Busy sky with street lightsOne of the most significant ways that place-based education has defined itself in recent years is by having a more inclusive, just view of what places we might turn our attention to. David Gruenewald brought this to our attention in a foundational article “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place” in which he invited educators to consider the equity of our attitudes about place. In the tradition of Paulo Friere, Gruenewald suggests that when students truly understand the lessons that exist in the places where they live, they come to “reinhabit” their place and redirect their personal futures.

As a teacher who has designed many learning experiences in our local watershed I was thrilled with the challenge of turning teachers’ attention to the built environments where we lived. Instead of heading to the mountaintop, we explored our urban neighborhood and the rich learning opportunities that abound there. Our pre-service students visited service agencies, met community activists, explored the history of the area and conducted an ethnographic video project interpreting the built environment with the task of capturing the “heart” of the neighborhood.

It is relatively straightforward to leave the classroom to see how photosynthesis works. But if you are seeking evidence of climate change or a change in consumer patterns or demonstrations of social justice—it is a much more complicated enterprise. It is no longer a question of an idea and a place—but many ideas interacting in a number of ways in a variety of places.

Looking up at wooded treetops

Some questions can be explored in all places. Community, interdependence, change, systems… can be viewed in a variety of settings.

Is this place safe?

How have humans impacted this environment?

How do people get their food?

These are universal questions.

There are other places that suggest certain questions to the exclusion of others. We would tend to look in natural places for instances of plant succession and erosion, rural places for stories of old buildings and farming and urban places for traffic issues, high-rise dwellings and changing demographics.

But in this ever-changing world, we lessen our opportunities by limiting certain lessons to certain places. It is good for us to continually rethink what kind of lessons places have to offer.

While urban areas offer a multitude of lessons about living together and jumping off points to consider global questions of development and diversity they can also be sites to explore natural systems, interdependence and change over time. We can consider nesting structures in a natural environment, social gathering places in the forest….the stories that await us in the places we live are limitless in their potential to educate and transform.

Using one’s watershed is one of the most exciting, powerful and straightforward ways to center learning in a local place. It links learning to the land and water nearby and invites ways to consider our impact locally as well as the importance of water universally.



This Lake Alive! coverThis Lake Alive!  A Handbook for teaching and Learning about the Lake Champlain Basin is edited and written by Amy Demarest. Shelburne Farms: Shelburne, Vermont. 

Published in 1997, is presented as subjects that tell the stories of Lake Champlain. Subject-based chapters include Geology, Geography, Language Arts, Math, Human History, Nautical Archeology, Natural History and Ecology.

Chapters are in PDF downloadable format so that students can have their own local “book” of local stories. Teachers can use these stories alongside a traditional subject study or design their own interdisciplinary unit based on the stories of the Lake Champlain Basin.

 1.  Front Matter
 2.  Getting Wet
 3.  Geology
 4.  Geography
 5.  History 
 6.  It's About Time 
 7.  Nautical Archeology 
 8.  Language Arts 
 9.  Math 
10. Field Trips 
11. Research & Inquiry 
12. Assessment 
13. Living Treasures 
14. Ecology 
15. Drying Off 
16. Bibliography 


WatershED Matters

 WatershED Matters is a website (co-authored with Amy Demarest, Our Curriculum Matters) that highlights the work that teachers are doing in the Lake Champlain Basin.

“Our aim is to preserve the heritage, beauty, and ecological integrity of the Lake Champlain Basin by improving the understanding of the watershed and inspiring stewardship of its resources by educators and learners of all ages.”