By. Sarah Anderson, Fieldwork and Place-Based Education Coordinator, Southwest Charter School (Portland, Oregon)
Place-based education is helping students make greater connections between their lives, their learning, and the places where they live. Through this approach, teachers find ways to merge curricular objectives with the goals of local agencies and organizations with the aim of strengthening local neighborhoods, cities, and towns. There has been evidence that place-based education increases student engagement while decreasing the achievement gap. (Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative, 2010) But in addition to offering an exciting and successful mode for learning, how does place-based education help expose students to the diverse perspectives and experiences within their communities?
At Southwest Charter School, a small public K-8 school in Portland, Oregon, we attempt to teach much of our curriculum through a place-based lens. When designing units, we consider standards and developmental appropriateness along with service-learning opportunities and the needs of our partner organizations. Students inevitably meet and interact with members of the local community and more deeply explore their own classroom community to gain greater insight into how the world works and how problems can be solved.
What’s in a Neighborhood?
Every other autumn, our first and second grade students investigate the elements of a neighborhood. First, they construct a neighborhood in their classroom based on prior knowledge. The teacher and students create a frieze on the wall containing houses, streets, shops, and other key locations. Students also create people to add to the scene; each student chooses a character who contributes something important to the neighborhood.
Next, students go on several forays into the neighborhood surrounding their school to verify the elements they have proposed and find new details they may have missed. In the process, they may also find that our neighborhood is missing an essential feature which they had identified in the classroom. In the past, our students have toured the local bank, explored a nearby hospital, sampled public transit, and visited a fire station. We have also invited a community developer into the classroom to talk about future plans for the neighborhood. Students had the chance to ask, “How come we don’t have a grocery store here?”
This unit provides a great opportunity for students to also begin thinking and talking about who is in their neighborhood. Do people live here, work here, or both? What kind of work do they do? Students can even conduct surveys: Do you like living here? What do you like most? If you could change one thing, what would it be? Six- and seven-year-olds are not too young to ask these questions, which can serve as an introduction to thinking like a citizen of the place where you live. It also shows them that not everyone will have the same answer. In fact, various opinions will be contradictory. Exploring this phenomenon through class discussion give students a chance to reflect and better comprehend the reality of diverse perspectives in every community.
Seeing All Sides
Every spring, our seventh and eighth grade students engage in Project Citizen, a program in which students identify and research a problem in their community and then propose a policy-based solution which they attempt to enact. In the past, students have investigated problems such as pet owners not picking up after their pets, smoking in public parks, unpaved roads, the housing crisis, traffic congestion, and unsafe playgrounds. Our kids have had the opportunity to present to city commissioners, testify in city hall, and explain their project to judges at the state house.
As part of the process, students need to identify who has a stake in their problem. Who else in the community may agree that this is a problem and why? Who would disagree? They need to do this again when vetting their proposed solution. Who would support our solution and why? Who would oppose it and why? This step may involve conducting interviews, writing letters, or giving surveys.
Seeking out the “players” in a conflict and then delving deeper into their individual reasoning is enormously valuable for middle school students. It is too easy to make assumptions about why someone disagrees with your point of view without taking the time to ask questions and consider the answers. This research can sometimes lead students to extend more understanding and empathy to the opposition. At the very least, it allows them to construct a better-informed counter-argument. Either way, they come out of the experience with a better comprehension of how decisions are made in a diverse democracy.
One of our place-based goals at Southwest Charter is for students to know their city. This means not just learning the commonly-told story about the city’s “founding fathers” and white pioneers, but making sure students learn the city’s history from the perspective of underrepresented groups.
In sixth grade, we teach the history of African-Americans in Portland, starting with the original state constitution which made it illegal for African-Americans (and people of other races, as well) to live in Oregon, all the way up to on-going issues such as police discrimination. Through primary documents, documentaries, classroom speakers, and field trips students uncover Portland’s history of redlining and segregation, while also learning about individual leaders, victories, and present day efforts.
Our seventh and eighth grade teachers developed another curriculum around the Japanese-American internment in Portland during World War II, which they taught in conjunction with the national and global story of the war. We continue to look for opportunities to develop similar units which give our students a more diverse and complete understanding of Portland’s history. This information is vital for anyone who intends to be a participating citizen of our city. It gives the context for many current conflicts and shows students that different groups of people can have very divergent experiences in the same place.
Diverse Perspectives and Skill Development
As with many other place-based projects, exploring diverse perspectives offers students a hands-on experience with a wide-range of valuable skills such as:
- Surveying and Interviewing: Both activities allow students to gather raw data on people’s opinions and experiences. Practicing these interactive strategies builds student confidence in their own communication skills. Processing the information offers more opportunities to practice skills in language arts and math.
- Civil Discourse: At the heart of civil discourse is the ability to frame an argument supported by evidence. This is an essential skill for today’s students and can be applied to writing, public speaking, and debate.
- Mapping: Combining statistics and mapping can be a great way to teach about important issues in your area. Students can map demographic information from the census, data from their own neighborhood observations, or historical statistics. You can easily link mapping with geography, history, art, math, and language arts.
- Small Group Skills (collaboration, communication, facilitation, time management): Through the process of doing place-based projects, students often work in teams with a small number of their classmates. To allow for balanced participation, students will invariably need to listen to each other’s perspective and solve problems as they arise.
- Consensus Voting: As part of Project Citizen, we have incorporated a consensus vote so that students can gain experience with a decision-making tool alternative to a majority vote (with which all kids are familiar). Needing to come to a consensus as a class pushes kids to listen to the minority and work together to either incorporate suggestions or create stronger arguments.
As you are developing your place-based units, think about ways you can encourage your students to collect and share diverse perspectives. Start off by soliciting your student’s own background knowledge on a topic; they may have an experience which creates a class connection greater than any book or article. (As a side note: this must be done in a way where students feel emotionally safe and respected; otherwise they may feel too afraid and vulnerable to share something which may feel very personal.) Next, brainstorm all parties who have a stake in the project. Reach out to as many partner organizations as possible and recruit representatives to visit the classroom, give tours of their organizations, and attend final presentations or celebrations. Finally, consider holding forums and “town hall” meetings at the end of curricular units, led by students and open to community members. This is a great opportunity for students to apply what they have learned, while also practicing facilitation skills and modeling civil discourse for adults.
Besides building academic skills in students, highlighting diverse perspectives in our curriculum offers an end in itself. When we consider the experience of others, we are made to understand that not everyone in our community feels or thinks the same way as us. Grappling with this reality, and even learning to appreciate it, brings us one step closer to making democracy real for our students and our future.
Teaching Tolerance Civil Discourse Curriculum: http://www.tolerance.org/handbook/civil-discourse-classroom/civil-discourse-classroom
Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative. 2010. “The Benefits of Place-based Education: A Report from the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative” [Second Edition]. Retrieved 2/23/17 from http://tinyurl.com/PEECBrochure
About the Author
Sarah Anderson taught seventh and eighth grade humanities at Southwest Charter School in Portland, Oregon for six years before becoming their Fieldwork and Place-Based Education Coordinator. Anderson holds a degree in American Studies from Bard College in New York, and a MEd from Antioch New England Graduate School. She has served as an AmeriCorps volunteer for Metro Parks and Greenspaces and worked as a crew leader at an educational farm in Vermont, a Teacher Naturalist in the California Redwoods, and a Middle School Humanities teacher at The Key School in Annapolis, Maryland. In addition to working at Southwest Charter and raising a three-year-old with her husband in Portland, Anderson is currently writing a book about place-based education.