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Connecting the Community to the Classroom

by Joanna Manning

In his essay “The Past, Present and Future of Place-Based Learning,” Lewis and Clark College professor Gregory Smith explains that place-based education strives “to engender among students a sense of affiliation with their home communities and regions, develop problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate with others, cultivate a sense of responsibility for the natural environment and the people it supports, and instill a recognition of their own capacity to be positive change-makers and leaders.” This approach recognizes that some of the most meaningful learning happens when students are given opportunities to engage with local resources.

Place-based learning has long played a central role in the Lower School experience. When students trek to Kobayashi Park to observe salmon spawning or travel just a few miles from campus to visit the Steilacoom Tribal Center, they are taking part in place-based learning. As they progress through Lower School, their sense of place expands: fourth graders deepen their understanding of the history and ecology of Washington State, while fifth-grade students spend the year immersed in studies of US history, culminating in a trip to Washington, D.C., to bring their classroom studies to life.

As students become rooted the communities they study—whether that is the school community or the wider world—they also become more invested in making those communities better places to live. They become true stewards as a result.

Lower School Director Nick Zosel-Johnson points to the third grade’s year-long study of the Nisqually Watershed as a prime example of learning that is rooted in place: “The Nisqually units are such rich, deep dives into the ecology, history, and economy of this region,” he said. “One of our goals in the Lower School is to provide that kind of experience in all grades. We really want to create an intentional arc to the place-based curriculum.”

Thanks to donor funds designated to enhance experiential and place-based education, the Lower School is moving closer to that goal. Charles Wright has partnered with Teton Science Schools, a nonprofit educational organization that provides place-based education, to provide faculty with ongoing professional support as they implement new place-based programs and refine existing ones. 

Charles Wright lower school students visiting Alder Dam

While the third through fifth grades already have well-established place-based programs that they are working to refine this year, first and second grades have begun developing brand new projects under the guidance of their Teton Schools mentors. 

Second-grade teachers Kevin Hong and Amy Penn recognized that Charles Wright has an established tradition of teaching students to be environmental stewards, so they began to zero in on areas that would give students the chance to take meaningful action on environmental issues, using the campus as their first learning lab. They landed on the topic reduce, reuse, recycle.

“Any second grader would tell you that recycling is good,” Mr. Hong said, “but I don’t think they could all tell you why.” 

Ms. Penn agreed: “That’s what we’ve found during pre-assessments. There’s not a deep understanding yet, so that’s what we’re going for.”

To facilitate that deeper understanding, Mr. Hong and Ms. Penn used the Teton Schools’ framework to develop a statement that will guide their students’ thinking about their project. Second-grade students will spend the year reflecting on the statement, “The choices we make have an impact on our environment.” 

In the course of considering this central idea, students will visit the Tacoma recycling center to gain a better understanding of the recycling process, and in December, they will take a field trip to an art studio where they will create art from recycled materials. In the coming weeks, Pierce County Environmental Educators will help the students conduct waste audits at school to see what they are throwing away and recycling and how the students can make improvements at the school level.

Mr. Hong and Ms. Penn also hope to partner with Foss Waterway Seaport and other local organizations as well as with campus organizations such as the Upper School’s Sustainability Committee. 

“A lot will be directed by the students and wherever their learning and interests take them,” said Ms. Penn, acknowledging that the place-based model is learner-centered. “We’re hoping to encourage students to take action themselves on something they’ve grown passionate about or found interesting.” 

The project is just getting underway, and they’re easing into the subject by using the Dr. Seuss classic book The Lorax as a framework. 

“We are taking a very imaginative book and slowly linking that to our own world and our own environment and how people have an impact,” Ms. Penn said. “We’re targeting [stewardship] through a number of different lenses right now but ultimately, by the end of the project, we’ll have really zoomed in on how our actions can cause the environment to change and how ecosystems are impacted.”

As second-grade students look inward at their own responsibilities to the environment, first graders will spend some time examining how the environment takes care of them, specifically how it feeds them. The first grade has elected to use the school garden as a learning lab for a year-long “farm-to-table” project. 

With help from parent volunteer Amy Hatch, students will tend the garden through all seasons, from planting to harvest, learning about the plant life cycle in the process. They will also work with Innovation Labs Director Joe Romano to build indoor greenhouses for the classroom and a small farm stand that they will eventually use to sell their produce at school.  

As students study food in their garden lab and in their classroom reading, they will also begin to learn about how food is grown and distributed on a larger scale by visiting local farms. They will touch on issues of food insecurity by supporting Charles Wright’s backpack meal program and visiting a local soup kitchen.

Teachers will have the opportunity to check-in with the Teton Schools by video conference several times this year to receive guidance, troubleshoot problems, and share successes about their programs. By the time the Teton Schools faculty return to campus next spring, the Lower School will have made significant strides in providing meaningful place-based education to students in every grade. 

Mr. Zosel-Johnson has been pleased with the Teton Schools partnership thus far and looks forward to their continued support of these important programs.

“We are so proud to extend this powerful learning to all of our students.”

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