Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools
Smith, Gregory A. and Sobel, David (2010).
New York: Routledge; 167 pages. $36.95. ISBN 9780415875196.
For educators and community members looking for a practical entry into place- and community-based education, this book is a long-awaited answer. At 167 pages, it is a reasonable length, an enjoyable read, and broken into chapters that make it easy to find any aspect of place- and community-based education that brings the reader to the book. Authors Smith and Sobel helped lead the dialogue for place-based education from opposite U.S. coastal regions—Smith in the Pacific Northwest and Sobel in New England. The ideas presented in this book pick up on their earlier writings and are grounded in experiences of real teachers in real classrooms, with successes and challenges evaluated through sound methodologies. By setting out the theoretical and practical reasons for grounding our students in the places that they live, this book provides guidance for this approach to schooling in a way that has not been done before.
I teach an integrated science and social studies methods course for pre-service teachers that is focused on place-based education. My students often perceive place-based education as filled with obstacles, many of which are addressed outright in the preface of the book. This strong piece of the book provides what Smith and Sobel term “reconceptualizations” for each of these perceived obstacles; they reconstruct the reasons for and inroads into a holistic relationship between children and the natural and social components of the communities in which their learning is nested. These reconceptualizations are then artfully supported throughout the book.
One misconception of place-based education is that it is the same thing as environmental education. A common reflection among my students is that they have a genuine interest in place-based education, but are frustrated by the built environment and lack of nature accessible to the urban schools in which they teach. A strength of this book is the affirmation that place-based education is more than children’s time in nature. Rather, it is the re-establishment of children into the social, cultural and natural components that comprise their everyday lives, no matter where they live. To emphasize this point, the first chapter is a case study of a successful place- and community-based school model in Boston, Massachusetts. Wilderness is not a resource of the school’s immediate environment, but nature can be found in a nearby cemetery; the strength of the community connections and student-led inquiry create a successful school model. To elucidate the character of community connections, guest author Delia Clark contributes a chapter on collaboration. This chapter illuminates the way that community members come to schools and schools to communities, how collaboration is fostered and maintained, and offers practical advice for building strong relationships including time and a sense of humor.
A particularly useful chapter for a general audience is on definitions and antecedents developed over the last decade of published work on place- and community-based education. The chapter draws on the theoretical frameworks of Dewey, Kilpatrick, Counts and Rugg as the foundations of this approach, and then explores the evolution of place- and community-based education from service learning, nature and environmental education, cultural journalism, and local entrepreneurialism. The concise chapter clearly establishes both the roots of place-based education and the efficacy of this model before describing its place in the current context of No Child Left Behind and climate of academic achievement.
In another chapter, Smith and Sobel offer practical ways for teachers to introduce place-based education into traditional disciplines. This chapter concludes with a bulleted list of starting points and websites for resources. Any reader looking to make inroads into this approach to teaching and learning will utilize the succinct and workable possibilities in this text.
Finally, this practical book does not lay out a lockstep recipe with which to achieve successful schools. Rather, Smith and Sobel confirm that successful place- and community-based models come from within; honoring distinct places through the way we teach and learn honors children, teachers, and community members. Smith and Sobel offer case studies from their repertoire of schools practicing place-based education, ways to generate interest starting with issues that children care about and stemming from traditional subjects, and practical ideas with which to get started. In addition, they give seasoned place-based educators current research and ideas to continue growing with students. In an age where national curricula line the school shelves, this book provides a blueprint, not a curriculum, for how we can ground children in their local communities as a context for rich learning experiences and gratifying adult participation.
University of Colorado Denver
Kelly Keena is a Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research currently explores childrens experiences in a naturalized schoolyard. She is a science specialist at Castle Rock Elementary south of Denver, Colorado where she works with students in a schoolyard habitat created by the students and community, and leads professional development for the school faculty on community- and place-based education practices. Her interests include how children develop a sense of place and how childrens free exploration in nature contributes to their sense of place.