Special Blog for Michigan education students!


Note: this is a special blog written for Ethan Lowenstein’s [https://twitter.com/lowensteinethan] students at Eastern Michigan University who are involved in a pilot of EMU’s Urban Place-based Education Program. Click here and scroll down to the Comments section to see the dialogue between me and Prof Lowenstein’s students

Greetings Michigan!

I am delighted to be writing to you about an aspect of place-based education that I find most compelling. I commend each of you for reaching this exciting portal of your career. Much of the edgier, most relevant work in place-based education is happening now in urban environments and it must be thrilling to be part of it. I live in Vermont—and have learned mostly in natural environments. But lately, I think more about the built environment and how humans interact in those environments than I do about leaf patterns and mosaics of wildlife. Still, let’s not get into an either/or analysis—it is all connected!

These are the thoughts I would like to share with you:

So many things that make up our everyday life have hidden stories, we just never stop to think about them. Storm drains, windmills, clothespins, bicycle gears. There are so many things that are part of life that we don’t stop and pay attention to. When we do it changes how we understand things.


One of the things that I keep  loving about place-based  education is that teachers and  students continue to discover new  things to learn. There is always a  new way to look at something or a  way to discover some other part  of the puzzle that all of a sudden  becomes important.

I think the discovery of these  things not only steers us to think about the thing differently, it makes us be better learners, noticers and interpreters all around. Philosophers as well as educators have written about this special aspect of learning. Progressive thinkers—philosophers and educators alike—agree that authentic learning involves some excitement and some surprise.

I hope you recognize this kind of feeling in your own experience. When you say: “Wow — I never noticed this before and I walk by it every day.” Or: “This makes so much sense—I never stopped to figure it out.” “I get it!” And then after these moments – you have new eyes for seeing what is around you. Why can’t these “moments” be part of school?


Culverts have been an interest of mine for a while. Somehow they have gained a special place in my thinking – representing one of those things that we all should pay attention to. So I was pretty thrilled when –at the start of a course I teach called Watershed for Every Classroom http://watershedmatters.lcbp.org/ — I had a conversation with a teacher (Alicia Hanford) about her interest in culverts and her thoughts about basing a curriculum unit on them. Her community of South Royalton, Vermont had been battered from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene the previous year (2011) and her own awareness of what water could do had changed radically.

We talked a lot in that first conversation about how you would teach young learners about culverts. Teachers in the Watershed for Every Classroom program work on their curriculum projects from July to the following May. During the year I saw bits and pieces of Alicia’s unit—I was impressed by the various activities that she was considering and how she continued to “unpack” this complex problem. What essential question would frame her unit? What would students need to know, do and understand to grasp the multi-faceted ways that people deal with water issues? There was no pre-written prescription for this….no other units on culverts….no texts already written. But she persevered and the result was outstanding! Her final essential question with which she organized her thinking was: “How do people in our community try to manage or solve river related water problems?”

IMG_3037_culvert_solvingWaterProblemsCulverts are things that we drive by and over every day. They manage and control—and in many cases hold at bay – raging waters. I started thinking about culverts in my fifties…what would it mean for students if they learned about these dynamics in elementary school? What if they had a whole different perspective on the power of water—and a more vibrant view of how people work together and make decisions for the benefit of their communities? Especially in this ever-more-challenging climate?

One of the things to which Alicia attributed her success was the support of a friend who worked in natural resources. This friend had a lot of knowledge about the many logistics of building and maintaining culverts and the kind of thinking and analysis that had to be used. This an impressive aspect of this unit—and it aligned with the STEM design standards! As the new NGSS standards suggest, the many ways that “real people” solve problems can be explored by young people… so that they grow up with abilities and attributes that allow them to be problem-solvers in real life! This seems elementary. But it actually is somewhat profound! We often keep students from learning complex thinking because they aren’t dealing with authentic perplexities. But there they are — all around us!


This was also an example of an “authentic community partner!” This is something that the “experts” of place-based education recommend. But it is a challenge for teachers. This particular collaboration grew from a friendship, but the school also made connections with the local watershed group—a citizen-based group that had a vested interest in helping young people better understand water problems. It was their “culvert analysis” process that the students used to learn how to assess what kind of culvert should be installed at what location. This wasn’t “assimilated problem-solving” – this was the REAL THING! Alicia writes: “The White River Partnership comes into the classroom to discuss how humans coexist with the natural world in terms of managing water.

We discuss different reasons why water needs to be managed; we then discuss installing culverts to create roads. The White River Partnership teaches the students about culverts and flooding. The students learn about bankfull, the math behind choosing a properly sized culvert, the material needed / preferred, the cost and whether or not the culvert is “fish friendly.”

Alicia did an amazing job finding ways for her students to engage with the local landscape. This kind of learning I define with a “Sites of Engagement” lesson plan. It is a format in which teachers can identify the place where their students can grapple with a big idea and work towards an outcome that reflects that new learning. Alicia writes of her plan to visit a site where students could examine culverts up close:

“With the White River Partnership and parent volunteers we take a trip to a culvert that has been rebuilt since it was destroyed during Hurricane Irene. While at our “site of engagement” on Broad Brook the students take the knowledge they learned from the White River Partnership and apply it in the field. The students have a field sheet that was put together by the White River Partnership with input from teachers at a training we (teachers) attended the previous year.”

“The larger outcome/ plan of this field trip is to help the students realize what goes into installing a properly sized culvert, including material, cost, with minimal impact on aquatic life and how humans can manage water with the least amount of disruption to the natural flow of water to avoid flooding in the future.”

NOTE: Her “site of engagement” lesson addresses the Next Generation Science Standard Grade 4 ESS3-2 – Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural earth processes on humans. As well as Next Generation Science Standard Grade 4 ESS2-1 – Make observations and / or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind or vegetation.”

great teaching_kids on logs study2

Teaching a unit like this is a complex business. The teacher has to be a self-motivated learner, be brave, orchestrate many different pieces, be organized and creative….so many things! I bet you could make your own list of what it takes to invite your students into this kind of learning!

The important thing to realize, is, I think, how many opportunities there are for this kind of adventure. Follow your own learning and interests. Follow your heart. The most satisfying learning journeys you take will be fueled by the things you love and care about.

The culvert unit is set in rural Vermont. How do people in large cities solve water problems? Have you ever seen a rain garden? I once saw an intriguing diagram by a hydrologist/ engineer of a plan to plant trees on city sidewalks. The tree got enough water, the sidewalk not too much. I invite you to walk around your neighborhood and think about how water moves and what humans have done to manage its ways.


I wish you well in your chosen career path and hope it includes some wonderful adventures outside the classroom!

Thank you Professor Ethan! I look forward to the conversation!

NOTE: Alicia Hanford’s complete unit overview will be online soon at                             the Curriculum Library on Watershed Matters—                 http://watershedmatters.lcbp.org/curriculum_library.html

Something to SMILE about!

It was a special treat to join students at Bellows Free Academy — Fairfax VT (http://www.bfafairfax.com/) to SMILE outdoors on a sunny September afternoon. Students in a team-taught biology/math course offered by Jensen Welch and Gabe Grant are lucky this year to be in SMILE (Science and Math in Industries and Local Ecosystems). The program was launched Friday afternoon with a walk through the woods to look for evidence of math and science concepts. The students were excited to be outside on such a beautiful day.


The invitation as written by the teachers is as follows:

“The focus of this project is for students to explore the science and related mathematics that exists in our community.  Sites and locations will be explored with an inquiry mindset.  This means we will be asking questions about the sites we visit.  Be curious!

After exploring a variety of sites with the entire class, students will choose one particular site that they have questions about and they will explore that site in more detail finding ways to answer their question.  Finally, students will develop a presentation that will be shared with their families and the community. ”

The teachers introduced the project indoors before going outside and reviewed directions and expectations. Teacher Jensen Welch reminded them to bring pencils and notebooks and gave them a chance to ask questions.


Teacher Gabe Grant encouraged students to be attentive to different patterns, shapes, evidence of movement, decay….and invited them to use their senses to pay attention. He modeled observation strategies with a dead stump.


The students ended their investigation with some quiet reflection time.


Congratulations SMILE teachers and students! We look forward to hearing more from you as you explore the world that is so full of many science and math wonders!!!

Submission deadline nears for Special Issue on Place-based Education

I have been in a happy flurry of receiving submissions for the upcoming Green Teacher SPECIAL ISSUE ON PLACE-BASED EDUCATION! I have been reading heartwarming narratives of teacher wisdom, great ideas for what and how students can learn in the places nearby — and far afield from — our schools and what inspires teachers to get outside of the classroom to make learning happen.


This special issue — slated to be published in the summer of 2016 — will focus mostly on what it is like for teachers to teach outside of the classroom. From a variety of perspectives it will explore what learning opportunities lurk in the different environments that await us if we go looking. A barn? A water pipe? A stream bed? A wind turbine? How do teachers manage these more engaging investigations when so much pressures them to…stay in their desks, stay inside and prepare for the big tests! What sustains teachers to get outside despite all the odds?

What are the challenges?
What are the rewards?
What do your students experience?
What tales do you have to tell that will inspire others?

It is a heady challenge to be a guest editor for Green Teacher magazine. Their style is so unique; their vision so true. I have been a faithful reader for years and have always been so impressed with the breadth of what they offer teachers. And their offerings are always on-the-ground accessible to teachers. It reflects research yet is not researchy in tone. It is on the cutting edge of educational practice yet it doesn’t ever sound preachy or self-satisfied. It always seems immensely practical for educators in many different settings.

Teachers have many stories to tell—and the telling of them helps us all do our job better. I find that the good stories are the ones where I can hear the writer invite me in. There is a hidden voice of friendly confidence and optimism: “you can do this. Just try it! It will reward you in ways you cannot imagine!”

Teachers all over the world are telling their stories. If you have something to share about your experience of learning outside of the classroom with your students, consider writing an article for this issue. Deadlines for proposal is August 1 but that can be extended if you contact me soon (abdpbegt@gmail.com)!


My newly published Place-based Curriculum book is in Good Company!

book image of Place-based Curriculum Design by Amy B. Demarest

My book Place-based Curriculum Design: Exceeding Standards Through Local Investigations is coming out among much good company! It is one of the books about place-based education that will debut this year amidst an increased unrest about the weight of standardized tests–and growing frustration of teachers who are weary of being told what to do in ways that make learning irrelevant for their students.

There are a number of new titles that I haven’t even seen yet! I have ordered — but not yet received — a copy of A Place to Learn: Place-Based Pedagogy and Critical Literacy by Amy Azano. It sounds like her focus is mostly on poor, rural communities (but most likely not exclusively) and she uses Friere’s view of literacy and critical engagement. From a peek at the Table of Contents she has an interesting framework of BELONG, LIVE, UNDERSTAND, and ENGAGE to consider learning activities. Can’t wait to read it!

Routledge is publishing another book on place-based education due out this spring titled Place-based Education: Research and Practice by Robert Barratt and Elizabeth Barratt Hacking. Sounds like an interesting presentation of the philosophical backdrop of the practices and case studies in the UK.


Green Teacher has a digital resource called Teaching in the Outdoors that looks great—everything they do is so practical and innovative! This resource is a compilation of some of their best articles: http://greenteacher.com/teaching-in-the-outdoors/

There are also a number of books published recently, some of which aren’t nominally about place-based education—but their books give a unique and powerful accounting of teachers who have oriented their practice towards their community.

Salvatore Vascellero’s book titled Out of the Classroom and Into the World: Learning from Field Trips, Educating from Experience, and Unlocking the potential of Our Students and Teachers examines the authentic learning journeys teachers undertake to plan local investigations for their students. Vascellero profiles the work of Lucy Sprague Mitchell who founded Bank Street’s school for teachers in the 1930s. The book is a wonderful mix of a view into Mitchell’s rich legacy of learning to pay attention to what is nearby, Vascellero’s reflection on his own teaching and neighborhood forays and his accounting of the teachers he now works with at the graduate level.

Doug Selwyn, who teaches across the lake from me in Plattsburgh, wrote a wonderful book that helps teachers conduct meaningful investigations of their nearby communities. The title is Following the Threads: Bringing Inquiry Research into the Classroom and it has some very useful and practical sections on the how and why of structuring inquiry and interviews and examples from practicing teachers. The book has more of a social studies angle but is illuminating for any approach to authentic inquiry. It has an interesting view into cities and forgotten places and is a lovely and inspirational read for all teachers.

Lieberman presents a very useful presentation of community-based curriculum design from a more organizational level and discusses how school districts (and buildings) can shift the focus more to the local. His insight is useful as we face the possibilities of orienting towards the local and the need to think of the logistics of how these changes will occur. Lieberman’s work is well-known in place-based education circles from the foundational research he did with others for SEER (State of Education and Environment Roundtable) and much of this book is grounded in that early research. The book titled: Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts contains many useful examples of curriculum planning.

Compass Rose

These publications join the good company of some classics also not named as place-based education as such for example Steven Levy’s Starting From Scratch and Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. We join the good company of many foundational texts written by the patriarchs of this practice: Greg Smith, David Sobel and David Greenwood (Greenwood formerly wrote under the name of Gruenewald). They paved the way for the educational community to consider this as a “new” practice as well as ways that the approach was linked to our collective rich critical/progressive history.

And there are other foundational texts for my work in the area of curriculum design. Most prominent, of course, are the books by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe that help us plan Understanding by Design. 

This is admittedly a short view of the history of educational thought! Dewey, Friere, Whitehead and others were asking teachers to make meaningful connections for the student long ago by suggesting they turn attention to life outside of school. I explore this history in Chapter One of my book.


My book has a specific focus on curriculum design—what decisions and practices teachers have to adopt to orient their planned and enacted curriculum to the people and events that are happening outside the classroom…not only inside printed texts. It is lovely to be part of a movement that is percolating throughout the country as teachers turn to the places we live.  Maybe this BOOK energy will bring local learning more prominently  into the main current–so many good folks have paved the way–and are still at it!  I am in good company indeed!!!


Exciting New Book from Center for Eco-Literacy

Big Ideas: A New Alignment with Academic Standards

This looks pretty wonderful–and what a rich partnership with National Geographic. Can’t wait to read it!

I don’t know about anyone else–but the “old” national geography standards published by National Geographic Society-called Standards For Life:

Geography Education Standards Project. 1994. Geography for Life: The National Geography Standards. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society Committee on Research and Exploration.

are still the best example of how standards should be written for teachers. I appreciate the pieces of the Common Core and the new NGSS standards and new SS standards might be more “user-friendly” but they take away the intellectual creativity of working with the BIG IDEAS. This is how I think this new book will be so helpful. Center Eco-Literacy  has stuck by this view of the standards. and its available as a FREE download! Hooray for the folks at Center for Eco-Literacy!



Meet up in the Meadow!

The Burlington Phenology Guild spent a wonderful Saturday morning in the meadow (or parade ground as it is called at Rock Point!) We started out by having some time to think quietly and ponder what was happening in this summer meadow place. Then Walter and Teage shared some thoughts about the ecology of a meadow and all the different relationships that were at work.

Guild in meadow
Guild in meadow

Teage challenged us to find seven bugs on one plant and see what they were up to.


Here Ross checks out what was going on with a spider and a wasp.




Vic Izzo
Vic Izzo


We were lucky that Vic Izzo also joined us for the morning. Vic is a graduate student at UVM in the Plant and Soil Science Department and has a passion for bugs! He brought a lot of cool equipment that we had fun with.






Here Tai is catching some little critters in a net.








We captured them in jars and shared our findings.



Vic later showed us how to kill a bug-and mount it—something that we didn’t want to do a lot of — but realized that it enhanced the study of bugs if we could see them up close—as you can see here!



The next Burlington Phenology Guild will meet on August 17. We will explore the shoreline! Stay tuned for information about paddling and other forms of transportation!

For more information/ or questions make a comment here or email us!

Attached is a flyer for the rest of the YEAR’s programs. Please share with your friends!

BPG Flyer

Third Meeting of Phenology Guild March 18

Our next guild gathering will focus on  the sweetness of soils and the physiology of the sugar maple.  We will also be highlighting phenological monitoring and its importance/connection to the bigger understanding of our ecological communities.  


What: March Burlington Phenology Guild event
When: Saturday, March 16th
Time: 9 a.m. – noon
Meet in the RPS Library
Bring: Yourself (and a friend), your journal that BPG provided, your curiosity, and your appetite.
This BPG event will spend the first 2 hours mostly outside and then move inside to enjoy a Maple Celebration hosted by Rock Point School students.  We will be heading to the dining room for an incredible brunch at 11:00.  With that we will also have the option of taking a tour of the sugaring facility at RPS.  It is a great community event not to be missed!  (The BPG will be covering the cost of the maple brunch for our registered Guild members!)
Kathy needs a count of who is coming so get in touch with us if you plan to be there. As well, if you have the opportunity to carpool, bike or walk, I would recommend it as parking on this morning will be tight.
Check out our updated blog where we will be sharing the glorious signs of spring!http://bpgvt.blogspot.com/

Burlington Phenology Guild gathers for first meeting

Partners of the Burlington Phenology Guild and over 20 participants gathered this past Saturday at Rock Point School to commence their year of monthly meetings, Naturalists, observers…budding phenologists will gather on the second Saturday of each month to observe the seasonal changes at Rock Point. RP is an amazing site just to hand out at—and a rich and wonderful site to observe the changing natural world. There is large acreage of woods, open fields and some interesting old buildings….and as if that wasn’t enough–it is on the shores of Lake Champlain!

We spent some time indoors hearing from Teage about how we can find the stories of places by making observations and finding evidence of patterns in the landscape. We went outside and he shared with us the special place in the woods where he holds Crows Path–an amazing after school program for young folks.

Participants share their EVIDENCE of changes in the landscape!


It was great to be outside and learn from and with each other!


We look forward to gathering again in February. Attached are the phenology resources posted in January!

Phenology Resources

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Summer’s ending…. Tomatoes are ripe…. Energy is gathering for a new school year, and as thoughts turn to school I am grateful for the learning time I had with teachers this summer. In the river—on the mountaintop–exploring the cityscape—–very fun!

As a curriculum coach who loves working with teachers when they have time to dream and scheme—the summer time provides unique opportunities for teachers to explore new sites, collaborate and plan a new year. Just for the record—I believe that this focused work and reflection should come with plenty of UNSCHEDULED time to play and be at home with no agendas—time to renew, hang out with families, friends….

I feel inspired and enriched by the experiences I had this summer with teachers as we explored nearby places. It started off with an evening presentation at the Middle Grades Institute that I co-presented with Katey Wyndorf. Downtown Randolph was an amazing place to explore–the architecture and commerce of downtown and the river that runs alongside the town—a river place that has visible memory of last summer’s Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.

We explored the BLOCK–a lovely stretch of buildings where we examined what students could learn in this setting from the perspective of different subjects. See the attached outline of questions

Randolph BLOCKAnd went to the river where Katey led us in a poetic “Andrew Goldsworthyish” reflection on our learning.

It was a lovely evening and we thought the teachers left with new ideas and a refreshed feeling about learning outside with their students. Katey and I are looking forward to offering a strand at the 2013 session of Middle Grades Institutes. Information to come at http://middlegradescollaborative.org/news/ 

Watershed for Every Classroom 2012-2013

The Watershed For Every Classroom met in July during one of the hottest weeks on record. We have a wonderful crew and will meet throughout the year until May.

Keep in touch with this group on our website http://www.lcbp.org/watershedmatters/ 

Design Summit

I was also lucky to be invited to a Design Summit that Walter Poleman (UVM PLACE program — http://www.uvm.edu/place/—and Burlington Geographic http://www.uvm.edu/place/burlingtongeographic/) hosted at the University of Vermont. The purpose of the gathering was to meet with educators from South Carolina and Puerto Rico—places where Walter has been working for a few years planting the seeds of place-based education. We shared ideas, toured special places in Burlington and made plans for future collaboration.