Letter to the Burlington School Board, Burlington VT

October 10, 2016


To:             Burlington School Board

From:             Amy Demarest

Our Curriculum Matters, Burlington, VT 05401

Something very basic is missing in the current conflict between the Burlington School Board and our teachers. Respect. I keep looking for a sign of good faith from the School Board—a sense that you are reaching out with all that you have in order to bring about a more amicable settlement. I don’t see it.

I think that the public stance you take as School Board members should, in plain words, just be nicer! At the very least, you should sound more supportive of teachers. Show us that you understand the toll that your words and actions take. A lack of public support impacts how effectively teachers can do their jobs. This has been a continuing problem. As a former classroom teacher and as a resident of Burlington, it has always bothered me.

I strongly believe that one of the most important ingredients for success in the classroom is that teachers go to work every day feeling supported by the system they work for. Teachers need to feel good about being with students and confident about their ability to deliver the massive agenda set forth by our society. They should feel respected for the demanding job that they do.

How teachers FEEL may not be high on everyone’s agenda. It is about money, schedules, responsibilities, benefits—the fine points of the contract. All of these details need to be worked out and it will take a lot of work to do so. But mostly it will take a new openness by the Board. The dialogue from this point on should reflect a basic respect for the complex job of teaching. I do not believe that the chronology of this conflict has shown our school board to honor teachers—which is part of working for fiscal integrity and the success of each child.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are some difficult negotiations happening. And I am not suggesting any particular kind of concession be made so teachers “feel good.” This is a complex business. What I am asking is for each of you to examine the spirit with which you are proceeding. It is not the new solution that will help us as much as a more understanding attitude from members of the Board.

This is an important week coming up. I urge all school board members and District leaders to think about each child that walks into the classroom every morning and looks expectantly at the person in charge for the day. And then ask yourself: Have I done everything possible to make sure that the person in charge feels supported? Acknowledged? Am I being as professional as possible so that these negotiations proceed with a fresh wave of hope and openness? People can solve problems when they work together and treat each other with respect. Try it.

Out-of-towners who want more information on the Burlington situation:




Lessons From South Bend: The Beauty and Power of Summertime Thinking



One of the best things I did this summer was travel to South Bend, Indiana and work with an awesome group of teachers. The 2-week workshop (of which I presented four days) was part of a MSP grant called ED3 (Earth Day-Every Day-Enhanced Design) that aimed to assist teachers in delivering standards-based, place-based curriculum. Fifty teachers of grades 4-8 from 12 schools in the South Bend Community School Corporation took part under the talented leadership team of Terri Hebert, Assistant Professor Elementary Science Education, Indiana University at South Bend (IUSB) and Tracy Slattery, Curriculum Facilitator for Science, Social Studies, Health and PE, South Bend Community School Corporation. The teachers gathered for an action-packed two weeks.

The invitation came from one of my treasured collegial connections that have come from the publication of my book. Terri, Tracy and I had a great time planning the course long-distance! Although my preferred teaching mode is to be with teachers in the field and ground the conversations about curriculum in specific places—it made more sense (time-wise and cost-wise) to concentrate my work with them into the second week.

The teachers spent the first week exploring the stories of their community in a variety of settings. Among the places they visited were St. Patrick’s Park, St. Joseph River and the History Museum in South Bend, the Indiana Dunes at the National Lakeshore at the Paul E. Douglas Environmental Education Center, Gary, Indiana They covered a lot of territory in five days and had a wide array of experiences. They spent time in the river, listened to experts and met a variety of scientists, historians and stewards. They practiced citizen science and different data-gathering techniques. They saw an eagle’s nest, practiced observing birds, and tried catching dragonflies! They tried their hand at nature photography and journaling, as well as interpretive dance and mindfulness!


In order to deepen my connection to their week one explorations—when I was still in Vermont—Terri arranged for some of the teachers to send me their journal responses with reports of each day. From the first journal entry that arrived that Monday evening, I could feel their excitement as they explored new sites and considered how these places might become part of their curriculum plans. I also was aware of how well-scheduled their time was as they reported time spent drawing, discussing, solving problems and discussing issues with the experts at each site. And as their learning deepened—so did their insight about how they might bring some of these same opportunities to their students. They found the days “filled with memorable experiences and an abundance of knowledge and resources… to take home.”



My task for the second week was to help them translate these rich experiences and consider how similar expeditions might happen with their students in the coming year. I began the week sharing some thoughts about place-based education and ways we can successfully craft curriculum plans that embrace the required assessments required in our job and the love and commitment we feel towards the rich stories and learning opportunities found in our communities. This creative thinking is a process I often refer to as unpacking our “wannas” and our “gottas!” I introduced the curriculum templates we would be working with and we dove in to the work.

What an outstanding group of educators!

They were so eager to dig in! This was true initially—and sustained for 4 full days! They rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They loved the opportunity to work with colleagues from their school as well as make new connections. The time was rich for dialogue, collaboration and planning. What a beautiful thing to see. And how often do teachers get the time to have these important conversations? Time to laugh together. And share dreams. Teachers are so grateful for these conversations and it fuels good teaching in so many ways!

Our work was enhanced by the use of PROTOCOLS –scripts designed for educators to focus on different aspects of their practice. Thanks to the School Reform Initiative, we had numerous ways to facilitate the dialogue and reflection process for educators. Supported often by Tracy’s graceful facilitation, we were able to use a wide variety of strategies for different purposes. And because they worked mostly in their school groups the use of intentional mixing for other purposes of goal-setting, reflection, text-based dialogue gave some different patterns to our large group. As expressed by one teacher: “I appreciated the different groupings and how the protocols helped us have different conversations.”


The program also supported the creative use of journals and reflective time. Like classroom teachers, we who deliver PD fall into the same traps regarding how to make time for reflection. While we are fully committed to the power of reflection it is often challenging to find the time in a busy schedule. I was buoyed by how creatively and steadfastly they had been using their journals in week one. And how Terri bravely forged out time to think about provocative questions at the end of a long day. I was struck by how this thinking time was valued. This was evident from the sounds in the room (none) when they turned to quiet writing time. And in their daily feedback they continually identified that as a most valuable part of the day. One teacher wrote: “I loved how we were able to have some ‘down time’ to connect with our own thought processes…”

In addition they spoke about the reflections’ lasting value. It wasn’t just a moment that was a “nice” part of the process—they viewed it as something useful to them in their daily practice. Having taken the time to figure out the implications of their work for themselves—to garner what was useful—and get it in a form that was accessible—they planned to use it in the upcoming year. They wrote: “[my journal] is packed full of useful tools and ideas….” And “It will be valuable to look back on for information and inspiration….I will use if for reference and to re-spark me when I feel overwhelmed…”

I was once again reminded of the ways we can honor the teaching profession by giving teachers time to think about their practice and figure things out. It is not usually about learning new things but having the time to consider how best to use the things already in hand. Each individual teacher needs time to examine how different practices relate to his or her own teaching environment. In the summer and during the school year, teachers need time to think….and space to do the work.


The second week was held inside most of the time—in a spacious classroom at IUSB. I do so much teaching out in the field. No walls. No tables. Notes perched on a tree stump or park bench, teachers sitting on the grass, pulling out their notebooks in a canoe… Teaching out in open space is one of the most treasured things in my professional life. I LOVE discussions in the field, on the river bank, on a sidewalk or in a borrowed room of a public building. But I have to say I really appreciated being in the same place for four days—having all the wall space in the world—



and plenty of space to break into small group discussions!


I think it is safe to say that MANY teachers teach and work in small, impractical spaces. I felt that the beauty of this space honored the nature of our professional dialogue. Not the most important ingredient of transformational work but something that is important. And I enjoyed it immensely!


Curriculum design is highly complex, intellectual work. But that does not mean it all needs to be so serious. I appreciated the playful and creative energy of this group. One of the things we did — on an impromptu change in the schedule—was to create some “arts and crafts” space—making do with minimum of supplies and a maximum of creativity and imagination. Asked to represent the spirit of the “sites of engagement lessons…..they had some fun!


The outcome of our time together was sensational! It wasn’t just in what they accomplished but the spirit in which they did it. There were new partnerships that forged new possibilities. There were new connections made across grades…and new alliances between veteran and new—and becoming—teachers.


On my last day we celebrated with a “Gallery of New Learning.” Groups shared their work from the week including a “Birds Eye View” of their unit plan, a Site Map in which they situated the different learning activities in their specific place, an artistic expression of their “Sites of Engagement” Lesson Plan, and a summary of their Culminating Activity in which they shared their plans to assess their students’ new understandings of the Essential Question. Teachers wrote: “I loved having the final piece to show what we learned…” “It was truly amazing the amount of work we got done….” AndI appreciated the usefulness of the outcome…It was authentic!”



My time in South Bend affirmed many things. The power of place. The beauty of collegiality. The value of time. When teachers have authentic rich experiences in the places where they teach, they want to share them with their students. When they have the time to engage with people and places—and critters!  …in meaningful ways it adds a new energy to curriculum design. To figure out how to bring these experiences into the academic plan is challenging. It sometimes seems impossible. But it is worth it. Having opportunities in the summer for this deep, reflective thinking makes it possible. It was this conviction that surrounded us in our conversations and in our work…and it is this energy that will sustain teachers as they navigate the barriers and obstacles of “regular” school.

Hats off to the teachers in South Bend. May this year be a spectacular learning journey for you and your students!


My visit to Oahu: a journey of hope!

Amy at Kennys  I have only been in Hawaii for a   little more than two weeks,  hardly a position to tell the story  of this land and water from any  level of expertise. But I have  been deeply moved by the  stories—and warmed by my  time with the people here— so I  am going to gather some of my  thoughts in this blog to share  with you.


I am here due to an invitation from Kay Fukuda who directs a place-based education program for teachers on the Wai’anae Coast. Located on the west coast of Oahu, the coast has one of the largest native populations of anywhere in the US.


PLACES (Place-based learning and community engagement in schools!) http://www.placeshawaii.org/ is a collaborative venture funded by the Department of Education’s Native Hawaiian Education Program. Kay and a talented group of educators—most of whom have been classroom teachers — work with teachers in a variety of ways (coaching, support with field trips, program development and numerous professional development experiences) as well as coordinate a vibrant after-school program that showcases many promising practices of place-based education with self-selected teachers. It is a great model with lots of cross-fertilization between things they learn in professional development, practice in the after-school programs and contemplate (and bring to reality) in ways that strengthen their daytime classes.

The Hawaiian language is beautiful. And instructive. The phrasing and the use of some words tell much about how they view their environment. The formal use of the language was outlawed during colonial times and demeaned, ignored and marginalized throughout modern Hawaiian history. In the 1970s, in a time people here refer to as their “renaissance,” the language was brought back into the schools and the general culture. Hawaiian names are seen on most of the road signs and place names.

Educators have been in ongoing struggles to keep a commitment to the language alive in the schools and community and meet the needs of native youth. While there are many instances of state and federal support, most activists find many of the promises fall short of practice. Hawaiian language—like many other good things– took a hit with standardization/No Child Left Behind but appears to be making a comeback. While I was here there was a day-long conference I heard about on the news about helping teachers offer more effective and comprehensive language instruction.

Most notable of promoting indigenous wisdom in education is the work of Kū Kahakalau who promotes the Pedagogy of Aloha. I went to a gathering of educators and community activists (i.e. farmers and health care providers) where she presented some of the history of indigenous education and a plan for the future. A powerful presenter, she shared with us her belief that love and happiness (aloha) are important ingredients for a quality 21st century education along with academic rigor, authentic research and service to one’s community. IMG_0174She defends the centrality of relationships – to each other and to the environment — and offers one “standard” we should hold is that students should be out of the classroom 50% of the day. She is currently working on a “anywhere, anytime digital language program” to learn Hawaiian language – http://basichawaiian.com/

With the use of the language comes better understanding of how people relate to this land and water. A few phrases I heard over and over in my conversations with educators:

Mauka to makai (mountain to ocean)

Ahupua’a–All of the land is in Hawaii is organized by ahapua’a. These are traditional land divisions organized by watersheds….

Aina—land/that which nourishes

Kupuna– elders, grandparent, people of old, ancestor. It also means the source…in this way elders are viewed as the community’s treasures.

Mo’olelo—“A mo’olelo is a story, a legend, an article, and a piece of literature. More than that, mo’olelo is our history as Hawaiian people. Within each mo’olelo, stories of how our ancestors lived, how they worked, how they leisured, how they fought, how they loved, are told. It provides those of us living today with some insight as to how our ancestors lived. Mo’olelo provides the link between those of us living today to our ancestors who have come before us and because of all this; a mo’olelo is more than just a story or a legend. http://ksdl2.ksbe.edu/loi/moolelo.html

You can see how many of these words carry with them lessons—they seem to have numerous meanings and can serve as nouns, adjectives and verbs given any different context.

On my first day of exploration we went mauka to makai with our group of teachers. IMG_0066On our way up to the top of the mountain we stopped with Thomas Anuheali`i, the ranger of the Palehua Forest Reserve (who I met as Anu) who led us around what they say may be the largest undocumented settlement of ancient peoples in Hawaii.


He showed us rock patterns that indicated links to Polynesian ancestory, how the outline recreated a compass and clues to how this place may have been lived in.IMG_0053

When we arrived at the site, my colleagues sang a chant of greeting. This was the first time I heard this—but it was repeated numerous times throughout my visit when we arrived and departed from different places (I included a clip of it from Ka’ ala). I learned that they were greeting the place and saying where they were from. To stand looking out from the mountain to the sea (mauka to makai) while they chanted was a spectacular moment. It seemed sacred so I didn’t record it the first time-but I was invited to share it if i wanted to.

The next day we went with PALS staff and some other teachers to Ka’ala Farms where Eric Enos and his colleagues have restored an ancient stream that had been diverted years ago to grow sugar cane. Called a learning center….it is a place where youth can come and take part in the care of taro plants as well as practice and experience the power and the peace of some of the old ways.



When they worked to uncover the stream they found stone remnants of ancient terracing to grow taro (or kalo as the Hawaiians call it). Many of these have been uncovered – and some are in active use growing taro.




We hiked up the mountain. So did Fred!

so did Fred

The stream that ran from the base of the mountains was amazing. It must have been a 30-degree change in temperature—and a window into what a place on earth that is cared for might feel like. While we were there Eric told us more about the lessons we might learn from the waters. He constantly emphasizes knowledge about how things work from “mauka to makai” not just book knowledge.


Eric sees the restoration of this one ahupua’a as central to his work in helping his community – and all of us—face the 21st century. Not only are the lessons in the land—but in its vitality rests our future.

getting off bus

On my third full day of exploration I joined a 6th grade field trip from Ka waihona o ka na’auao School. The teachers had prepared two sites to visit. I went first with the group that went to a rock beach up the coast where students were going to find pohaku (stones) to make rocks for a traditional game of ulu maika. This was a game played traditionally in resting time (makahiki) a time that corresponded to the harvest and the weather—when people would take a break from regular work to relax and restore. No fighting or warfare was permitted during makahiki.

The students were greeted by Vince Dodge —a community member and artist who advised the students about how to choose their pohaku stones as well as a proper stone to do the carving.


girld with rocks

The students were clearly prepared on the  task but Vince offered a good reminder of  what they needed to remember – as well as  protocol for safety. Soon the lovely noise of  the waves on the rocks was joined by the  tap-tap-tap of their carving. It was one of  those quintessential moments we place-  based educators get every now and then.  Being outside with a group of students who  were happily occupied in a worthwhile  endeavor. The teachers on-site were no  longer directing. The relationship was  between the student and the stone.

boy carving

Every now and then they would come to Vince for advice and there would be a little conference.

me with rocks









Before we left the students gathered to chant their thanks to the place.

A few students were able to try out how well their stones rolled before they got on the bus!

Then the teachers switched busses and the other group searched for stones and we went to a cave. This was a change in plans since the road going further north up the coast had washed out due to unusually high waves. One more sign of these good teachers coming up with an awesome PLAN B on the spur of the moment. We again met Eric Enos who was joined by “Auntie Stella” who had a ukulele and led the students in a few songs on the bus!

Upon arrival—the students gave greeting to the cave.

Chant–having a few technical difficulties–I will try to post soon!

Eric in cave

Eric told stories in the cave and the bus toured some different sites along the coast and through a neighborhood where you could see the land made from coral and another place where you were clearly inside the remains of a crater (caldera).

One afternoon we visited a number of different PALS programs. Among them: media/video production, robotics, Random Acts of Aloha, farming, gaming, traditional arts….many more. Here one teacher shares some student work with me. This science fair project had a requirement of just one local connection.

teacher with project

In a Nanakuli English class I visited while Hawaii’s first poet laureate (http://www.kealohapoetry.com/) was performing and teaching some uplifting slam poetry with a high-school class. (not an after-school program).

PALS teachersOne afternoon after school I met with (most) of the PALS teachers. They were the ones who had read my book on place-based curriculum design http://www.amazon.com/Place-based-Curriculum-Design-Exceeding-Investigations/dp/1138013463 and participated in a Google discussion group about the book. That was a first for me—meeting so many people with whom we had already had a discussion! I shared back with them some of their comments from the Google group and they got in small groups to discuss what these “findings” suggested about possible future directions.

PALS small groups

There is much happening here. I got to participate in some amazingly rich learning experiences. It often wasn’t clear what I was bringing to the discussion—but I certainly did learn a lot. Thank you PALS for your friendship and collegiality and for sharing this wonderful PLACE with me!

Photo from our last meeting/minus Loke:

me n PALS

During my visit there were many times when I was able to recognize common elements of place-based education. In teachers’ dilemmas, in the happiness of engaging students, in the joy of discovering secrets of the place you called home. But in many ways my journey on the Wai’anae Coast was to someplace magically different and much more powerful than another “educational consultancy.” While the people of Hawaii deal with the multitude of problems facing our globe in the 21st century from an immensely vulnerable spot of being small islands with huge climate, transportation, environmental issues, they also hold some of the most powerful tools of resilience and ancient wisdom and ways of being on the land and water that can replenish, restore and guide our future. These lessons provide much wisdom for all of us in education.

I am immensely grateful for being able to take part in this energy. It has been a journey of hope. Mahalo!

at ocean


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/