Enlisting the Energies of Schoolkids

By Gregory Smith

Oct.10-16. 2010

High school students in Boston helped orchestrate a campaign that after six years led to the enforcement of an anti-idling statute and an order to convert the city's buses to natural gas. Each year, middle school students on the Hawaian island of Molokai investigate local natural resource issues for several months. Their reports to the community have resulted in an island-wide recycling program, the restoration of traditional fishponds, and a state bottle bill.

Over the past decade, elementary school students north of San Francisco have replanted 20 miles of formerly eroded streams in an effort to get the California freshwater shrimp off the endangered species list. Students at the Edcouch-Elsa High School in Texas produced a film about an abandoned chemical factory to raise public awareness of the problem and pressure local officials to pursue legal action to clean it up. Students in numerous schools across rural Alabama have jump-started community newspapers long ago abandoned by professional journalists.

In each of these examples, young people were given opportunities to make real contributions to the life of their communities, taking on the mantle of citizen, environmental steward or both. They are participants in an emerging approach to teaching and learning called place-and-community-based education. This approach doesn't require the installation of a new pre-determined curriculum. It instead involves a shift in perspective. Rather than seeing learning as something that happens primarily out of a book, it brings local issues into the classroom and gives young people a chance to become not just students of the world but actors in it. In doing so, it accomplishes four important goals.

First, it creates learning opportunities that are meaningful and engaging for students. When young people have a chance to address issues that are important to their communities, learning becomes not an abstract activity but something that can make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others. They see a reason to learn, a reason to invest themselves in activities that, altho they may be difficult or risky, are valued by others, This is a powerful incentive to more engagement and work.

Second, it gives students an opportunity to experience the world beyond the classroom with all of their senses. When this happens they are more likely to develop an appreciation for its beauty and wonder and fragility. The preservation of the natural world depends on this kind of appreciation. As more and more children spend their time behind electronic screens, the world is put in jeopardy. Educators may be among the few people able to reverse this trend.

Third, it allows schools to focus as much on the preparation of good citizens as good workers. Many policy makers and educators have forgotten about the importance of social connections and trust. Without these, communities unravel. When young people are given the opportunity to work outside the classroom in ways that enhance the welfare of their families and neighbors, they come to see themselves as participants in rather than merely observers of the social life around them.

Finally, place-and-community-based education provides rich opportunities for young people to develop into the leaders demanded by our era. The early years of the 21st century are revealing the growing inability of large economic and political institutions to solve the problems now facing our communities and humanity as a whole. More than corporate executives or beltway politicians, it will be average citizens responding to the unique challenges and possibilities of their own places who will lay the foundation for the more sustainable and just societies the future requires. These citizen leaders are in classrooms right now.

By reorienting education to the local, breaking down the barriers between classrooms and communities, and demonstrating to children and youth that they have the power to reshape theirs and their loved ones' lives for the better, it may be possible to enlist their energies in the sobering but inspiring tasks that lie before us. ****

Gregory Smith is a professor in the Graduate School of Education,and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, He is the author, with David Sobel, of Place-and- Community-based Education in Schools, Routledge 2010. ______

My USSF Conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein can be read at

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