Curriculum, School Community, Teaching

Finding Place in Education

In other words we must apprentice ourselves to an experience of place, if place is to become our teacher.[1]

At five to eight, with the shadows of spruce and fir lengthening into disproportionately long fingers of dark, I became aware that two students were missing.

It had been twenty-five minutes since the last of the stragglers had pushed into camp. Now I was suddenly aware that I alone among the leaders held any back-country credentials and experience, that the responsibility for the missing students fell squarely upon my shoulders. Fighting to maintain a facade of calm, I quickly delegated camp responsibilities, grabbed my first aid kit, headlamp, and cell phone – which proved useless as I was within a cellular blackout zone that hugs the rugged coastline of Newfoundland even today – and hurried off. They couldn’t be, I was sure, more than ten minutes or so away. I ran through the deepening dusk, hyper-aware of the way the trail hugged the rugged coastline, cliffs jutting off suddenly – a fall of a hundred feet and often more over grey-red rock into the swirling cold of the North Atlantic. My eyes betrayed my worst fears, searching out for the billowing white of a t-shirt, so akin to a jellyfish, that would mark disaster.

As a society, we are less and less comfortable in our localities. We have embraced the idea of a globalized placelessness, where everything, everywhere, resonates with a sameness.

But after running back nearly two kilometers, my shins scraped raw and bloody, I had to stop. Re-evaluate. My brain tripped over itself, trying to formulate a plan. I wondered how well the students knew the outdoors. If they were comfortable, had set up camp. To be lost is an awful sensation, especially in one’s own backyard.

As it would turn out, the students had come to a fork in the trail at five in the afternoon. Tired, their feet blistered, they had stopped and phoned for help. Had they been more comfortable in the woods, in their ability to read a trail, I wonder if they wouldn’t have been able to press on without incident.

As a society, we are less and less comfortable in our localities. We have embraced the idea of a globalized placelessness, where everything, everywhere, resonates with a sameness. Wendell Berry considers this the result of seeing in places nothing of value save what can be mined, stripped, or drilled from them.[2] What do we lose, educationally and in society at large, when we reduce our inhabited places to those components that provide material wealth alone? One result is that our scholastic curricula, by and large, avoid teaching specific places. They turn instead to the “mandates of a standardized, ‘placeless’ curriculum and settle for the abstractions and simulations of classroom learning.”[3] Yet if students and teachers do not have the opportunity to work within and develop a relationship with place, how can we ask them to take on the challenges of climate change, of finite fresh water supplies, and the burgeoning necessity of weaning ourselves from oil. All of these challenges demand a respect, indeed a love for place, wherein lessons can be learned and knowledge stored away so that we can transform society for the better. Edmund O’Sullivan asks that we bear in mind the totality of life that acknowledges we are but “one species living on planet ‘Earth.’” This is the context of the planet, housed within specific localities, that will give students and teachers the opportunity to meaningfully see and interact with the world.[4]

Is this asking too much from schools, from teachers overburdened with curricular objectives to meet and from students swimming against a strong rip-tide of subjects and the overarching needs of homework and tests? Sheila Geisbrecht argues that, as educators, we need to fuse various curricular objectives to incorporate local places into our teaching. “Localism allows students to explore their worlds through hands-on participatory learning experiences which build on core curricular areas…”[5] Rather than distracting from the mandated curriculum, embedding place within our teaching allows students to see the connections between classroom learning and the world beyond school, to make the learning truly meaningful. Students and teachers in this light begin to create maps of their localities that make them resonate with meaning.

“This is where Ruth kissed Johnny. Or that’s what he said anyway. And over there, behind the convenience store, that’s where I found a fifty dollar bill once.”

These are story maps, housed in geographical places but extending beyond and into them in a manner known best by the storyteller.[6] Such story-maps challenge the idea of places as mere sources of economic opportunity. Looking back, this is the kind of resource that would have made my teaching internship, done in Grand Bank, Newfoundland more palatable. Teaching World Geography 3202, a public examination course, I understood the course material but often had a hard time linking it meaningfully to students. After a particularly long class where I met the usual symptoms of student apathy, pronounced yawns, background chatting, shrugs of passive indifference when called upon, my cooperating teacher suggested I try to make the class more meaningful locally.

“Bring the curriculum to them,” she suggested. “Make the global local.”

The men and women who once worked the land are becoming marginalized, their story maps lost. It is through their stories that students can find the point of beginning their own maps, to find new directions locally and by extension, globally.

I nodded but found the idea off-putting, a practiced cliché. How could I make a curriculum based on global inequalities in farming and food production resonate in a community still suffering from the plight of a cod fishing moratorium? When I looked out the window all I saw was snow blasted along by the infernal winds. There was, I decided, no point of connection between the two. Partly, I was too immature to see the possibilities. More to the point, I was willing to sacrifice student understanding for the banality of what became a largely boring intellectual exercise because I found comfort in global ideas rather than local realities. How much richer would that class have been with the presence of local fishermen, talking about the collapse of the cod fishery, the myriad variables that plague commercial fisheries in the global world, giving global resonance to the local historical narrative of dependence on the cod fishery. Grand Bank’s history – indeed, its name tells much of this narrative, cultural and socio-economic, perched as it was atop one of the richest cod fishing banks in the world.

Such a lesson was not beyond the scope of possibility. And the lessons of Grand Bank, of localities being mined and stripped for economic gain, are becoming increasingly commonplace. The men and women who once worked the land are becoming marginalized, their story maps lost. It is through their stories that students can find the point of beginning their own maps, to find new directions locally and by extension, globally.

The local knowledge of place, its temperaments and possibilities, is still known where people live in working harmony with it. In the summer of 2007, my wife and I ventured out to Fogo Island, slung nine rocky, shoal-strewn miles off the north-east coast of Newfoundland by the retreat of the last ice age. My wife was studying the island’s cultural heritage. As part of her work we were invited to attend the annual mass on Little Fogo Island, a further six miles across from the community of Joe Batt’s Arm. At one time a thriving community of four hundred, largely employed in the cod fishery, today it is home to a handful of summertime residents. It was a calm July day, the sun high in a washed out blue sky. We rode the six miles on waters barely rippled by any wind in a newly made trap-skiff, once the heart and soul of the Newfoundland inshore fishery. The refurbished Acadia engine puttered in fickle opposition to being worked so hard after thirty odd years of accumulating dust in a store, and consequently cut out frequently. A salty-lipped fisherman, shrouded in a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, squeezed his sinewy torso into the narrow confines of the engine hold to restart the motor. In fits and starts we made our way across, the frequent breaks just another opportunity to enjoy the day, the sun strong across our faces as we bit into another slice of homemade partridgeberry lassie tart. The sermon was almost anti-climactic after the leisure of the trip, and I made ready, after more pieces of tart and sandwiches, to explore the island. I was aware that the men – largely ex-fishermen – had congregated, but I thought little of it.

We’re going, I was told as I crested the first hill, my wife waving me back. Indeed, everyone seemed to be on the move. Picnic boxes were being hastily packed, carried down rickety, greying spruce-wood ladders to the temporary fleet of boats that were docked in the narrow confines of the harbour.

Surprised, I inquired why.

Storm’s coming, came the answer. Though I squinted across the Labrador Sea, I could see nothing more ominous than a few clouds scattered at the horizon line. The sun still shone bright in a brilliantly blue sky. But I was there at their behest, so I got back into the boat. The wind had picked up some and we crested the waves with a heavy slap of the bow. Conversation was difficult over the roar of the engine. But never once did we seem in any danger. It was only after successfully navigating the tricky shoals that mark Joe Batt’s harbour mouth that I glanced back at Little Fogo. It had disappeared. In its stead a black sky edging to a mauve-red at the waterline, rain lines visible, slanting nearly horizontal, shrouded the island. Lightning punctuated an already apocalyptic scene.

Such knowledge fosters “a sense of cultural responsibility” to one’s inhabited place.

To know a place so well as to see a storm coming from the minutia of clues offered that day has stuck with me. Clearly, these were men who had generations of knowledge, as well as their own experiences to build upon. We don’t value such knowledge anymore because there is no economic merit to it at first glance. But such knowledge fosters “a sense of cultural responsibility” to one’s inhabited place. Therein we need to grapple, as Newfoundlanders and as Canadians, with what our localities mean to us and, through such discoveries to “forge more ethical, reparative attachments to place as a practice of renewal and hope.”[7] In becoming more comfortable with our localities, hopefully we can find a way forward wherein we can restore places as meaningful interactions between human life and the natural world that surrounds us. But to do so we need to make place part of our scholastic mandate. It is not test scores we are worried about, but the viability of our communities and places for tomorrow’s generation.

EN BREF – En tant que société, nous sentons de moins en moins notre appartenance à notre localité. Nous avons adopté l’idée d’une sorte d’existence anonyme mondialisée, où tout, partout, est essentiellement pareil. Que perdons-nous, sur le plan de l’éducation et dans la société, quand nous réduisons nos espaces habités aux éléments qui assurent uniquement la fortune matérielle? Si les élèves et les enseignants ne peuvent travailler de l’intérieur et développer une relation avec le lieu, comment pouvons-nous leur demander de relever les défis du réchauffement planétaire, des quantités limitées d’eau potable et de la nécessité croissante de nous sevrer du pétrole. Tous ces défis requièrent un respect – en fait un amour – du lieu, où les leçons peuvent être apprises et les connaissances peuvent être retenues pour que nous puissions transformer la société en mieux. Nous devons intégrer le lieu à notre mandat de scolarisation. Il ne s’agit pas de s’inquiéter de résultats d’examens, mais bien de la viabilité de nos collectivités et des lieux de la génération de demain.

[1] BrianWattchow, “Experience of Place: Lessons on Teaching Cultural Attachment ot Place,” in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way, eds. Bob Henderson and Nils Vikander (Toronto, Natural Heritage: 2007): 263.

[2] Wendell Berry, “Preserving Wildness,” in American Earth (Library of America: 2008): 525.

[3] David Grueneweld, “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place,” Educational Researcher 32, no, 4 (2003): 8.

[4] O’Sullivan, Edmund. “The Project and Vision of Transformative Education,” in Expanding the Boundaries of Transformative Learning, eds, Edmund O’Sullivan, Amish Morrell, and Mary Ann O’Connor (Palgrave Macmillan: 2002): 8.

[5] Sheila Giesbrecht “The 100-Mile Curriculum,” Education Canada (Spring, 2008): 27.

[6] Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (London: Granta Books, 2008): 15.

[7] Ursula Kelly, “Where Biography Meets Ecology,” in Narrating Transformative Learning in Education, eds. M. Garder and U. Kelly (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): 46.

Meet the Expert(s)

Chris Peters

Chris Peters lives and teaches in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He feels that learning and teaching in nature is the best means to counteract the ailments of modern society, most importantly climate change. 

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network