Questing for Home: Place-Based Education in Action

What defines a place? The fauna and flora? The climate and geography? The people who live, or have lived there, and their activities? The answer, of course, is all of these things. It is precisely this range of aspects that have made place-based education such a valuable way to bring community into the classroom and to get kids out into the community.

Liza Lowe, MEd ’09, a student in Antioch University New England’s Elementary Teacher Certification Program, with a concentration in Science and Environmental Education, has been getting third graders out of the classroom and into the buildings in town, and the woods nearby, turning curriculum into adventure. Imagine groups of children touring Keene’s converted mill complex, The Colony Mill Marketplace. They use handouts and checklists to find traces of the building’s industrial past among today’s shops and restaurants. These kids are excited about what they are learning; they are on a quest.

Part-Time Seasonal Work Prompted Quest to Become a Teacher

Liza’s interest in teaching grew out of various part-time seasonal jobs at outdoor environmental education centers in parks and camps. She had earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, with emphasis in psychology and environmental studies, from the College of St. Benedict in Saint Joseph, Minnesota, making these jobs a natural fit for her. After a few years, however, she became tired of the low pay and the seasonal instability of such outdoor work and started to think about graduate school as the next logical step. Antioch University New England was one of the only programs offering a focus on environmental education that also included teaching certification.

The third graders have moved from the mill building and up the street to the old depot building, which will serve as a starting point for learning about the importance of railroads to the growth of the city. They talk in groups of two or three, run back to ask something of Liza or one of the other teachers, or to share some new discovery. Now everyone sits in small groups on the sidewalk, being sure all the depot questions are answered before moving on. An interested passerby asks what’s going on and nods smiling at the answer. The community really had become the classroom.

Liza got involved with the quests through the practicum work required as part of her degree program. She was hired to develop updated quests for the Horatio Colony Nature Preserve and Museum. Her original intent was to create science-related quests, but ended up partnering with two teachers interested in history who wanted to prepare students for the upcoming Keene Comes Alive, a history project sponsored by the Keene Lions Club. “I sat down with the two of them to find out the requirements and goals and offered to create a three-part quest that covered Keene’s history through the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s.” says Liza.

Designing A Quest

Some of the ideas for how to go about creating the quests came from a course she took with Steve Glazer, program coordinator for Valley Quest of Vital Communities. Speaking of the ideas behind quests, Liza says they are meant to: “foster sense of place; strengthen relationships between schools and the natural and cultural heritage of their communities; build bridges across the generations, partnering children with community adults and civic groups; and build relationships between newcomers and old-timers.”

The kids have moved on to the final stop in their quest to discover nineteenth-century Keene: The Horatio Colony Museum House. They crowd into a room lined with glass cases, trying to settle down and listen after a day of busy activity. When smaller groups are formed to tour the house, the young historians are primed to ask pertinent questions about what life was like for the inhabitants who filled the bookcases and read by candlelight. When told that the travels and possessions of the people who lived in the house were made possible because of the success of the mills owned by the family, they have some idea of what the mill was, how it operated, and where it was situated. The tenets of place-based education made manifest in the history quest have brought the past to life in the minds of these children.

With her degree complete and the added education-as-adventure experience she’s gained through her work with the quests, Liza looks forward to finding work again at an outdoor education center, this time for the long term. No matter where she ends up, it’s certain that the children she works with will have their eyes opened to the interconnected science, history, and current events associated with their place. Liza will show them that in the quest for inspiring educational experiences, all they need to do is look around them.

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