The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Place-based, experiential learning will be the core of all instruction at our school as we weave together the elements of STREAM curricula (Science Technology Research Engineering Arts and Math). Opportunities for place-based learning include Matanuska Valley history, Dena’ina and Ahtna Athabaskan cultures, archeology, ecology, forestry, agriculture, food security, sustainability, energy systems, building and landscape design, computer science, global studies, and the arts.
In addition to providing specific courses and credits for graduation plus a wide range of electives, our school will offer advanced courses with individualized study options. Class scheduling will be done in a manner that facilitates larger blocks of time for lab work, field research, and studio work. We are also considering adjustments to the school year schedule that would allow intensives — two blocks of three weeks each devoted to projects-based, interdisciplinary study. Examples of potential projects include design and construction of raised-bed gardens, rain gardens, a City of Palmer beautification project, or the mapping, design, and construction of non-motorized trails.
Our school facility, which we hope to build on Alaska Pacific University’s Louise Kellogg Farm, would put us in the middle of a research laboratory for sustainable Northern agriculture. Graduate students in APU’s Outdoor & Environmental Education program and aspiring teachers pursuing certification will be invaluable resources for instructional support and curriculum development.
Place-based education is a fundamentally different approach to learning than most schools offer, one that nurtures vital connections between students and their community. In the process of interdisciplinary studies, students come to know and care about the place in which they live.
A growing body of research demonstrates the benefits of place-based learning, including higher test scores, better grade-point averages, improved classroom behavior, increased self-esteem, and higher problem-solving abilities.
This concept is not new, but only recently has gained momentum. Nearly a century ago, education reformer John Dewey made a case for experiential learning, to engage students in their local environments. Since then, and especially in the past 20 years, an increasing number of teachers and schools have embraced place-based learning as a strategy that captures students’ imaginations, improves academic performance, and advances environmental stewardship and civic engagement.
In 2002, G.A. Smith was the first to use the term “place-based education” in a major periodical, categorizing five areas that can be applied singly or in combination:
• Cultural studies:
Students conduct investigations of local history and cultural phenomenon and identify themes that are important to the long-term viability of their communities.
• Nature studies:
Students learn about unique features of their place through stream monitoring, restoration, and gardening, often with an emphasis on science and math.
• Real-world problem solving:
Students determine an issue they want to explore in greater depth, participate in developing a methodology, and work with the community to solve a problem.
Older students explore economic opportunities in their neighborhoods through enterprise, mentorship, and other partnerships.
• Community regeneration:
Students learn to be citizens by being citizens, by investigating issues and making recommendations to policymakers.
The following are examples of how place will connect with academic studies:
Local ecology: Field research on plant succession, invasive species, hydrology, wildlife corridors, forage distribution, human activity impacts, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping.
City of Palmer: Opportunities to interview, draw, or photograph lifelong residents with memories of the early days of the Matanuska Valley Colony; access to Palmer Historical Society archives of photos, letters, and other primary source materials; city preservation, restoration, and beautification opportunities; mentorships (engineers, architects, medical professionals, etc.), and Palmer Arts Council exhibitions, readings, and other cultural events.
Native culture: Opportunities to learn from local culture bearers about their history, dance, language, art, indigenous values, Native Ways of Knowing, and involvement in archeological research.
APU’s Spring Creek Farm: Agricultural research and food production, produce processing, preservation, storage, distribution, public education, and outreach.
School facilities: Monitoring of energy, water, waste, and heat-exchange systems; contributing to school expansion plans and landscape design; student-led public education; and using the school’s community meeting space for exhibitions, public lectures, and other educational programs.
Throughout the school year, teachers will coordinate thematic study so that social studies, math, science, language arts, and other subjects are woven together within the context of place. Scientific method will become routine practice as students learn and are inspired to ask informed questions and form hypotheses. They will design research, collect data, perform statistical analysis, and form objective conclusions from results. They will apply themes of study to writing in various genres, from journalism to creative writing. They will read and learn about the place they live through various genres, from contemporary nonfiction to primary source historical documents. Arts and physical education will weave seamlessly into themes of study, connecting with the natural surroundings and rigors of fieldwork. Student work will be shared in community and school district publications, newsletters, and at public events.
In addition to courses required for graduation, and in accordance with our place-based philosophy, our school will offer a wide range of electives closely aligned with our geography. Examples from the MSBSD Program of Study include Pacific Rim, Alaska Wilderness Studies, Contemporary Alaska Literature, Principles of Archeology, Intro to GIS/RS Concepts (mapping), Greenhouse Production, Forestry, and Landscape Design. Physical Education requirements will be met through courses such as dance, archery, outdoor recreation, martial arts, and yoga.
One of our school’s graduation requirements will be for each student to complete one course (.5 cr.) of Career Mentorship or Community Service.
Advanced courses and individualized study options will be provided when numbers do not warrant an actual classroom period. Similarly, foreign languages will be offered through classroom and individualized study opportunities according to numbers and interest.
Teacher preparation and professional development:
All certified teaching staff will receive sustained place-based professional development for continuous improvement. We are applying for a special federal grant (Charter Schools Program Non-State Educational Agencies Planning, Program Design, and Initial Implementation Grant) to help fund teacher training in advance of our target opening date of August 2016. Others sources of funding for professional development will be pursued as needed.
In addition, our teaching staff and administration will demonstrate their commitment to constant improvement through ongoing peer observation. The model of Educational Tours has been in practice in our district for a couple of years. It provides an effective structure for teachers to observe and be observed by fellow teachers, and to offer and receive constructive peer-to-peer feedback.
We believe in a culture of open doors and open minds when it comes to teaching practices. We learn from each other through development of trust, honesty, and respect.