By Kari Giordano

[Photo copyright: Friends School of Wilmington]

Place based education has been embraced by some rural communities as a method of connecting students to their local surroundings in order to strengthen both the education of the student and the cultural needs of the community.

The Center for Place-Based Learning and Community Engagement describes the philosophy as “an immersive learning experience that places students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences and uses these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum.” Place-based learning offers students opportunities to feel relevant and take ownership of their role in their communities.  Successful place-based education not only teaches pupils about the area in which they live but establishes a relationship between school and community. This relationship and the practice of building it, is an essential ingredient in utilizing place-based education to instill anti-racist ideas in pupils living in areas with very little diversity.  Place-based learning offers pupils the opportunity to think outside of their personal sphere. Through exploration of their place, pupils may be introduced to the notion that their personal accounts and expectations may be quite limited. An example of this came from an expedition into the small rural town of Sheffield, Massachusetts by my secondary photography class. Pupils were tasked with creating a collection of documentary photographs with a focus on the town in which they grew up in. One pupil, who chose to capture and interview small business owners, learned of fellow community members who had traveled the globe contrary to her preconceived notion that residents of her rural town never left their hometown. Suddenly, this stranger who my student photographer had assumed fitted the bill of the generalized rural townsperson became a world traveler who had lived in Cameroon and studied philosophy. Though it was typical for a pupil of this age to generalize, by interviewing a stranger, she became aware of the diversity that had always existed where she didn’t think it had. Place-based education here had the impact of getting her to de-centre her experiences as a white young person in a rural community to thinking more widely and globally.

It may seem counterintuitive for a predominantly white community to address racism by teaching through a predominantly white “place”; in many ways it is. What is important to note, however, is that place-based learning encourages pupils to dig deeper into the sociology and history of their community. In doing so, they explore the reality that diversity exists even when people live in the same place, look the same way, and experience similar circumstances.

In the secondary art classroom, projects that employ place-based learning can be utilized to address racism and build skills essential to anti-racism such as empathy and civic engagement. The following are a few examples of projects which encourage pupils to be immersed in their “place” and which provide the scaffolding necessary to build anti-racist ideas.

  • Community Mapping – In this project, pupils create visual or audio guides of a geographic location they are familiar with (their town, school, neighborhood) in a medium of their choosing. Their maps should be designed to curate thematic information pertaining to the location. The aim of the project is to encourage pupils to get to know the people living and working in their familiar geographic location to explore unexpected realizations.  An example might be that pupils map a street in their town showing not only the geography and landmarks of the street but a social theme of their choosing such as residents’ reply to a consistent question or prompt. Themes can specifically address racism or can be created to detect diversity in a rural area.

  • Community Design Charette – This project provides a formal opportunity for community and pupil collaboration. A problem is chosen and presented to a diverse group with the task of quickly and creatively solving it. An example may be that residents of a senior care home work with secondary pupils to design a product which aids in a common ailment. Students work through empathy-building exercises to understand what older people physically and mentally go through as they age. Issues of intersectionality and diversity can be factored in to assist students to consider what specific issues might impact on different older citizens e.g. an older woman for whom English is not a first language, a man who might be blind as well as having dementia and so on.

  • Postcard campaign – A project that addresses racism head on could be to send out a postcard campaign to pupils, their families and community members alike. Postcards seek input to a simple question such as, “what does anti-racism look like?” Participants submit their ideas on the cards in any way they feel comfortable, written, illustrative, etc. The postcards are collected and exhibited for community members and students to reflect on.

What if ‘local place-based’ is too limiting?

The focus of place-based learning for a rural school may require broader consideration about the unique educational needs of the students being served. A key theme for further debate is the tension between a locally versus a globally oriented education – does the former risk encouraging provincialism, racism and xenophobia? For many school populations, a singular focus on the immediate community risks limiting a student’s understanding of and exposure to diversity and global culture. Therefore if your spaces are not immediately obviously diverse, some homework will have to be done to consider how diversity issues might fit into your area e.g. via migration (earlier settlers), via history – any connection to historical events like the benefitting from the slave trade. Learning opportunities should not only be diverse, but should encourage diversity. The following are some considerations for rural schools:

  • Where cultural diversity lacks, encourage students to make connections to cultures other than their own. Learning about one’s own place is made more robust by comparing and contrasting to another’s.
  • Encourage bilingual learning – not only by providing a welcoming space for English language learners to utilize their native language, but for native English speakers to learn another language.
  • When collecting teaching resources, be sure to represent a wide range of voices; those from diverse ethnic groups, genders, socio-economic classes, ages, etc.
  • Be willing to address inequality and racism. Remember that the study of place should include contemporary issues and your students should recognize their part in the history of their community.
  • Recognize any lack of diversity and use it as a discussion point. Encourage students to take action in ways that might improve their communities, especially when it relates to diversity.
  • Encourage students to extend the same curiosity being used to connect with their own “place” to places beyond their homes. Remind them that what is now their home may one day change and one’s place may evolve, move, or grow.

Kari Giordano teaches art, design, and photography to grades 7-12 at Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield, Massachusetts.  Kari was a 2019 UK Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching fellow with the Moray House School of Education and Sport  studying rural arts education and how practical, place-based projects can connect rural students with their local communities in an age where urbanization has a profound impact on rural districts. She received her Bachelor of Fine Art from State University of New York at New Paltz and her Master of Art in Teaching from Rhode Island School of Design. Beyond her teaching duties, Kari serves as the K-12 Arts Curriculum Leader as well as advisor to numerous school organizations. Additional awards and honors include the prestigious James C. Kapteyn Award for Excellence in Teaching, Berkshire Community College’s 40 Under 40 Award, and State University of New York at New Paltz’s 40 Under 40 Award. Outside of education, Kari owns and operates a freelance graphic design and photography studio. She lives and works in Berkshire County, Massachusetts with her husband and two young sons.

https://www.karigiordano.com