By Denny Olson

Learning About Where We Live

Place-learning has built-in relevance. Local politics affects us at a much greater rate and intensity than state, national or global politics. Local air, water and food conditions affect us much more than those on larger scales. Local people are the ones with which we must have relationships. Local land and wildlife are what we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste when we walk out of the door. When I visit schools — with smartboards and computers turning the “actual” outside the school-walls into the “virtual “on a screen — it seems clear that one rather dominating fact seems to have escaped those of us in the educational community. We are herenow. That is pure, un-adorned common sense. And yet, cost and liability considerations are limiting trips outside the school walls further and further every year.

So, what are we missing? What would a place-literate student know and be able to do about his or her place? Some examples:

  • Mapping – in early grades, are they able to draw a rudimentary map of bedroom, house and yard, classroom, schoolyard? In later grades, can they draw a detailed map of their watershed and/or bioregion?
  • Water systems – early grades, basic flora and fauna of a local stream; later, ongoing monitoring of chemical and biological in different places and at different times on the major lakes and rivers in the watershed; compare to others in different areas of U. S. and world; understand history of river and lake use; flood history; pros and cons of local dams; how water bodies have changed in response to human activity and extrapolate how they might change in the future; be able to construct the student’s “water address”, from their bathroom sink to the ocean.
  • Water use – how do septic systems work; how central sewage systems work; which kind are students connected to from home and school; how much and what types of water do they use at their home and in local businesses?
  • In their bioregion, do they know the location and unique characteristics of rare plants and animals, natural areas, public parks, wild rivers and wilderness areas, wetlands, mountain ranges, public forests, etc. 
  • In their watershed, what are there major sources of toxic releases, air pollution, solid waste, etc., and what measures have been taken to modify the effects of those sources?
  • What are the historical development and sprawl effects of population expansion in their bioregion?
  • Do they know local political structures — who makes decisions about what for whom; opportunities for participation beyond voting at any age?
  • How a compost pile works; how a solid waste district works.
  • Forestry practices in their region.
  • Employment and job type percentages in their region, how those percentages have changed historically and how they may change in the future.
  • Wildlife habitat in their home yards and schoolyards, and how it can be improved.
  • Be able to construct an ongoing and flexible plan to make the school and (by request) local businesses more environmentally friendly and cost efficient; persuading powers-that-be to implement the plan.
  • Perform a public service project every year — student choice.
  • Engage in a multi-generational and/ or multi-cultural learning process each year.
  • Know the native historical and post-European history of their bioregion.
  • Be able to outline the major differences in traditions of local native cultures and post-settlement cultures.
  • Know and experience a good variety of the major recreational opportunities in their region.
  • Have cooperation, collaboration, negotiating, civility and skills in these learning processes.
  • Have a good basic knowledge of the local opportunities for personal spiritual (using the word in the broadest sense) development — free of pre-judgement and with tolerance for other perspectives.
  • Understand how bioregion natural systems have changed in historical and pre-historical past; know the major components (rocks, soil, plants and animals) of their bioregion, and how they may respond to future change.
  • And knowing some local birds couldn’t hurt, either.

If our kids knew these things, it could possibly embarrass our local leaders into learning them as well … and the cost and liability concerns might magically disappear, because our priorities might find a more suitable order. Of course, that might mean more students may want to stay and contribute, needlessly creating a better world for the rest of us. 

What a waste …