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Building a Place-Based Unit That Checks All of the Boxes

It’s no secret that being a teacher is demanding. Subject matter and pedagogy aside, there’s a lot a teacher is thinking about on a daily basis: how to manage their classroom, how to advocate for a particular student, how to advocate for themselves, funding their classroom needs, parent-teacher dynamics, parent-student dynamics and how to continually motivate and inspire their learners. Considering this, we understand that also designing units that check all of the place-based education boxes can feel overwhelming at best, and impossible at worst.  That being said, it can be done. In the words of one of our Independent School teachers: 

“If you ignore the jargon and start with what feels like real learning for both you and your students, and you maintain a growth mindset, it will just happen.” – Amanda Chambers

Of course it also comes alongside a lot of learning, iterating, collaborating, reflecting and growing. So today, instead of sharing a How-To on how to go about designing your own integrated place-based unit, we thought we’d take you on a journey (over five years) and share how our 9th & 10th grade faculty succeeded in designing a unit that checked all of the boxes amidst the challenges of turnover, time, diverse learning needs, parents and all the other educational demands.  *If you aren’t familiar with our Place-Based Education principles, take a look at them here. 

It all started with Brad Pitt…

Do we have your attention now? In all seriousness, it was the book A River Runs Through It that served as the impetus for what has now become an annual end-of-year 9th and 10th grade integrated unit. When we heard from our current science teacher, she mentioned that throughout the entire school year, “Our English teacher at the time, Carin, had said we would integrate our discipline’s units and then all of a sudden it was May and we had no more time to simply talk about doing it. So, she said A River Runs Through It and I said water chemistry! And then Drew, the social studies teacher, said…let’s incorporate dams! And then Scott, the PE teacher, said…we can do fly fishing! And then Heidi, the art teacher, said…let’s add in watercolors!” That first year, their entire plan was to get students outside and learning about their local waterways. And, that’s it.  “The focus was broad to say the least and we didn’t have an inkling for any sort of singular thread. We did meet with local experts. We did get into the community. We did use the Community as Classroom. But, students were never really required to apply any of their learning and we did not require any sort of final product. Students were never asked for their input about anything. The experience was most certainly not rigorous. What we did have was excellent weather and a lot of fun.”  So, Year 1: Community as Classroom. Check! 

Fun in the Sun, Only Better

Going into Year 2, our faculty knew they wanted to repeat the “Fun in the Sun” from the previous year’s integration, only this time more purposefully. This lead to the design of a unifying theme for the unit: Ecotones and the Human/Wild Interface. And it was good. So good that the teachers chose to present on their success in the organization’s annual Place-Based Education Symposium. Using the classic Pink Floyd prism as an analogy for their design, the faculty demonstrated how they took the singular theme of ecotones, and separated out the concepts into discipline specific learning. 
A slide from their PechaKucha presentation at the Place-Based Education Symposium.
“We weren’t yet using an interdisciplinary approach, but what we were able to accomplish was making the learning completely Inquiry-Based. Admittedly guided inquiry as we as faculty provided the big questions, but still solid inquiry. The learning was grounded in observing, asking relevant questions, making predictions and collecting data in order to better understand our local world. Additionally, it was this year that we were able to incorporate the three points of the place triangle.” So, Year 2: Inquiry-Based. Check! Check!

Flipping the Prism

In Year 3, our faculty started planning early, “like, really early.” In doing so, they had the time to define a singular learning target for all students.

Learning Target: I can communicate knowledge and understanding of a local water issue through an integrated lens using a variety of academic skills

“Year 3 culminated in what we called the ‘Water Symposium’ and was a chance for students to share their learning around a local water issue. In doing so, students also shared how they were able to use knowledge, understanding and skills gained from three of their main core classes to meet the learning target.” 
The prism was flipped!
While our faculty had called their unit Interdisciplinary starting in year 1, year 3 was the year where all students were accountable to the end product and were held within their Zone of Proximal Development throughout the process.  So Year 3: Interdisciplinary Approach. Check! Check! Check!

Giving Students Voice and Choice

With three years under their belt, our faculty felt that in Year 4 it was time to put ownership back into the hands of students and give them agency in both the project’s design and final showcase. What amounted was the creation of an integrated study on a local waterway and a community education event driven by student-led Event and PR teams. Now, not only were students making observations, asking relevant questions and formulating hypotheses and method designs to drive their research, but they were also collaborating to plan a community-wide event, writing press releases and communicating with local newspapers and radio stations and ensuring the entire event ran smoothly on the day of.  From the student’s standpoint, this new learner-centered format was empowering and really motivated higher expectations when it came to the final outcome. So, Year 4: Learner-Centered. Check! Check! Check! Check! 

Fifth Time’s a Charm

After five years, our faculty are proud to say this project has finally become a “thing.” A thing worthy of dedicated planning time in their schedules and one that they can say with confidence checks all of the place-based education boxes. So, where are the last two principles you might be asking? Well this past year, students were challenged to explore their local water issues through the lens of globalization. “The enduring understanding, or statement that we as faculty hope students remember ten, twenty years from now is: Water is part of a worldwide system vital to all life on Earth. Human interactions within the water cycle have both positive and negative consequences for the health of the environment. Globalization has led to many of the problems associated with a healthy water cycle, though present sustainability efforts are looking to remediate human impacts on the environment.” So, Local to Global. Check!  And lastly, when it comes to Design Thinking, we’re giving this entire project evolution a big, fat check for it! Because five years ago our faculty observed a massive creative opportunity in the way they were teaching their disciplines and over the past four they’ve generated and tested ideas, implemented them and evaluated them in order to continuously improve it for the next year. In the words of our Science teacher, Amanda, “We will never have a perfect unit to share. But we’re going to keep iterating. And we do our best to model and maintain a growth mindset throughout the process.”  Well, we can’t wait to see the next iteration in 2020!

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