David Sobel: Lighting Up Minds to the Wonders of Their World
Credit: Peter Hoey
The Daring Dozen Q&A
How do you use the Web in your work?
I love being able to post extensive evaluation reports on the Web to make them broadly available to the professional community. The mapping programs available, such as Common Ground's Community Mapping Project, enhance lots of geography curriculum projects, and I'm just starting to explore ways to use Google Earth. And I like the way I can enter into the culture and character of a new place, school, institution, or destination prior to getting there and therefore be able to tailor what I'm doing to the particularities of place. The new Promise of Place Web site is a good resource, as is the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
The art of the Canadian landscape artists -- the Group of Seven -- and the painters of the Maine Coast, such as Rockwell Kent, shape my landscape aesthetic.
- The Magus by John Fowles, about deep experiential education
- The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood by Edith Cobb
- The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, by Paul Shepard
- Children's Participation, by Roger Hart
- The Magical Child, by Joseph Chilton Pearce
Paul Shepard, Roger Hart, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Louise Chawla, and Gary Snyder
Who are your role models?
I have great respect for the way Jimmy Carter (www.cartercenter.org) took his presidential stature and translated it into his good works around the world in a quiet and distinguished manner. I like the way my colleague Ron La Brusciano brings a refined aesthetic and attentive preparation to all his hands-on teaching. I'm impressed with the way my colleague Richard Louv has brought the children-and-nature issue into the national consciousness. I respect the way my friend Lew Feldstein strives to bring together people from across the political spectrum to solve problems together. And, similarly, I respect the way my fellow Harrisville resident Chick Colony has helped to preserve the character of our town and keep it livable for everyone. I learned a lot about educational philosophy, respecting children, and phenomenology from Patricia Carini at The Prospect Center. And I strive to engage eagerly with the wonders of the world with the same enthusiasm that is demonstrated by both my children, Tara and Eli. In that same vein, I aspire to dance as effortlessly as Tara and to ski as courageously as Eli.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
My former wife trained me to refrain from giving advice.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
A sincere desire to embrace the gift of life on Earth, and Aldo Leopold's (www.aldoleopold.org) maxim: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
A Tom Robbins comment: "It's never too late to have a happy childhood."
More to Explore:
Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David Sobel plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it.
Sobel, director of teacher-certification programs at Antioch University New England, in Keene, New Hampshire, advocates using students' home turf to study not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. The approach is an antidote to the "strange kind of schizophrenia" Sobel noted in his 1996 book Beyond Ecophobia.
The malady sets in when well-intentioned lessons emphasize vanishing tropical rain forests over more immediate surroundings, leaving children "disconnected from the world outside their doors," wrote Sobel, a father of two. He prescribed ways to embed ecology in core curriculum -- and to engage parents and other adults -- in Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities, published in 2004.
That book grew out of his work with CO-SEED (Community-Based School Environmental Education). The ten-year-old Antioch initiative -- which Sobel codirects with Delia Clark and Bo Hoppin -- has done pioneering work in developing sustainable models for place-based education. It recruits schools to partner with nearby nonprofit learning centers, such as nature centers, arboretums, and museums, for minimum three-year terms.
Over that period, CO-SEED provides grant-supported funding and guidance. The codirectors train teachers to think creatively about how to meet curriculum goals, they coach centers on strategies to best work with schools, and there's often a service-learning component. "Our goal has been to create models that inspire other organizations," Sobel says.
CO-SEED has coordinated projects in rural and urban settings in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. One of Sobel's favorites involves a high school physics class in Littleton, New Hampshire, where the public-works department wanted an inexpensive, green way to keep snow and ice from sidewalks. Students devised a prototype system to pipe waste heat exhaust from the school's furnace to heat fluid in coils beneath the sidewalk at the school's front entrance. The design was not quite a success, but the mistakes have been educational for the students as well as for city officials.
In a current project, seventh graders at Guilford Central School, in Guilford, Vermont, are learning about ancient civilization and local history by designing a brochure for a restored 1930s movie theater. Its art deco motif incorporates a Greek key design, images of the Temple of Hephaestus, a bas-relief featuring Greek gods, and a zodiac on the ceiling. The students "see this as a real job," says their teacher, Jennifer Kramer, who earned her Antioch graduate education degree in 2001. "It has real meaning, and that's what makes it more powerful."
The place-based approach excites teachers, too, Kramer says. "You're always keeping your radar open to opportunities" to meet curriculum goals.
A final merit, Sobel says, is that place-based learning is "connecting kids with local resources" and strengthening community ties to schools. In 2002, his push for more evaluation led CO-SEED and several partners to form the Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative, which assesses student achievement and teacher practice; its members also share findings and ideas.
Sobel, who joined Antioch's education faculty in 1997, specializes in integrated learning, each year sending out a dozen graduates prepared to teach the importance of place. And he talks it up in frequent speeches, mostly in New England but also in New York, New Jersey, and Tennessee.
"We call him the guru of place-based education," says Megan Camp, program director at Shelbourne Farms, a 1,400-acre education organization in Vermont. "His is a voice that's really important in the movement."
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