4 Steps to Establishing a Place-Based Learning Program
Immersing students in their communities allows them to learn about the world from right in their own backyards.
Burlington City and Lake (BCL) is an immersive, place-based, semester-long course for 20 juniors and seniors from Burlington High School, focused on the places, people, problems, and possibilities of our city. For us, the city is our classroom. We meet in downtown Burlington, Vermont, all day, every other day. Together, we explore what it means for a community to thrive.
Walking in natural areas, we seek to understand the value of trees in our city and in global ecosystems; on a research vessel on Lake Champlain, we learn about microplastics, cyanobacteria, and the impacts of a warming climate; in meetings with city leaders and community activists, we discuss racial justice and imagine new possibilities by creating short films and poetry.
When I cocreated the program, I wanted to focus on place-based learning. To me, this means exploring the question, what can we learn right here, right now? It’s learning that’s authentic to your place and time, shaped by the people involved and current issues. In each semester of BCL, we engage in learning that couldn’t happen anywhere else.
Usually when I finish telling a teacher about BCL, they ask, somewhat incredulously, “Just how did you pull this off?” Here are four tips to launch a place-based experience at your school.
1. Make space to dream
Start with your vision for change. What do you want to grow? I’d dreamed of creating a program that got kids learning out in the city for years. When I attended the Shelburne Farms Institute for Sustainable Schools Leadership Academy, I found a forum for feedback and partners to help me realize this dream. Many professional learning programs (including those at Shelburne Farms) offer scholarships for educators to afford you the time and space to plan.
If you can’t attend a retreat, spend time reflecting on your goals, hopes, and expectations for incorporating place-based learning into your practice. Map your school or organization to identify your partners. What are the systems you’ll need to navigate? What perspectives will you need? Who can give you feedback as your plans progress?
Finding collaborators in your school, organization, or community is an essential part of launching a place-based experience. Once you find coconspirators, invest in team building and continued learning. BCL serves a diverse population, so we knew it was crucial to bring in outside experts to check our bias and support us in exploring inclusion and belonging. Together, we dig into who we are and what we care about.
We held a visioning session with city officials, plus recent high school graduates, teaching colleagues, and others, to help us dream up what would be helpful for the city. We were lucky to find eager partners in the Burlington School District and in the education nonprofit Shelburne Farms, forging an innovative public-private connection.
Today, our program is a partnership of Shelburne Farms and the school district, with both groups providing staff and expertise. When looking for partners, prioritize those who have the capacity and flexibility to collaborate, who believe in your mission, and who are invested in being part of their community. The support of partners beyond our school district helps to make the secret sauce of BCL.
Finally, connect virtually or in person with other educators doing place-based work. Ask colleagues or search online for programs or experiences that are similar to what you envision. As we planned BCL, we researched high school–level semester programs that took students out of the classroom to learn. We fundraised to enable in-person visits, but you could easily have rich conversations with the leaders of these programs virtually. These conversations can help spark new ideas or reveal barriers to address.
2. Identify your allies
A diverse group of students served as our consultants, who flagged potential roadblocks to participation, like accessibility, inclusion, and timing. For example, since we gather off-site away from the high school, students raised such questions as how they would get to a community center downtown and how they could still gain access to school lunch.
Inclusion was at the forefront from the program’s inception. We also worked with district and school-level departments—including special education and English Language Learner departments—to develop a right-fit schedule. We began with the aim of creating a fully immersive, five-day-a-week program but had to scale that back to accommodate student schedules. Today, I’m glad we made this change; switching to a more flexible schedule created a program that feels more accessible and more integrated with the larger high school. Because we were intentional about accessibility from the start, today all kinds of students feel like they belong in BCL.
3. Embrace Uncertainty
My partner teacher and I run this program as our full-time job; essentially, we’re running a school within a school! Between meetings, we synthesize and shape the flow of learning informed by an education-for-sustainability approach. Part of this means embracing the uncertainty of a program that’s anchored in the here and now. Place-based learning is bigger than what fits on a lesson plan. Emergence is part of what we do at BCL.
We start every semester with our essential question: What does it take for a community to thrive? We introduce themes including sustainability, civic engagement, sense of place, social justice, and community. These questions and themes are posted on the wall of our meeting space for all to see. We leave half of our time open to opportunities that arise, like a student-identified project of interest on nature-based climate solutions, an invitation to visit a local tech company, or a flowing conversation on public parks.
Finally, this work takes trust. We build community with daily morning meetings and alternate every week between a reflective circle practice and a fun block.
4. Ask: what have students learned?
Eleventh and 12th graders apply to join our program. Our students earn credit in English and social studies, plus an elective, interdisciplinary credit focused on real-world or applied research.
We’ve built assessment into our program in several different ways. Students actively engage in journaling, capturing notes, quotes, questions, and thoughts. Journals serve as engines for deeper exploration as students write about connections they’ve made to experiences, ideas, questions, and materials.
Every BCL student engages in three inquiry projects throughout the semester, inspired by their own curiosity. Projects start with a relevant, intriguing question; move to experiential research; and conclude with a presentation of what they’ve learned. The semester wraps with an evidence-of-learning portfolio connected to our high school graduation expectations that summarizes their entire BCL experience.
Today, we’re in the 10th semester of BCL, and we have hundreds of alumni who often say the program has transformed their appreciation of and sense of belonging to their place. You can see and read about these stories on our blog.
Dov Stucker and ECO AmeriCorps volunteer Annika Brinkley also teach in and help design the program.