George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Hood River Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Hood River, OR

Place-Based Learning: Connecting Kids to Their Community

At Hood River Middle School, place-based learning makes student learning relevant and engaging by turning their local geography, culture, history, and economy into classroom lessons.
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Place-Based Learning: Connecting Kids to Their Community (Transcript)

Michael: Is there more than one way to figure out how big an acre is?

Students: Yes.

Michael: Could it be two feet wide?

Student: Uh-huh.

Michael: Right, it's going to be really long, right.

Brent: What works for student learning is engaging kids with their environment. It could be about the local culture. It could be about the local history. It could be so many different things. But finding that inspiration in your community is key. When kids are engaged with a curriculum, they learn it.

Michael: Any questions?

Students: No.

Michael: All right, make it so, do it up.

Brent: What place based education does is connecting learning to your own environment. Your own environment can look many different ways. It can be an urban environment. It could be suburban, it could be rural.

Laura: It can be the buildings of the place. It can be the landscape of this place. It can be the stories of the place.

Sarah: This year is Hood River County school district's one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. And we decided that since our building is one of the most historic buildings in the district, and we have some space, we decided to take the old ticket office and turn it into a museum.

Emma: It is really cool to learn about Hood River and Oregon. We started by making a timeline and it's going to wrap around the perimeter of the museum. And then there's also going to be some major events that happen in the world.

Sarah: We're going to have a lot of World War Two things here. I'm going to say somewhere in that corner over there.

Emma: We took a field trip. We walked downtown and Miss Segal gave us pieces of paper that had pictures on them of what the downtown looked like back then. And we had to find where the locations were and then look at how it looked now. It was a lot more interesting to learn about and you really want to know, because you can relate to it.

Sarah: What do I hope the kids get out of it? That they get to better know their community, and they have a pride in their space.

Laura: Here in Hood River, we live in this very unique landscape. The Columbia River Gorge. So that was a really obvious place to start when we're talking about geology.

Student: How many layers are there?

Student: Three.

Laura: There's been seven catastrophic events that have created this landscape. And so you can talk about volcanoes, you can talk about lava flows. You can talk about earthquakes. You can see the different layers of rocks and the geologic history of time.

Lauren: When we're done with this model, it will display what the gorge looks like and how landslides have been carving the gorge. So the first layer, which is the clay, is the Ohanapecosh layer. The second layer is the Eagle Creek formation, which is mainly soil. And the third layer, a salt layer, is made up of larger rocks. If you walk on some of the trails, like Wahclella Falls, which we visited, you can actually see where the landslides could occur. When landslides happen, it's because of water weathering down. Those three layers get really moist and eventually erode. So now we'll model an example of a landslide when it rains. As you can see, the soil gets brought down and sometimes the small rocks do as well, which leaves the Ohanapecosh bare.

Student: Okay.

Lauren: Sweet, it worked.

Laura: My hope for my students when they leave my class is that they can be stewards of the world that they live in. Place based education is also skills that you can use to understand the community that you're living in.

Michael: Being able to understand how you fit into a system is a really important part of middle school. And we try really hard to be able to get kids to understand, what's their role and what's going on around them.

Michael: Into that area, because that's what one acre is.

Student: Okay, that makes sense.

Michael: We are in the process of studying fire ecology. There's a lot of fires that happen in our area, and we know that the reporting unit that they give us how big a fire is, is often in acres. We've also been studying algebra and so we're using a one step equation here to be able to physically pace it out and put it onto the ground, so they can start having a gut understanding of what an acre really is.

Okay, so get your calculators out, figure out your pace.

Student: Okay, do a hundred divided by forty-five paces.

Michael: The whole idea was, let's do things that put math in context and let's create problems that the kids want to solve and then give them the tools math wise to be able to do that.

Student: And then walk that way two hundred steps.

Student: How many steps?

Student: Two hundred, because we did four hundred feet.

Student: One, two...

Brent: I think what works for student learning is engaging kids with their environment and how you define that environment is really up to the kids, the community and the teacher. All of us need to feel like we're connected to something. Place based learning provides kids with that home base, and now they can start exploring.

Student: Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two...

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"I think we don’t know ourselves until we know the world around us and how we connect to that world," says Laura Haspela, a Hood River Middle School (HRMS) seventh-grade science teacher.

Place-based learning engages students in their community, including their physical environment, local culture, history, or people. With place-based learning, students get to see the results of their work in their community. They build communication and inquiry skills, learn how to interact with any environment, and gain a better understanding of themselves, as well as their place in the world.

"Finding that inspiration in your community is key in engaging your students and exciting them about learning," says Michael Becker, a Hood River Middle School teacher and the director of the Food and Conservation Science (FACS) program.

Related: See how place-based learning impacted HRMS alumna Grace Whitmore.

How It's Done

Pay attention to local events and places that impact your students.

The Columbia River Gorge is a unique landscape in Hood River, Oregon. "That was an obvious place to start when we were talking about geology," says Haspela.

Aware of the frequent fires that plague their area, Becker taught applied math through fire ecology. And after learning that this year marked Hood River County School District's 150-year anniversary, Sarah Segal, a HRMS sixth-grade literacy, social studies, science, and language arts teacher, created a museum studies enrichment class to celebrate their local history.

Related: See how students explore homelessness, housing issues, and public policy in their town by gathering oral histories (11th Grade, Casco Bay High School).

Celebrate unsung heroes in your community.

Every community has individuals who leave an impact, says Segal. "Sometimes it's just one moment in time, and their decision changes the course of a school, community, society, or the world."

Segal wanted her students to learn about a local, unsung hero who stood up for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Her students discovered Minoru Yasui, a Japanese-American who advocated for his own rights.

"Minoru Yasui went to high school here, which is now Hood River Middle School. Every single day, the kids walk in his steps," explains Segal. "Even though most of my students are not Japanese-American, they all really connect with him standing up against what was wrong, and they learned that even in sixth grade, you can be an activist."

Segal's students researched Yasui's history and listened to local speakers who knew him. They also connected with the Minoru Yasui Tribute Project, which encouraged them to write a letter to President Obama, asking him to recognize Yasui with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Segal's class wrote to President Obama and made a video. "We sat down, and we identified our key points. We wrote a five-paragraph essay -- just like we would in every single chapter of our learning -- and we organized the key details. Then we wrote an introduction and a conclusion, and it was a beautiful letter using all of the Common Core organization standards. Today, about four hours ago, President Obama -- the White House -- released an official document naming Minoru Yasui as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year."

Reach out to your community.

For Segal's Unsung Hero Project, she sent out multiple newsletters to the community. "Every community has people who have a great deal of pride in what has happened there,” she recalls. “We listened to their stories, and that's when Minoru Yasui started rising; that's when a variety of artifacts from museums started to come forward. It was actually connecting with community members that allowed for this project and this process to take place."

Search the internet for ideas.

Adam Smith, a Hood River sixth-grade math, science, and language arts teacher, was watching a video when a link for "Hello Kitty Goes to Space" popped up. "I clicked it, and it was a story about a seventh-grade student who decided to launch a high-altitude weather balloon into the top of the lower reaches of our atmosphere as an after-school project." Smith decided to adapt that idea for his classroom curriculum.

"I started collaborating with an engineering teacher at our school,” he says. “We were able to write a grant to secure funding for all the necessary equipment: a flight computer, the balloon, helium, and a few GoPros so that we could capture footage. Then we started thinking about how can we turn this project of launching a high-altitude weather balloon into a compelling way to learn about watersheds, atmospheric science, engineering design, and scientific inquiry."

The weather balloon project became a collaborative, multiple-subject effort among sixth-grade teachers. "The beauty of the weather balloon project is that it's something captivating that provides many points of entry," explains Smith. For example, a related English language arts project was writing a fictional story about the balloon's journey.

Placed-based learning works in any setting.

"Place can be understanding your transportation system," explains Haspela. "When I used to work at a school in an inner city, place was figuring out how to use the Metro."

Even if you think your location isn't suitable for place-based learning, it can be whatever is outside your window, says Haspela. "Some schools I've worked with had a barren landscape, and when we talked to them about place-based education, they were like, 'What's interesting about going out in our schoolyard? It's just sand. It's bare, and there's tumbleweed everywhere.' Once you start going out, and the kids are looking closely, they find insects, and then insects become their whole curriculum for the fall. It doesn't have to be Tetons or bison."

Here are examples of how other schools came up with innovative ways to use place:

Connect place-based learning curriculum to standards.

In Segal's museum studies class -- where her students are turning an old ticket office at the front of their auditorium into a museum -- these are some of the Common Core standards that she addresses:

  • Research standards: Her students research five to ten elements -- such as economic, political, societal, and environmental -- that they want to study, and how those elements directly impact Hood River Middle School.
  • Primary source standards: Her kids learn about the differences between secondary and primary resources, and how to analyze them.
  • Speech standards: They present to the community, and learn about showing up prepared, dressing appropriately, and how to interact with community members.

Step Up to Writing

Segal supplements the Common Core literacy standards with Step Up to Writing strategies, helping her students learn how to brainstorm, analyze, organize, and synthesize information, as well as how to respond to text, prompts, and questions.

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

The C3 framework for social studies state standards is also something Segal uses in addition to Common Core. "I'm a huge fan of C3," explains Segal. “I understand it is necessary to establish clear skill development for all kids to have a solid foundation, which Common Core does. However, where do they go from there? C3 prepares kids for college, career, and living a civically engaged life.”

"Essentially, standards can provide the skills necessary for students to express inspiration,” adds Segal. “Whether researching, designing, and creating a historical museum, discovering and promoting national celebration of a local civil rights hero, or discussing the significance of protecting local rivers, ignite thought. Know your standards well, know your place well, and figure out ways to inspire your students."

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margosmathandmore's picture

At one time "Outdoor Education" was offered as a Masters program at a local university. It's too bad the program disappeared. I do believe that "nature's classroom" is a wealth of resources for teachers and students and should be utilized to the fullest extent possible. Community involvement , coupled with environmental concerns, is a great partnership for student learning. Love this article. Here's one of the things we do(year-long) to "contribute our share".

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I think a lot of "outdoor ed" programs have morphed into Environment Ed or Educating for Sustainability programs- at least that's what happened at AUNE. We're also using Nature-Based as improved terminology (for us, Nature Based Early Childhood). Maybe the program still exists under a new name?

judyd123's picture

Community involvement along with environment educational programs are great ways to help students learn. Schools that have such opportunities should use them to engage students.

Mitzi Hall's picture

Great ideas to get our students involved in their community culture and history with hands on learning experiences.

Calvin Heyward's picture

There's nothing quite like teaching students about the value of where they live. One of my greatest joys as a 5th grade teacher was having my students set up their own recycling center to cash in five cent plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

The students realized a $1000+ profit and used the money to charter the 80 foot science schooner SoundWaters to sail the Long Island Sound (NY) which is literary behind the school. Only two of the 24 had ever been on a boat until that day.

The science and math lessons that came out of the project were incomparable!

Miss Gilbaugh's picture

I think that it is wonderful that teachers are doing activities that get their students out into their community! There is so much to learn and by going out into their community, students will learn the value of what goes on daily. Students love getting out of the classroom, and I think that students learn better when they are interacting with people or things rather than just sitting in a desk listening to their teacher.

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