Place Based Education

When Bruce Gamage came to the office of Station Maine last July he was glowing. He had just come from a teachers meeting where, after listening to the normal range of gripes, he had complained, outraged, that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. We had been teaching appreciably the same way in this school for twenty years, and it hasn’t worked. OK, it works for some kids. Some kids are sliding through the system just fine. Others, too many others, were slipping through the cracks of a system without a net.

Bruce was awarded for his outburst with one team teacher, Melanie Slocum, and forty students. The forty students, mostly boys, from that eighth grade class for whom the system wasn’t working. The ones who needed the most help. He and his partner were also awarded the freedom to teach. No more money, mind you, but the opportunity to develop and actually use their fresh ideas of education.

The first significant difference we noticed from this arrangement was that these forty kids now had only two teachers to whom they had to answer, not six. This is eighth grade, not University. Maybe the most highly qualified teacher is the one who knows your name. Maybe that teacher is the one who cares enough to notice the new shoes or backpack. Maybe that teacher is the one who knows you so well that he or she can see if you’ve had a rough night and will cut you some slack. Can it be that the most highly qualified teacher at this level isn’t necessarily the one with the right number of academic credits in any subject but rather the one from whom the students are willing to learn?

Bruce and Melanie spent hours together formulating a game plan that allowed time for reading and writing and the solid academics for which any good school is held accountable, all the while educating the whole child. It was a challenge. They play “good cop - bad cop” like a seasoned pair of detectives. Both of them comfortable with either role depending on the student or situation. Bruce takes on a little more of the outside program, hikes and quests, and Mel a little more of the necessary books and paper learning. It was a pairing of opposite personality types that gave a broad range of approaches to a difficult group of kids, many of whom had learned to hate school long years ago. Melanie and Bruce wanted them to feel like they had won the lottery. They planned a “place based” curriculum centering on Rockland and the Lindsey Brook system, which empties into Rockland Harbor.

Enter Station Maine. For years Station Maine has offered rowing opportunities at no cost, to youth in the Rockland area. The pairing with the schools strengthened our ties to the community and permitted us to reach even more kids. Every day a crew of eighth graders would arrive at our boat only one mile from the school, to row for an hour. We wanted these kids to believe in this city. We wanted them to see it and love it from every direction, including from the water. We wanted to give them a sense of place, of belonging to something finer and more intimate than White Middle Class American.

And so, every day, we rowed. We played with the curious harbor seals who swam over to visit. We saw osprey nests. We broke up ice with our oars. We raced the wind and followed the compass. Every student had the opportunity to command and every student had the opportunity to follow. Everyone had to try it once. Some chose to stay behind in the warmth of the classroom after they had given rowing a fair shot. Most came again and again. Some got really good at it. All, every last one of those kids, found new strength and confidence on that boat.

I have often thought of middle school as an unnatural act. It goes against all the laws of nature to lock that many hormones into a classroom and expect them to stay quiet and perform for long hours day after day. It all but passes the laws of common sense to then complain about youth obesity. These young people, Bruce and Melanie reasoned, couldn’t learn if they were fighting their natural need to move. They needed to get outside often, to walk, to burn through their youthful energy. Once that need was met through quests, hikes, rowing, or just a walk around the block, they were more able, and more willing to sit in their assigned desks and work through their academic requirements.

In a corner of Bruce’s classroom lives a loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly. Melanie purchases granola bars and popcorn snacks. Adolescents, most of us know, are a nocturnal species. Many of them, often without parental supervision, wake up at the very last minute, and stumble towards the door. Like many of us, they can’t face a hearty breakfast first thing in the morning. Two hours later, well, a hungry child can’t learn. Any student can at any time walk to the corner of the classroom for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Cheap. Nourishing. Protein, carbs, get you through the day. It’s a little thing. But to a hungry kid not quite old enough to realize the consequences of skipping breakfast, it means a lot.

The plan didn’t stop at the boat. The kids followed Quests. At a parents’ meeting at the beginning of the year every parent signed a “blanket” permission slip permitting their child to leave the building with the class for the entire school year. Parents, many of whom remembered their own middle school experience, were 100% supportive. Walking tours took them not only to Lindsey Brook but to historic buildings, to the industrial park, and, most recently, to our local sewage treatment plant. Local businesses have shown themselves wonderfully receptive to this place based education and eager to help kids learn outside the confines of school.

Meanwhile, back in the classroom, there was math and social studies, English and science to study, standardized tests, and the grave realities of the 21st century education system. While Melanie coaxed and cajoled these challenging students through their reading and writing, Bruce’s lessons were concrete, building on Melanie’s base. The calculating of percentage, area, and dollars is standard for the eighth grade curriculum. Giving these lessons something the students could grasp as real gave the theory of math a genuine purpose. One math class involved constructing paper houses, each designed individually by the students, then computing the floor space to find how much wood would be necessary to cover those floors. Another found each child computing their home property taxes and comparing them with surrounding communities tax rates. The most recent project involves calculating for the city of Rockland how much porous surface, such that will filter water, against how much paved surface, off which the water will run with its oil and pollutants directly into the harbor or sewage system. Computer skills, Google Maps, math and science all surrounding a project that reinforces, once again, our sense of place in Rockland.

Connecting history to the place where they lived, to buildings they could see and touch brought history alive. Quests gave a purpose to learning history. Rowing on Rockland Harbor in crews of six or seven gave students a sense of ownership of that harbor and great pride in working together to both know and protect it.

The final tally of grades isn’t in yet. The thing we’re quite certain of is that grades haven’t dropped in spite of the many hours of time spent outside the classroom. Absenteeism has dropped dramatically. Attitudes have improved and softened in ways that no government official can measure and no teacher can miss. Kids are approachable. They work together. Fights and office referrals are significantly down. These kids are learning in an atmosphere that recognizes them as whole persons. They are beginning to see themselves as persons of worth.

It takes hard work to break the established mold of education and try something fresh. It takes a team teacher with whom you can work well, cooperative staff, a principal who will fight for you, and a community who will go the extra mile. It takes parents who are willing to trust something different. Not all of us have these advantages. But more and more across Maine we are finding teachers like Bruce and Melanie who want more for their students and are willing to put in the time and effort. The love of watching the students truly learn is encouraging more and more of the teachers and administrators of Maine to step outside of “the box” and truly, actually teach our students in ways that they, each of them, can learn.