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Place-Based Education- A piece from 2015

This is from the Plenary address I gave at the Whidbey Institute Winter Gathering nearly 6 years ago. I think I got a lot right (This is the original, unedited speech)

Whidbey Institute


Place-Based Education

The world is places- We are invited to know this by the poet and Patron Saint of Bioregionalism, Gary Snyder. We Anchor our knowing in place. St. Gary writes, “The whole earth is a great tablet holding the multiple overlaid and ancient traces of the swirl of forces...”

Our interconnectedness, our selfhood, is embodied in place.

I am honored to be with you in this place- the Whidbey Institute, Chinook, the place where our knowing is anchored- it is the heart of South Whidbey, which is the heart of the Salish Sea, which is the heart of Cascadia- the land of falling waters.The place where David James Duncan tells us that two nouns: water and earth meet with one verb- gravity.

I am going to circle around to this idea of the World Is Places. This is an important cosmology, and one that might inform us about where we go from here.

Today I want to talk to you about education from my perspective in three parts- What is part of my story in this cosmology? What is the current context? And what holds possibility?

About 10 years ago I was teaching at Bayview School, the alternative high school where I taught for 12 years. I was proctoring day one of the WASL one spectacular spring day and the last of my students had just left to go out into the sunshine.

I was at my desk when a wail of a siren went by- sirens are not uncommon at this busy crossroads. Then came another, and another, until the wailing became a cacophony of sheriff's deputies, ambulances, fire trucks, and volunteers.

Within minutes we learned there had been a horrible accident in Langley and that there were fatalities.

A young man drove by the Langley bus stop and offered a ride to some of the teenage kids there. Two current and one former Bayview students took him up on it. Not wanting to wait for the bus, the three teens climbed in, knowing the driver was probably drunk or high, or both.

The car raced out of Langley and its tires caught the edge of the pavement. It slid into one of the blossoming cherry trees, stopping the car immediately and shearing off the trunk of the tree. The two surviving boys, my students at the time, were trapped in the back seat and watched the driver and passenger die- gasping their last breaths, their bodies fighting, through the ferocious impact, for life. Ironically, the young woman passenger had successfully completed drug rehabilitation the day before.

In this small community, everyone is connected, and everyone knows someone who is killed in an accident. Our students, at Bayview, fewer than 100, were going to be deeply affected. When we got to school the following day, a television truck was already parked across the street. We kept the media away from the kids and the school for the day so we didn’t have a circus to deal with. And we asked the State Office to allow us a waiver on the testing window- despite our pleas and explanations, they refused to allow us to postpone the state test for that day.

All day long we broke the news to students, held them in their shock and grief, and tried to carry on testing. Some of the students who did test found out about the accident when they came to school and sat down at a desk. Other students just set their pencils down and walked out of the building. As I am sure you can imagine, it seemed surreal and absurd administering the state test during this overwhelming sadness and trauma.

In the afternoon, the two surviving students came to school, battered, bandaged and traumatized. They sat on the couch with their friends and teachers, and we listened to their dreadful stories.

At the end of the day, after the kids had gone home, and we as a staff sat down to debrief the day, the strategies for the next day, and the work we had done. And we cried and held each other in our grief, knowing that we had done the most important work of our lives, on one of the most important days in our professional lives.

Upon reflecting on this story, I remembered that at another time, on a different day, these same students tenderly held my 3-day old son, Sawyer. They carefully passed Sawyer, swaddled and sleeping, to one another on the same couch where they sat with each other tenderly holding one another in their heartbreak.

I tell you this story now for perspective. It is about the confluence of two parts of me as an educator: One is the visceral connection to and heart for children and young people. The other is how I know the complex context of education with its challenges and its extraordinary possibilities. These two parts meet at my haunting. I would like to think that a haunting is something that lives in each of us- it's the meeting of the knowing of complexity and our deepest calling. And, those callings come as part of knowing rooted in place.

A lot has changed in my 22 years in education. This is me modeling for the stop action photography lesson. What do you notice? What is the difference?

Many things have changed since I started teaching in 1989. And many things have not....

These are some of the changes

  • We live in a time when one can conceivably be educated without ever setting foot in an organized educational setting.

  • Computer technology is not even a “tool” anymore- it is part of our lives.

  • Social Networking redefines our connection to one another.

  • The climate is changing and profound challenges exist in food production, water, energy, and natural resources.

  • The social construct of race and ethnicity in our culture is increasingly complex- there have been substantial demographic shifts, but many erroneously believe we live in a post-race society.

  • And, fundamentalism and self-righteousness pervade most public discourse and drive us more deeply into entrenchment and othering.

And much is unchanged-

Commissioned by the Reagan Administration, the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk helped define the modern education reform movement. Citing inferior public schools and the need for a more qualified workforce, the commission recommended standardization and testing, increasing time in school, a more “rigorous” core curriculum, and teacher accountability with financial strings. States, like Washington in 1992, adopted statewide standards. This trend was federalized with what might have been the Bush Administration’s most impactful bipartisan legislation, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. If you will recall, this was enacted only a few months before 9/11. The recommendations and language of A Nation At Risk came to fruition nationwide.

These so-called reforms have centralized what was once a relatively decentralized system. There were upsides and downsides to this. Educational research has gotten more focused, but less comprehensive and more narrowly funded. We have set our sights on a more intentional approach to curriculum and instruction, which has also been seen as limiting. Many educators feel energized and focused and that they have a lighthouse to guide them, but they are burning out, overworked, and, still grossly underpaid.

Despite this wide-scale effort at reform, American schools look mostly like the system the Committee of Ten designed in 1892- the core curriculum, and 12 years of academic study taught by teachers in the specific disciplines.

As Sir Ken Robinson writes,

Current systems of education were not designed to meet the challenges we now face. They were developed to meet the needs of a former age. Reform is not enough: they need to be transformed.

The system- the curriculum, organizational structure, and the schedule- has remained mostly unchanged and unchallenged.

One reason is that virtually all of us went to school and had one kind of memorable experience or another. So it goes that we all have deeply held beliefs and opinions about school that are regularly expressed through the media and through our political leaders. There is a lot of, “if schools would only...” What’s more is that school districts have 5 or more legislative and policymaking bodies defining their day to day work- from local school boards up to Congress. And at each level of government, there is usually an elected executive in addition to a judicial body or bodies setting court precedent. Education and democracy have a challenging relationship.

When you are a student or a teacher or a parent in the middle of this, a centralized system will obviously look irrational, hypocritical, foreign, ossified, or turbulent. Holding this system together takes a Herculean effort on the part of educators. And despite vilification from all parts of the political spectrum, the buses still roll up to the schoolhouse door, and little beings tumble out into

their classrooms, they do their work every day, mostly very well. For what the system is by design it actually works for vast majority of the students.

A second reason is that deep, fundamental change from within is virtually impossible- there is simply no time, and there are no resources for the kind of work that needs to be done over the course of years to change systems at their core. People work very hard to make it work, and good people are up to the task. Ultimately, however, it will yield what it is designed to yield- most people will be career and college ready.

However, Career and College readiness is incomplete as an educational aim. It does not essentially make the world and better place, and does not necessarily help our students reach authentic, personal fulfillment. Nor does it directly address the deep challenges we face.

The right human response to challenges and change will not be hopeful, technical solutions, like readiness, that we devise from our extraordinary human intelligence. The Possibility for our response lies fundamentally in our hearts and minds- created from our extraordinary human capacity for compassion and for building community.

The community psychology field has defined sense of community as, “the sense that one is a part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships upon which one can depend”. Pic 13 There is a set of observable principles that make up this notion of community in schools- mainly, they are belonging, group identity and focus, and autonomy and influence. As my friend and mentor, Dr. John Hoff says, “community is an organized social response to authentic human life.”

These principles need to guide our thinking about how our schools function. But, most importantly, to be ready for an interdependent life in the commons, our students need to be ready to live in, and create community in their lives. Although actions can spring from compassion, action is not compassion. Compassion is the deep feeling of and for another that is beyond empathy and sympathy. As Pema Chodron describes, compassion is the feeling that arises deep in us when we imagine the vision of a woman with no arms watching her baby be swept away by a raging river.

Certainly compassion can be cultivated by serving others, but not without imagining oneself in the place of those whom one serves. Developing compassion requires the utmost courage, and creating safe experiences and places for our students.


The most important and impacting part of education is the transcendent relationship between teacher and student. By this I mean that the interactions between the teacher and the student take them beyond where they are or where they can go as individuals. Everything we do in education is with that aim in mind. We must consider that we as individuals experience going beyond our limits through our interactions, our community, with others.

Given this context and some of these understandings, I want to shift into a more specific possibility- Place-Based or Bioregional Education.

Bioregionalism, or the focus on culture, ecology and economy of a geographic and naturally defined place, will play a major role in an education renaissance and what I see as the inevitable decentralization of the public educational system. Bioregional Education is parallel to the new radical localism- local agriculture, the sharing economy, intentional community, bartering and the like. Through technology we experience a shrinking planet, and are simultaneously turning to place for belonging, economy, and connection. As Wendell Berry wrote,

If we could think locally, we would take far better care of things than we do now. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question, "What will this do for our community?" tends toward the right answer for the world.”

A bioregional education movement will inculcate the values that promote community, compassion, connection to place, stewardship of the commons, resilience and interconnected self-sufficiency. Through this education rooted in place, self is a verb. Questions about self and place are generative.

Each bioregion will have a similar instructional approach to education, with clearly different curriculum- ecological study, history and prehistory, and a unique canon. Such an undertaking will not only contribute to human self-fulfillment, but will be critical to a wider regenerative movement- life after climate change.

The Cascadia Bioregion is primed for seeding this movement. The concept of Cascadia is part of the contemporary collective imagination. Although migration to the bioregion has influenced our culture and economy, there are aspects of who we are that remain uniquely Cascadian. Not only do we embody Western individualism, diverse spirituality, and libertarianism, we also have roots in first peoples that are unique among civilizations- the development of complex society without agriculture. Culturally, we are unique and diverse, spread across many states and provinces, and sharing much in common. Rainer Beach, Toppenish, and Forks are just as Cascadian as Bellingham, South Whidbey or the Vancouvers. And Cascadia has a critical role in the Pan Pacific economy and the rest of the world.

And, as Gary Snyder invokes,

The size of the place that one becomes a member of is limited only by the size of one’s heart.

Good thinking about bioregion and interconnectedness is happening across Cascadia. From political movements that seek to merge international interests, to sports and the arts, to a curriculum for higher education, to more comprehensive approach to ecological decision-making, Cascadia is essentially comprehensible. It is naturally conducive not just to a course of study, but a way of constructing knowing. In other words, how knowledge, values, and actions, in service of personal happiness and health of the commons, are uniquely possible through an expanded, experiential education. Beyond a Bioregional Curriculum, a Bioregional School, is a profoundly different approach to curriculum and instruction. Neither progressive nor conservative, such an experiential approach is a natural part of a Cascadian consciousness.

The Salish Sea

The heart of Cascadia is the Salish Sea. It is the ideal location for the first Bioregional School- the Salish Sea School. The Salish Sea School would be an Experiential Learning Center, ideally preK-12, but starting with a high school, where the values I have outlined here underpin curriculum and Instruction. Practically speaking, Salish Sea holds tension between two poles- the disciplinary and interdisciplinary. As Howard Gardner says, we all need to develop a disciplined mind in particular areas or study, while approaching generative questions in an interdisciplinary way.

Meaning making includes study of ecology and the sciences, history, culture, art and literature, demographics, religion and spirituality, economics and business, agriculture, global connectivity, and technology of Cascadia. Interdisciplinary Experiences would also include each grade level having a hands-on project: 9th graders would construct a boat, 10th graders would learn scuba diving, 11th graders would have a bioregional design/service projects, 12th graders would develop an individual “Rite of Passage” project focused on launching in to adulthood.

Using the principles of Chaordic design- the generative and liberating balance between chaos and order- students would experience a more individualized approach with a sense of common purpose in community.

What is most interesting to me about the bioregional school is that it is replicable across bioregions. Imagine such an approach in the Mississippi Delta Bioregion. Or the Colorado Plateau. Or the Ogallala plain. And imagine that this approach does not divide us, it creates more understanding of one another as we know our self and our place- self as a verb. Transcendence becomes iterative- from the relationship between teacher and student, to the regenerative relationship between people and places.

And ...The world is places.

Before we go watch the Super Bowl, I want to close with an invitation. I hope my own sensibility around this has incited insight. But my invitation are these questions- What haunts you? Is there a confluence in you of your deepest callings and your own knowing?


What is gnawing at you, and how will that answer the question, Where do we go from here?

I am grateful to share this time with you.

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