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Place-Based Education and Curriculum Management

As we have illustrated, place-based education is a powerful educational philosophy that brings student interests into play in the educational setting to enhance student learning, improve achievement, and contribute to community vitality. Inspired in part by the work of Gregory Smith, of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, who is a national leader in the field of place-based education The Watershed School has created a school with a locally relevant curriculum focused on these central elements of place-based education:
  1. Cultural studies
  2. Watershed studies
  3. The public process
  4. Local economy
1.Cultural Studies

The Watershed School’s curriculum grounds itself in learning activities that develop a sense of place through the study of local knowledge and the investigation of our community. The Watershed School has designed its curriculum in a progression of continually widening circles leading children to a deeper understanding and appreciation of world cultures and issues.
Family Classroom School Neighborhood Community Tanana Valley Alaska United States North America World
Community-based projects enrich the students’ educational experience by building partnerships between children’s homes, school, and the Fairbanks community. The local community becomes a living textbook, vibrant and relevant, with endless opportunities.
Place-based education is confronting many of the factors that have contributed to the weakening of communities. It becomes a strategy to address the disconnection of young people from the rich diversity of community members and from the children’s own local history. Rather than socially destructive practices and high drop-out rates, positive outcomes grow from this re-weaving of the community and school.

Ultimately, The Watershed School assists students in the development of a sense of mutual responsibility. Community is solidified when values are sustained by its members.
The Watershed School realizes a strong school community will develop when students take responsibility for themselves and each other. The more the children learn to feel part of a school community the more they become part of the larger adult community. In the long-run, we will foster successful members of the adult community. This is what makes for a strong culture. This sense of belonging is critical.

2.Watershed Studies

As Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, so aptly points out in his writings and public testimony, our children are being raised in a world of great disconnect from the natural systems that both sustain and enrich us as human beings. Biologist and nature writer, Rachel Carson, coined the phrase “sense of wonder” to describe the enchantment and curiosity for learning that must be instilled in children at a young age.

The Watershed School bases much of its science content and interdisciplinary thematic units on the natural sciences including biology, geology, anatomy, physics, astronomy, and chemistry. Using the natural sciences as a framework for multidisciplinary studies is solid educational pedagogy.

The Watershed School chose its name in part due to the pragmatic implications of the natural science and interdisciplinary thematic units designed based upon the ecological systems within our Tanana Valley Watershed. The word “watershed” lends itself to the metaphor of an interconnected community of people as well. Using our watershed as a backdrop, The Watershed School utilizes solid educational strategies that will lead to high levels of student learning in a highly motivating atmosphere.
3. The Public Process
Problem Solving:
We feel strongly about place-based topics being cognitively and emotionally appropriate for the age of the child. As mentioned earlier, The Watershed School models its philosophy on the notion that children are capable of understanding immediate experiences when they are young and then gradually expand their awareness to larger and more distant topics of study as they mature. As early as kindergarten, our students will be encouraged to take part in problem solving activities. In kindergarten it may take form as solving the challenge of “cleanup time,” or perhaps they may determine the best way to organize a class set of leaf samples. By third grade children will address school-wide challenges such as recycling, conserving energy, and other positive issues. By fifth grade, students might be solving schoolyard habitat restoration challenges along Deadman Slough and come up with an environmentally sound erosion control plan. Sixth graders could address needs of the local food bank. Our middle school students might choose to explore opportunities to address an invasive plant species issue in the University of Alaska Arboretum. Although Watershed School’s 7th and 8th curriculum has students studying state, national, and international topics by this age, the focus of engaged hand-on projects appropriate for “community problem solving and decision making” will still primarily be local.
Engaging children in meaningful problem-solving curriculum involves the use of some thoughtful structures. It is a well thought out curricular technique that leads to meaningful student outcomes. Throughout the curriculum, The Watershed School will present opportunities for students to address real-life problems and issues of classroom, school, and community.
Problem-based learning is a combination of high quality curriculum content that is meshed with a process of analysis and inquiry. The curriculum consists of carefully selected and designed problems that demand from the learner acquisition of knowledge of content, problem solving proficiency, self-directed learning strategies, and team participation skills. The process is designed to build skills used in a general approach to resolving problems or meeting challenges that are encountered in life and career.

Decision-making skills:
Here The Watershed School engages students in the policy-making processes of their communities and governmental institutions. In the field of place-based education students explore the process by which groups of people make decisions. Political science will become an integral part of out 5-8th grade social science curriculum. The study of political behavior will be examined and the acquisition and application of power will be explored through actual local scenarios and played out in classroom role-playing simulations. Although focus will often be applied to the operation of government, with first emphasis on local government, in reality, at The Watershed School the democratic political process will be observed in all of the children’s group interactions, including classroom structure, community organizations, informal social groups, corporate and educational institutions. When studying the governmental actions of our local institutions, students in the intermediate through middle school grades will explore the political realities, with focus on case studies, simulations, and current events. Critical analysis will consist of investigation into the methods and tactics used to develop and apply public policy in our community. In the middle school years this will expand to focus more specifically on the students’ actual future roles as both policy-makers and constituents.
4. Local economy:

The Watershed School helps combat loss of young people from our community due to the perceived lack of viable economic opportunities. We will address the perception that youth must leave our valley to find fulfilling lifestyles and meaningful adult employment. This is not an easy task. It requires unique approaches to education crossing traditional boundaries of community. The avenues between school and community must be open to empower community resources. At The Watershed School, educators regularly reach out to solicit support from community members to further curriculum goals. By doing this, students become aware of the great professional diversity we have in the Tanana Valley. In addition, students must become aware that they are a valuable resource to the community. By creating useful products of their education, students will “give back” to the community and understand that they are valued members of this community. This will help create a two-lane between school and the community rather than perpetuating one-way street out-of-town it often is for our young people today.