Episode 16: Basics of Place-Conscious Education: The Nebraska Experience

October 12, 2020

In this episode, professor and Nebraska Writing Project director Robert Brooke introduces the basic concepts of place-conscious education and how the project is promoting place-conscious education across the state.

Plainstate: The Podcast, sponsored by the Department of English, is a podcast about the humanities on the Great Plains and beyond featuring interviews, stories, people, and places.



Thank you for listening to the Plainstate Podcast, a production of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. This special episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project.

You are listening to NWP radio, a production of the National Writing Project. This podcast episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project and made possible with a grant from the National Writing Project-National Parks Service partnership: supporting place-based learning and collaboration between National Writing Project sites and our nation's National Parks.



Welcome, gentle listeners, to Basics of Place-Conscious Education: the Nebraska Experience, a podcast produced by the Nebraska Writing Project for the National Writing Project-National Parks Service partnership. I’m Dr. Robert Brooke, the director of the Nebraska Writing Project.

In the next 40 minutes, I hope to guide you through the big elements of place-conscious education as we've explored it in Nebraska. I’ll first locate our work with place-conscious education in a brief history of the major programs we've developed here in Nebraska. Second, I’ll explain a few of the guiding principles of place-conscious education as they've emerged for us. And third, I’ll dive into some of the select examples of place-conscious education classroom projects for rural, urban, and suburban settings that Nebraska Writing Project teachers have developed. I’ll end with some comments about connecting place-conscious education to our national monuments here in Nebraska and the future promise of that work.

To get us started, I wanted to say—in a nutshell—that place-conscious education is about the practice of drawing on local natural and cultural resources to ground education and make it relevant to learners. Central in this work is the dual strands of celebrating and critiquing local place: being able to see local place as something worthy of celebration—whatever the outsiders who go to the place might think about it—and also being able to draw attention to the things in local place that don't make it sustainable and might need to be corrected.

To ground us in this idea of celebration and critique of local place, I’d like to start by reading a poem from Nebraska author Don Welch, who was a University of Kearney professor and was the lead poet there for many years. He has a poem called “Advice from a Provincial” from his collection The Platte River: Poems, which we also have on the Poetry from the Plains website. This poem is one I’ve used a lot when I’ve introduced place-based education, like at the Prairie Visions Writing Workshops at Homestead National Monument of America. This poem, I think, invites readers to imagine somebody looking at the plains and looking past the plains, and how it is a local might respond to that. The ideas of celebration and critique are both very strong here.

Here's Don Welch’s poem, “Advice from a provincial.”

When you drive down our river-road,
spare us your talk about our backwardness,
of how mile after unrelieved mile dispirits you,
of how there is nothing, simply nothing to see.

Go back to your homes and work on your eyes,
bring back a sight which can co-create meaning.

Then notice at sunset how our river is on fire,
a long burning vowel running westward,
back to the mountains, those granite consonants
which thrust themselves at the sky.

Slow down. Colorado can wait.
Skiing, of course, will make the cold warmer,
but think of this river, frozen in winter,
as a long silent scream.

To the settlers who waited it out,
who felt their sodhouses thaw,
who survived this place and were scarred,
pay a momentary tribute.

And, in spring, if you’re the right kind,
catch the wind with its invisible fingers
making love to the water.

You’ll never read it in a brochure,
but the only worthwhile rivers
are those which simplify lives.

Thank you, Don Welch, for that poem. This poem I’ve used a lot with secondary and college writers who are introducing themselves to place-based education. One of the things I can point out with that poem is how it draws our attention to somebody else's view of the state, to how we might respond to it, and how we might look carefully at local place to claim some of the things about it that work very well.

I’ve got a writing activity that comes from this poem that asks people to write a poem like this one. To do that poem, I give them some very simple directions:

“You'll need, to write this poem, a statement from somebody you remember who doesn't live in your place on the prairie, exaggerates what they don't like about our place; and you'll need three of your own images of things that you think are wondrous about our place. Don Welch used sunset on the river, winter, sodhouses, and spring wind on the river. What are your images?” And then I suggest that there's a writing plan for the piece. “One stanza to poke some gentle fun at what outsiders complain about; next stanza to tell them, in your own way, to look again at what's here; and then one to three stanzas that develop your three images of what's wondrous about the place, with a final statement of advice. What do you want to have them take away from what you've shown them?”

This activity tends to help young people young writers center themselves in the basics of this as a place-conscious education exercise.

So, thank you very much for listening to that poem, working with me on it. That, I think, provides us an entryway into the history of place-based education here in Nebraska as we've practiced it.

Our work here in Nebraska with place-conscious education has evolved through three main stages. First, we worked with rural communities in our largely agricultural state and developed a rural institute program for them. Second, around 2008, we moved online and found that urban and suburban teachers also were really interested in place-conscious education. And then more currently, since about 2016, we've been connecting place-conscious education to exciting new initiatives in community engagement and community literacy. So let me say a few words about each of those.

In 1995, our first work with place-based education emerged in the context of the farm crisis going on at that time. If you remember back to that time, a lot of rural communities across the country were facing collapse—of school, livelihood, agricultural, work—and Nebraska was part and parcel of all of that.

For those of you who don't know much about Nebraska, we are a 500-mile-by-300-mile state. The urban centers in Nebraska are all located on the eastern edge of it, and the wide expanse of the western state is given over to farming and ranching. There's a break in the middle where the rainfall allows ranching, but not farming, so we have that going on as well.

As a partial response to the farm crisis, the university—in collaboration with 12 school districts in the state of Nebraska, all out in the agricultural parts of the state—launched the School at the Center Program. The School at the Center Program was intended to connect entrepreneurial education and place-based education in the schools so that young people could imagine how it was that they could become active citizens in the local community while they were still in school. We were asked, at Nebraska Writing Project, to provide writing education that fit with this initiative. In many of these schools, School at the Center was a cross-curricular initiative that involved business-entrepreneurial education, science education, and humanities education, all connected to the needs of local spaces in local schools and the rural environment. The organizers of School at the Center, Dr. Paul Olson from English and Dr. Jim Walters from Teachers College, organized a set of conferences that introduced us—representatives of the various agencies and the various schools—to some of the leading principles about community rural revitalization at the time. I remember we had some presentations and workshops from Foxfire out in the Appalachia region and from the Aldo Leopold Institute up in Wisconsin that helped us imagine what kind of work we might be doing. But the big focus was to try to draw teacher expertise in local communities so that we could draw on what was going on in the state at the time.

In 1997 we held our first rural institute in the small community of Henderson, Nebraska. About 1,000 people, it's due west of Lincoln by about 40 miles, so we all had to drive out there for that one. Henderson is a Mennonite community, and it's very proud of its religious and ethnic heritage as it settled in the place it was. We brought teachers from all the communities involved in School at the Center there for a summer to immerse themselves in what writing education might look like when we drew attention to local place. That institute experience involved daily connecting to local resources—the cemetery, the Platte river, the community center in the building, the heritage house that the Mennonite community was trying to build—to connect with what writing activities might go along to focus on what we were doing at that time. This kind of this rhythm—of drawing at local resources, having teachers imagine writing work that connected with them—became the centerpiece of the rural institute program that we then developed for the state. Between 1997 and 2007, we were able to get funding from various school districts and good places like the Nebraska Humanities Council to offer 19 different rural institutes across the state. This was an exciting period of growth for us, and helped us really refine what it was that we saw as the basis of place-based education in the work we did. Also, starting in around 1997, we got involved in the National Writing Project’s Rural Voices, Country Schools program, where we joined seven other states across the country who also put together teams of educators—about 80 educators per state—that were interested in in developing a high-quality rural education focusing on the needs of rural places. Out of our collaboration with the Rural Voices, Country Schools team, our team here in Nebraska imagined the need and the activity of a book about rural education, and that one became our 2003 book, Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing,  which features a number of place-based programs that school teachers did in the various communities they were involved in.

The second stage of our work with place-based education in Nebraska started around 2008. By this time the Rural Voices, Country Schools program and School at the Center had both ceased functioning, and we were finding ourselves needing new ways of connecting with the state as a whole. In 2008, we were given the opportunity to turn the rural institute program—which we'd successfully run in 19 different communities—to an online program. So, I worked with a team of experienced writing project leaders for the rural institutes to turn this into an online seminar. The first year of that seminar was jointly taught by me, Cathie English from Aurora, Nebraska, and Sharon Bishop from Henderson, Nebraska. We had 27 different people involved in that. We've been able to offer that course every two years from that point forward with an average enrollment of about 20 teachers.

The big surprise for us with the online version of the rural institute was that it ceased to be rural at all. Though we imagined that course as being a place where rural teachers across the state might come to the university in an online way to connect, what we found was that lots of other teachers were also interested in place-based education that came from primarily the urban and suburban centers of the region. These teachers brought with them a whole new set of issues about doing place-based education, and we began to see that the model of rural education that we developed didn't really apply to the new settings. So, we began to look around to find other ways of doing place-based education, to make it work. This line of inquiry soon became our suburban place-conscious education group—a group of about 10 teachers that studied what it was that they could do in the suburban environment, and also did some deep study of geography in the state to figure out what the geographical patterns are and how they affected learning. That group ended up producing our second place-conscious book, Writing Suburban Citizenship: Place-Conscious Education and the Conundrum of Suburbia, which came out in 2015 from Syracuse University Press.

Our third initiative really is ongoing right now. This started in 2016 here at Nebraska with the attempt to connect what it was we're doing with place-conscious education with new work in community engagement and community literacy that's going on in the country. We have become involved in two programs that are doing this kind of work right now.

The first is the Husker Writers program, which seeks to connect pairs of teachers and their students at university and secondary levels doing some kind of work in the community around what we call public engagement or public rhetoric. A lot of those students and teacher pairs have worked with the local Civic Nebraska organization to connect on legislative issues that are currently being debated in the state legislature and do a kind of civics education for young people as they merge and figure out what's going on with their communities. My colleague, Dr. Rachael Shah, has brought that program to Nebraska, and we're very glad to have it.

The second current program going on is our partnership with the National Park Service here in the state. We have three now active sites with the National Park Service. We're working with the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Homestead National Monument of America, and the Niagara Scenic River. In each of those cases, we're bringing good programs that are already existing to explore local place into place-based education that connects with the student work in the schools. So that's the sort of progression of material that we've moved through here in the state, out of which our experience comes.

Let me now turn to explaining some of the principles behind place-based education.

In the second part of the podcast, I want to explain four different principles that we think really generate place-based education here in Nebraska. The four principles are: first, active citizenship, as contrasted to migratory education; second, David Sobel's three-legged stool that blends education, community vitality, and environmental quality; third, Paul Theobald’s concept of starting local and spiraling out to national/international concerns; and fourth, Wendell Berry’s concept of watershed and commonwealth as the essential features of place. So that's where we want to go in this section.

Our first big concept is active citizens as opposed to migratory education. This one, we think, really grounds the whole experience of place-based education, because it focuses on what the overall purpose of education is. We live in a country where, for good or ill, the primary model of education is migratory in nature. We, as individual students, gather some skills through our education which supposedly can take us on a career path anywhere. Peter T. Killborn, in this wonderful book Next Stop, Reloville, points out that the average career trajectory for the white-collar worker is to migrate systematically and relocate because of taking on different jobs and different positions within one's company. The role that one has is to become migratory at the whim of the company that one works for, often for a set of personal gains that are very important to you as an individual. This, of course, is a modern version of the same migratory impulse that Wallace Stegner wrote about back in the 1940s when he was writing his major work. We started our Rural Voices book with a quote from Wallace Stegner's Sense of Place, which I think is worth reminding everybody of now. Stegner back at that time wrote this—he said:

 “Migratoriness has its dangers. I know about this I was born on wheels among just such a family. I know the excitement of newness and possibility, but I also know the dissatisfaction and hunger that result from placelessness. Some towns that we lived on were never real to me. They were only the raw materials of places, as I was the raw material of a person. Neither place nor I had a chance of being anything unless we could live together for a while.”

Wallace Stegner wrote that a fair time ago, and it was part of his overall approach to the nature of the American West, which in his best book he called “the big rock candy mountain;” that imagined place where we could go out into the West, and draw on natural resources, and somehow make a living, which we then would leave in the shattered remains of that environment and go back home to our area in the east where we came from. He was very aware of the exploitive nature of migratoriness and the way it was grafted into the American West situation.

From the place-conscious point of view, American education actually feeds into this critique that Stegner has about the exploitative nature of the vision of the American West that we have. The idea of developing enough skills that you can go someplace and mine your community, whatever it is, for other personal gains, and then move on leaving that one behind, is a version of the same real-life mining that Stegner describes in his books.

In contrast to migratory exploitiveness, place-based education imagines citizens being developed in local communities by schools so that they can actively participate in the communities as they exist—so that the work the citizen learns to do is how to work on projects that make a difference in the local community, and somehow draw on the knowledge of history and science and humanities to actually further what's going on in the local community in some way.

This is a very different model of citizenship, as opposed to being the migrant that goes off and sells one's abilities wherever it is you can, to being someone that is able to work in community and make a go of it there. Here's how we articulated this concept back in 2003. We wrote:

“Place-conscious education requires active students, and hence builds on pedagogical movements for student engagement and community inquiry. Since students are supposed to be learning how to participate fully in their local regions, students need classrooms where they have a say in the civic work of education. Place-conscious students need experience identifying local issues they want to affect, and the knowledge—local, regional, national, and international—they need in order to contribute. They need experience negotiating with other students and community members in developing and completing meaningful projects. Finally, they need experience in self-reflection and evaluation, in the skills of self-awareness that enable them to step back from their interactions, to celebrate achievements, critique performance and outcomes, and imagine strategies for improvements. We are after, as place-based educators, ways to make students in their classrooms become part of the existing body politic in the local community, as opposed to postponing their contributions until after graduation when they have sold their skills on the open market.”

All right. That was the first concept. The second concept is related to that one, and this comes from place-based educator David Sobel, who was really active in New England for a while. He's got a wonderful little book called Place-Based Education in which he articulates some of what his desire was for making place-based education work in that context. His core concept is of the three-legged stool that generates a successful and vital community. Sobel's core insight was that school itself can't really generate a vital and sustainable community, but it’s part of what the project is. Here's how he described the overall force of his three-legged stool:

“While we all started out thinking that our focus was on school improvement and academic achievement, we've come to realize that our focus is equally on creating vital communities and preserving the quality of the environment. We are now aware that there is a dynamic tension between these three elements, and that together they form a three-legged stool that will not stand if any one of the legs is missing. Try to improve the school without actively engaging the community, and your efforts won't garner the budget support and the human capital necessary for success. Emphasize community development without the involvement of the school, and you won't have the youthful energy that makes projects work. Build thriving economies with little concern for the environment, and you'll find businesses have trouble attracting workers because people aren't willing to raise children amidst deteriorated air and water.”

Sobel's idea, back in 2004 when he wrote this book, was to recognize that when we change our vision from school as a place that focuses only on individuals that move forward into the competitive market of academic success later on, and instead change it to focusing on how it is school might teach children of various ages to contribute to their communities and make their communities better and thriving and better able to work in the future, and all of a sudden you need to start paying attention to what's going on in those communities. The nature of the community itself and the nature of the environment that surrounds it is certainly something that's part of that as well.

This has been an ongoing idea for us here in Nebraska because we often find that part of the work that we do with our students is to ask them to go out in the community and connect with their elders in it and find out what the issues are that the elders in the community are facing. Those are the things which really drive that education in a way that works well. This idea of starting with issues in the local community is actually our third major concept for place-based education. It comes from Paul Theobald's wonderful book, Teaching the Commons, which is now several decades old. Paul Theobald was the dean up at Wayne State College and has been around the country doing various other kinds of things, but he's primarily a social studies teacher. His concept—in a nutshell—is that you can start local and spiral out to connect to national and international and regional ideas, all of which make the education worthwhile. For us educators, the challenge is to find something local that we can spin out to connect with whatever is in our district curriculum. For example, if you want to study water issues and pH balances in science class like we did in Henderson, Nebraska, you might start by taking the students out in fourth grade to take some water samples from the local lake, and then show them how to take a pH sample from that lake, and then see about how that stacks up against the desirable health efficiency of the water that goes on. When the students out there did that, they found out that there was a higher pH balance, and they had to figure out why it was more acidic than normal and then we could look to explore some of the questions about pollutants and contaminants that get into the local aquifer—how that affects what's going on—and all of a sudden you're spinning out into wider and wider, more complicated biological concepts that really apply anywhere, but we’re grounded in what's exciting about here.

Paul Theobald's challenge for us, thus, is to find those local connections of student interest and generate connection to local place and all of a sudden make the learning of bigger concepts and more international and national material somehow more interesting because they're tied directly to the local.

That's our third concept behind place-based education. Our fourth concept comes from Wendell Berry's short essay, “Watershed and Commonwealth,” in which he describes those two concepts as naming the two sets of interrelationships that generate living in any given place. In a way, then, Berry gives us a shorthand for looking at the content that might generate place-based education. Watershed, for Berry, that's an example of having the river system that your community is located on, and how it connects to stuff upstream that comes from the mountains and downstream that goes into the Gulf of Mexico, say. That idea is to look at the interconnected regional features that make the environment work in that given place. Commonwealth is the same idea, except it's related to one's cultural history and the regional cultural history of the place. So, it might involve the sequence of native tribes and Spanish takeover in the American West, and then the American colonies takeover from the Spanish of what was going on there. So you have this layered vision of culture that surrounds the given place that you're in.

So anyway, the idea is to look at those kind of regional forces, cultural and natural, that shape what it is you're doing. In Writing Suburban Citizenship, we made a point of dividing up the projects that our teachers used in suburban settings between those that were focused on ecology in some wider sense—or watershed projects—and those that were focused on commonwealth in some wider sense—like cultural history and some version of that. A quick example was the project in the watershed section from Jeff Lacey's class, where the students adopted the local park and tried to get a deep description of what was going on in the local park throughout the seasons of the year. And that led to the creation of a green club at his school. Versus, on the commonwealth side, my colleague Bernice Olivas's project that looked at what the Native American presence is in the city of Lincoln, how it was we might draw on that to an understanding of the issues of colonization and settler colonialism, and how it is those things affect us when we are able to see what's actually here in the community that exists.

For both watershed and commonwealth, Wendell Berry leaves us with a recasting of the golden rule for behavior, which I think applies here. He says that we should think of ourselves not saying “do unto others as we wish you would do unto us,” but instead saying “do unto those downstream as you wish those upstream would do to you”—again, a way of recasting the relationships that you are seeing yourself in relationship as you move through time and space and culture with other people involved.

Those are the four concepts for place-based education as we experience them and use them here in Nebraska. Thank you very much for your kind attention as we work through them.

In this last section of this podcast, I wanted to turn from some of the theoretical concepts about place-conscious education to some examples of what place-conscious education looks like. One example is the Henderson/Bradshaw school consolidation project that our teacher-leader Sharon Bishop led in about 2011. At that time, her school in Henderson was being forced to consolidate with Bradshaw, the community just down the road about three to four miles. Because of declining student enrollment in the elementary and secondary schools, they needed to find a way of joining together to share resources. This was a controversial issue in their community, and Sharon's sophomore class decided to figure out what was behind that and what they could do about it. In the course of that semester, her students went out into both communities—Henderson and Bradshaw—and located as many community elders who were still around from the time that the schools had last consolidated in the area, which is about 50 years ago. In the consolidation about 50 years ago, what happened was a lot of one-room schools and two-room schools had consolidated into the standard education project at the public schools in Henderson and Bradshaw, collapsing what was at the time a number of church-related schools and family-related schools into some bigger organisms.

What the students found out when they interviewed people was that this had a both a positive and negative effect in the community. The negative effect was that some family members were still angry enough at other family members that for generations, they hadn't shopped at the same stores, or had avoided working to go into the hardware store in the community because it was owned by the wrong people. At the same time, there were a lot of people that were able to point out my goodness, there were things that became available to us as a community, like sports—organized sports that hadn't been there before. The students gathered all this information, and then Sharon helped them identify a time where they could get the two school boards together on an evening—one from Henderson one from Bradshaw—and sit them down around a table, and the students could present what they found out, complete with here's what we found out from our community elders, here's what we think are the positive and negatives of going into consolidation, and what we hope is recommendations that you all will think about for us as future citizens.

This project was highly successful for the community and the students—lots of engagement. And you can see how it is that drawing on direct work in the community somehow helped the young people become voices in the community itself—also work on the commonwealth ideas, the historical/cultural work that their elders had done before that, they could draw on and make use of in some sense. And, of course, they learned some things about American history and the nature of how schools and communities get formed here on the Great Plains. That led into the social studies curriculum directly, too. I don't think it was by accident that Sharon was having her students work through a required sophomore Willa Cather novel—I think it was My Ántonia at the time that they were doing this work—and you could see the blend between their English tradition and English curriculum and what they were doing in the class.

My second example of a place-conscious project comes from the center of Omaha, which is the biggest urban center in the state, so we're contrasting it to Sharon Bishop and Henderson, Nebraska in the rural area. This project was grandly named the Urban Justice League, clearly picking up on the comic book Justice League of America idea. It was a connection between three schools in the city that offered select students a chance to go beyond the curriculum and study some of the justice issues that are rampant in Omaha as a whole. Omaha South, Omaha West Side and Ralston Community Schools—led by Dan Boster, Jeff Grinvalds, and Ferial Pearson—all offered an after-school program for students that wanted to join in, where we'd look at justice issues. The students in that class– it started with an examination of Malcolm X, who as everybody knows was born in Omaha, but then moved on to student-identified justice issues which were going on in the community as a whole. The three teachers sponsored a weekly get-together with pizza and a movie that the students chose. Then, the students did some of their own writing and slam poetry, and it ended with an event at the KANEKO Center—the community center run by artist Jun Kaneko in the city of Omaha. The students led a public reading of their work in relation to the issues that were going on at the time.

We found that this project filtered back into the school's regular curriculum, because the 25 students that have been involved in this project tended to come back into the classrooms that the three teachers were running and articulate ideas that resonated with the literature that they were reading at the time. So that, I think, was another very exciting example. And you can see, again, that one involves starting local and spiraling out, connecting with student interest, and connecting with real issues in the community that spread out from it, and involving a student product that comes up that can be shared with the community as a whole.

These benefits of place-conscious education seem, to me, to ground why it is that the National Park Service Partnership with the National Writing Project is so important: in the potential of having connections made between the historical and ecological features of the national parks, in whatever region, and the local writing pedagogy that can go on at the time. Here in Nebraska, we're really excited to be working with Homestead National Monument of America to explore both immigration issues, the history of settlement of various types of people in the area, and the preservation of the natural prairie, all with that site as a potential. We're also very excited, with the Niagara Scenic River Valley, to be able to take students down that beautiful part of the river in the northeastern part of the state and to take a look at what that landscape looks like. And we are excited to continue our work with Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, which has one of the biggest collections of Native American and Euro-American settler collaboration in the Red Cloud and James Cook Archives. These are our regional connections to the National Monument System, and we hope that you all across the country can find your regional connections to your cycle, too.

With that, I’d like to end my exposition of place-conscious education principles and basics for today. Thank you very much for hanging with me.

Let me end with one additional place-conscious poem, which I think captures some of the celebration and critique work that we've talked about and enriched throughout the afternoon.  This is a poem by Grace Bauer from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She calls it “Great Plains Prayer,” and as you can hear in it, it's an evocation of things plains that are both celebratory and critical of the area. So, this is Grace Bauer, “Great Plains Prayer.”

Bless us, Oh Lord,
and this our Jello. Our corn,
our steaks and kolaches.
Our heat indexes. Our wind chills.
Our sunsets and horizons.
Our endless waves of grain and grass.
Our ancestors who started out
for the coast but stopped half-way.
Our nostalgia for their calico,
their sod, their old homesteads.
Our denial of the meth labs
that have taken their place.
Bless our perseverance.
Our unerring politeness.
Our red state politics
and our white, white bread.
Bless our dubious status
as tornado alley, as flyover zone
and bless all those who fly over,
as well as those of us who, out of
choice or necessity or inertia—
forgive us, we know not why or what
we've done—but, by God, stayed. 

Thanks, Grace Bauer, for those ending words. And for now, this is Robert Brooke, director of the Nebraska Writing Project, signing off for today.



Plainstate is produced by Robert Lipscomb. Post-production by Stephen Ramsay. Music by Shadows on a River. On behalf of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, thank you for listening to the Plainstate Podcast. Tagline forthcoming.