Skip to content

Place-Based Education (PBE)*

by Mary Buckelew

“It’s not easy but everybody should be doing it.”
Demarest, A. (2016)

Open the classroom door . . .

Buckelew Taos

I’ve been exploring place-based education for 35 years. Whether taking my high school students in New Mexico on field trips to White Sands National Monument to examine flora and fauna, to write about our observations, and to have fun – Or Fast forward to West Chester University campus where my freshman students and I explore campus through the lens of sustainability, I’ve been fortunate to learn from my students as we explore places and their complexities.  A seemingly simple scavenger hunt on campus, reveals the kinds of health services available or not available to university students, a poem about the sighting of a hawk at the Gordon Natural Area (GNA) on campus inspired deep learning, engaged, and empowered beyond any packet, worksheet, or video.

However, reality means we cannot always open and walk out of the classroom or building, but we can investigate our building, the people, services, and environment in its immediate vicinity. We can invite the surrounding community into the classroom and if we are connected to the internet, we can research our communities and the world and engage and empower students with place-based learning.

Smith and Gruenwald write, “There is no time in the history of the planet that local, place-based learning has become so important: ‘At its most fundamental level, place-based education must overcome the traditional isolation of schooling from community life.  . . . By connecting to and appreciating places, children and youth begin to understand and question the forces that shape places; they develop a readiness for social action, and with the proper adult guidance, the skills needed for effective democratic participation’” (Smith & Gruenwald, 2010 p. xx).

In June, I will have the opportunity to study place-based education, sustainability, and systems thinking with a group of educators who have bravely signed on to take a WCU/PAWLP course with me on these interconnected topics. I am looking forward to learning from them and about their places.  As Gruenwald and Smith urge, it is imperative for us to open our classroom doors and introduce students to the local, regional, and global places and spaces they inhabit in order  to examine and analyze issues of environment, social justice, economics, ethics and more and then to take action.
I invite you to begin or continue your own journey by taking the sustainability inventory below about your “place.”

School Building/Campus Environmental Sustainability Profile*

*adapted from University Leaders for a Sustainable Future from Composition and Sustainability by Derek Owens, p. 33; 2001, pub. NCTE)

  1. In what water shed(s) is your building/campus situated?
  2. In what city, town, or municipality is your building/campus located?
  3. Name the following officials representing the community your building/campus is part of: (a) City Council; (b) State Senate and Congressional Representatives; (c) Federal Senate and Congressional Representatives.
  4. (a)Where does the energy for electricity on your campus/in your building come from? (b)What is the fuel source? (c) Who is in charge of energy management?
  5. Where does the water on your campus/ in your building come from? (b)Where does it go when it leaves? ( c)Who is in charge of water management?
  6. (a)Where does the majority of food from your building/campus come from? (b) Where does it go when it leaves? (c) Who is in charge of food management?
  7. (a) What are the major materials used (i.e., construction, office, laboratory, etc.) on your campus/in your building? (b) Where do they come from? (c)Where do they go when they leave? (d)Who is in charge of purchasing and disposal?
  8. What problems does your building/district/university impose on the environment?
  9. What would you identify as your current administration’s top three policy issues?

*Place-based education (PBE) immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. PBE emphasizes learning through participation in service projects for the local school and/or community.


Mary BMary Buckelew is Director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. She is an avid reader and writer. Mary enjoys writing poetry about the places she loves, especially places in New Mexico.  Often, you will find her teaching courses for the Project at West Chester University, participating in Continuity Days and leadership meetings, attending and presenting at conferences, and sharing her writing with the PAWLP writing group.  Mary is currently working on a book with PAWLPer Janice Ewing for Routledge Publishing about  engaging and challenging our students through inquiry approach.



One Comment Post a comment
  1. janiceewing #

    This seems like such a natural way to learn, but we often rush from place to place without really noticing what’s around us. Taking a deep look at a place, from many perspectives, offers so many possibilities. Your upcoming course sounds great!


    June 5, 2018

We'd love to hear what you think! Please comment below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: