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### Enhance Learning by Connecting Lessons to Real Life Through ‘Place-Based Learning’

On a bridge in North Portland that overlooks Interstate 5, Kathryn Nock and Jordan Stokes are assessing the neighborhood, which includes the nearby Harriet Tubman Middle School.

Their surroundings are filled with the constant noise of cars and trucks passing below, making it difficult to hear each other clearly. The air is tainted with the smell of exhaust.

Nock is jotting down observations on a clipboard, capturing details about both the natural elements and the human presence in the area.

In close proximity, two additional pairs of university students are engaged in discussions about the environment surrounding them.

These students are all aspiring educators, enrolled in the Master of Teaching program at Lewis & Clark College. They are accompanied by their professors, Liza Finkel and Cari Zall, on this exploration of North Portland.

Aidan Hanley and Cooper Bulens, teaching candidates from Lewis & Clark graduate school, are seen documenting their findings on the overpass above Interstate 5 during a place-based lesson on March 13, 2024.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

The overpass serves as their classroom for the day, where they are analyzing the impacts of the upcoming I-5 expansion project on Tubman and the surrounding North Portland community. The objective is to provide these graduate students with a practical understanding of how to integrate “place-based learning” into their teaching methodology by actively participating in a lesson themselves.

Stokes, who is training to become a social studies teacher, emphasizes the significance of place-based lessons in demonstrating to students the relevance of their learning to their immediate surroundings and community.

Engaging students with local, tangible examples of how various factors interact and influence people’s lives is a powerful educational approach, according to Stokes. This connection fosters a deeper interest and motivation for learning among students.

Place-based learning establishes a link between classroom instruction or textbook material and real-world occurrences. For educators, stepping out of the traditional classroom setting presents opportunities and challenges, from creating impactful and pertinent learning experiences for students to managing the logistics of organizing field trips. The field trip organized by Finkel and Zall at Lewis & Clark offers teaching candidates a firsthand experience in developing a place-based lesson before they embark on their teaching careers.

Finkel, who oversees the secondary Master of Arts teaching program at Lewis & Clark and mentors aspiring science and math teachers, along with Zall, a faculty member guiding social studies teaching candidates, concur that subjects like science and social studies cannot be effectively taught solely through theoretical instruction. Venturing outside the classroom serves as a means to actively engage students in the learning process.

Throughout the year, Finkel’s group of science educators has been deliberating on ways to incorporate local issues into their science curriculum. The class has been exploring how to address these issues, the scientific aspects involved, and the societal implications of these topics.

The field trip to North Portland offers a practical opportunity for the students to investigate these questions firsthand, particularly focusing on the impact of the I-5 expansion project on the community.

[Image description: The I-5 freeway is visible through the fencing at the rear of Harriet Tubman Middle School in North Portland, dated April 9, 2021.]

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The discussions and readings provided by Finkel and Zall, along with a central guiding question, lead the students to contemplate the intricate relationship between human development and its consequences on both the human and non-human aspects of a community.

The graduate students, comprising three social studies teaching candidates and three science teaching candidates, share initial ideas on how to structure a place-based lesson in the area. They explore themes such as the value placed on infrastructure development, education, community well-being, and the trade-offs associated with urban expansion projects.

The objective is for these students to translate their field experience, pre-reading assignments, observations, and critical inquiries into tangible teaching materials that can be utilized in their future classrooms.

Following their environmental observations, the future educators collaborate to outline potential lesson plans, delving into various topics such as development, modernization, capitalism, and ecological changes. They also consider incorporating additional resources like air quality data and historical photographs to enrich their lessons on the neighborhood.

As these students are currently engaged in student-teaching roles across high schools in the Portland metro area, they anticipate the challenge of conveying the complexities and challenges of a freeway expansion to their students, many of whom may lack the historical context of community displacement in the area.

Moreover, these aspiring teachers are mindful of infusing a social justice perspective into their lessons, aligning with the ethos of their teacher training program at Lewis & Clark.

[Image description: Lewis & Clark graduate students Jordan Stokes and Kathryn Nock providing feedback on classmates’ lesson plans as part of a place-based learning activity.]

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Nock aspires to nurture critical thinking skills in her future students, encouraging them to analyze the world from multiple perspectives. She emphasizes the interconnectedness of science with various aspects of society, highlighting how scientific phenomena are influenced by power dynamics and societal decisions.

The practice of place-based learning is not novel, particularly in Oregon, where initiatives like the statewide Outdoor School program have long promoted experiential learning in natural settings. Schools like Portland’s Cottonwood School of Civics and Science have embraced place-based education as a core pedagogical approach.

For social studies instructors, localizing lessons and grounding abstract concepts in tangible examples can enhance students’ understanding and engagement. Amid concerns about the politicization of education, focusing on local contexts can help educators create a safe and relevant learning environment for students.

By fostering collaboration between science and social studies disciplines during the Tubman field trip, Finkel and Zall aim to instill a culture of interdisciplinary cooperation among future educators. They envision that these experiences will inspire teachers to integrate collaborative approaches in their teaching practices, bridging subject areas for a more holistic educational experience.

Ultimately, the goal is to empower students to recognize the interconnectedness of various disciplines and engage them in critical thinking about the world around them.

[Image description: Lewis & Clark College social studies teaching candidate Madi Pastores reviewing a lesson plan on the impact of development on a neighborhood.]

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Field trips serve as memorable educational experiences for students, offering unique learning opportunities outside the classroom. While planning and funding such excursions can pose challenges for educators, the Tubman field trip exemplifies a successful implementation of place-based learning. Finkel and Zall hope that this experience will inspire future teachers to adapt similar approaches in their communities.

Furthermore, they aspire for these budding educators to continue the cross-disciplinary dialogue between science and social studies, fostering collaboration and innovation in their teaching practices.

As educators strive to create inclusive and engaging learning environments, the emphasis on local contexts and interdisciplinary connections can enrich students’ educational experiences and cultivate a deeper understanding of the world around them.

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