Place-Based Education at GUS

“How was school today? Who did you play with?” I asked my five year old daughter, as we left the Glen Urquhart lower school building and stepped outside into the bright, warm, mid-September air. The buildings, the trees, and the pollinator garden gleamed against a crisp blue sky, softened by the late afternoon light. I’m often struck by the natural beauty of the GUS campus at this time of day and, even as I’m happy to head home, I still feel the urge to pause, breathe deeply, and appreciate the beauty of our campus grounds. On this day, however, it was not my own sense of wonder that stopped me in my tracks, but my daughter’s response to my rather banal question. “Mom,” she began, “do you know how to make flour?”

It was only a couple of weeks into the school year, but the kindergarteners were already off to work, exploring their theme of “The World Around Us” by learning how to turn wheat into flour. My daughter proceeded to explain each step of the process to me, along with how she and her classmates worked in groups to try two different approaches to grinding grains and then compared their methods. The kindergarten students were already embarked on the GUS journey of discovering themselves as learners, rooted from their earliest days in hands-on exploration that made learning real, tangible, and engaging. The GUS mission of encouraging children to “explore their intellects and develop their imaginations” was well on its way in kindergarten, and this reality struck me at once, transforming the natural beauty that awed me daily into something deeper and more profound.

The GUS faculty began our school year with a workshop on place-based education led by David Sobel, a writer, professor, and leader in the field. Our summer reading was Sobel’s book Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, and our day-long workshop brought us together as a professional community to look at how we could expand upon our practice of place-based education. Sobel spoke to how we might discover new “affordances”—opportunities for activity and study—in the rich natural laboratory we call our campus. He described the GUS campus, quite favorably, as a Bullerby, a Norwegian term for “noisy village,” a characterization made popular in a series of books written by Astrid Lindgren in the late 1940s. The Bullerby model Sobel referenced is an environment in which children have a multitude of opportunities to move freely and independently, and to engage with built and natural affordances. It’s an apt description for our rich GUS campus, where students build large forts and tiny fairy houses; concoct “potions” made of grass, dirt, stones, twigs, and water; climb, run, and jump on playground structures; play basketball, gaga, soccer, and four-square; conduct scientific research on our nature trail; and find quiet spaces for contemplation, reflection, and journaling, all in a single day.

For GUS faculty and students, our campus is our laboratory, enmeshed in and inextricable from our place-based, thematic curriculum. Our school was built on this premise, that our 23-acre campus, and the North Shore at large, would be our curriculum’s primary sources for learning. Our spiraling themes emerge from our land, ensuring that the essential questions that frame a year’s study in each grade are always tied to our place and provide students with endless opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning. After visiting our school and spending the day with our faculty, David Sobel commented, “It’s rare to find a school like Glen Urquhart that takes such full advantage of the natural and cultural resources in Beverly, Cape Ann, and the wider world of New England. This conscious attention to connecting students with their places helps them become active citizens and preservers of their natural and cultural heritage.”

We are immensely proud of the work our faculty does each day to fulfill our mission. We have been doing this work at GUS for 40 years, and feel affirmed when we see other educational institutions following our lead. We see public and independent schools on the North Shore dipping their toes into nature-based education now, and we benefit from research conducted in higher education about the value of this type of educational approach. Harvard Project Zero, where GUS faculty attend workshops yearly, advocates for educators to help students develop “critical thinking mindsets” that “shape and cultivate” multiple intelligences. These mindsets include: wondering, problem finding, and investigating; building explanations and understandings; making plans and being strategic; being intellectually careful; seeking and evaluating reasons; and being metacognitive.

International education researchers at Harvard have recently developed a curriculum called “Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course,” with the aim to “give young people the knowledge they need to approach the future with a dynamic, accountable, forward-thinking mindset.” The curriculum is thematic, and grows by year with the children to provide “an ever-widening, deepening view of the world, from cultures, government, and geography to the environment, entrepreneurship, and values.” With themes such as “Our World is Diverse and Beautiful,” in kindergarten; “How Values and Identities Shape People and Institutions,” in sixth grade; and “Migration,” in eighth grade; this Harvard-developed “Curriculum for Changing the World” sounds remarkably similar to the spiraling one developed by Lynne Warren and the founding GUS educators in 1977.

As we wrap up our eighth week of school, our students have already engaged in a myriad of projects that connected them to the land and their community—both on and beyond the GUS campus—and provided opportunities to deepen and expand their subject area studies. Here are a few examples of place-based education in action during these earliest weeks of our school year:

The 2nd and 7th grades have been collaborating and finding points of overlap in their Tree Study units. With the guidance of Dan Mayer, a GUS parent and the president of Mayer Tree Service, in Essex, 2nd and 7th graders set out on the GUS campus to identify trees and learn about their characteristics, as well as potential threats and diseases, like tar spots on Maple trees. Students worked in small, cross-grade groups to “adopt” a tree and come up with a few specific questions to ask Mr. Mayer in order to better understand their tree. The 2nd graders designed brochures about their tree and were inspired to write a play about the life cycle of a tree, complete with characters, music, and handmade costumes. Together, the 2nd and 7th graders picked crab apples from some of our trees and made crab apple jelly, which they served on crackers to students and faculty. Soon they’ll embark on a project to label our trees, using both the scientific and Latin names, with assistance from Cori Russo, our Latin teacher. Seventh graders will pursue further tree study by measuring the circumference and diameter of trees on our nature trail, data they will contribute to the Harvard Forest project. They were also able to apply their work with trees to their study of variables, outliers, averages, and graphing in math class with Ms. Twombly—picking up some new skills in Google Sheets in the process.

The 3rd grade began preparations in September for their unit on Medieval Times, which occurs at the end of the school year, by planting wheat in a raised bed, their new medieval garden. Just as kindergarteners learn about wheat in September as part of their study of food, the 3rd graders learn about rural farming communities in the present day, as well as in medieval times. They intend to harvest their wheat in the spring, to experience the process of deriving grain from wheat and to better understand the type of work people did in medieval times. The 3rd graders have also used their wheat planting for science and literacy work.They also planted wheat in a classroom tray and in a plastic bag, so they can witness the germination process and record a nonfiction text of their observations. This winter, they will start medieval plant and herb seedlings in the GUS greenhouse, to transplant in the spring to their medieval garden. This hands-on work allows 3rd graders to make the abstract aspects of medieval times more concrete, relatable, and close to home.

Fifth graders volunteered this fall with The Food Project, joining the volunteers at their Wenham farm to learn more about how people use the land for food and to help other people. The Food Project is the perfect organization to deepen 5th graders’ year-long study of “The Land,” and the students enjoyed a work-filled morning of farm chores and learning about how The Food Project gives low-income families greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The 5th grade teachers designed a math project to help the students understand why fresh produce is a precious commodity for some families. Having just completed a unit on addition and subtraction of decimals, and poised to begin a unit on long division, 5th graders conducted some research on SNAP benefits and the families who qualify to receive them. They learned that the average family of three on SNAP benefits (or food stamps) makes about $10,000 in yearly income. Students employed their new math skills to calculate that, considering such monthly expenses as rent, electricity, phone, water, and bus fare, the average SNAP family has about $40 per week for food: $10 from their own income and $30 from SNAP benefits. Students then used Shaws circulars to determine how they could prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a family of three on $40 per week. The exercise helped students realize the value of The Food Project’s service to their community and the preciousness of fresh produce, something many of us take for granted. Some students were inspired to see if their own family could go one week with spending only $40 on groceries. Not only did this project lead to more math questions, like How do you calculate the amount of money spent per person per week?, it also led to sophisticated questions about privilege, access, environmental justice, and basic human rights.

Recently, I asked my daughter why she liked learning about wheat and about the topic that followed, apples. “Because one day we got to go and pick apples,” she responded. “We waited so long to go to the apple orchard and then we finally went, and a lady showed us how to grind the apples and make juice, and cider, and apple pancakes.”

What brings a smile to my face, as both a parent and an educator, is seeing how academic skills and place-based experiences come together at GUS to plant the seed in my daughter that will lead to her wanting to know about her community, how she impacts it, and what she can do, one day, to make the world a better place.