A “People” Is From A Place

Posted on April 8, 2020



Cynthia remembers her grandpa, who taught her that, “Life is funny most of the time, and the times it ain’t funny are even funnier” (153).


I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the neighborhood where  Cynthia and her neighbors live in this warm-hearted YA novel by Jason Reynolds, Look Both Ways. This “tale told in ten blocks” is urban, place-based fiction that leaves me feeling like I’ve just been somewhere special, where I met people I like. As in The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, the characters are connected because they’re members of a community.

This novel reminds me of how important I think it is to root education in the community where the students live, in the landscape where the school exists. And I do mean “root,” both philosophically and biologically. If I could have found a core group of like-minded teachers to commit to such a thing, I would have gone so far as to turn the barren front lawn of the high school where I taught into a food forest. I think there are few things in life as important as growing food. I would’ve loved to see students eating food in the cafeteria that they’d grown in the school garden.

I never did find my food-growing people among my colleagues, but in 1998, I attended a Leopold Education Project workshop, where I was introduced to the idea that would help me root the courses I taught in the place where school happened. That idea is called “place-based education.” Yes, that was what was missing about school in my adopted small city: school here was all landless abstract ideas, all future-focused, all outside HERE and NOW. The concept of place-based education helped me bring my courses down to earth.

Having grown up in a rural farming community where school was the social activity that involved the biggest number of townsfolk, my relationship to the land was a bigger part of my life than social activity. I have a deep catalog of memories of days in the woods, at the lake, on my bike, in State Parks, out camping, in the garden, forever exploring, always wondering, learning how things work, getting to know my place on earth and what makes it unique.

Through the courses I designed, I wanted to give high school students a similar sense of their place, in this place, in this school, in our community, on the land, on this planet. One course I’m very proud of designing is an eleventh-grade literature-composition course I called “Place-Based Play Space.” To create the course, I blended a (required) chronological survey of American Literature with a Genre Study-focused Writer’s Workshop and ongoing outdoor field experiences. To show what they learned, students created multi-genre projects that included creative writing, analytical writing, elements of design, artwork, and elements of book-making. It was not uncommon to see students HUGGING their project notebooks before they turned them in to be graded. That course had the power to change lives, if statements from students and parents are any indication (see one parent’s note below). This approach allowed students to bond with the land, with each other, and with me in ways similar to the bonds formed at Sleep-Away camp.

On the other hand, even though grounding my courses in our real, shared world helped  students improve their reading, writing, research, social skills, creativity, critical thinking, and sense of well-being, I failed to convince other ELA teachers to embrace place in their course designs. It leaves me feeling like…

Look Here!

Every novel has a setting; some even have a few.

Helping English teachers SEE this–is a thing I failed to do.

With very few exceptions, English courses ignore place–

but the students can draw Hogwarts with more detail than your face.

As every person has a body, we are people of the land.

Members of the human family, like the fingers of a hand.

Suburb, city, country: we’ve all someplace to BE.

Our place makes us a people: those who know are those who SEE.

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
― Aldo Leopold
It’s all connected. How can we expect students to care about life on earth enough to help the human species survive if we teach them that nature is irrelevant for their lives?
“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” ― Aldo Leopold

“When place-based education is implemented in ways that truly conjoin school with community and provide opportunities for democratic participation and leadership, children are given the chance to partake in the collective process of creating the sustainable and just world that must come to replace the world of discrimination and waste that has begun to unravel us now.” –David Greunewald & Gregory Smith, 2008

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lisa eddy is a writer, researcher, educator, advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com