During the Paleozoic Era, Western New York was covered by a warm, shallow sea, home to trilobites, brachiopods, crinoids, and other exotic marine creatures. Fast forward four-hundred million years to 2019, and Genesee Community Charter School kindergarteners stand in the very spot these ancient animals lived. I’ll let their teacher, Keri Gonzalez, describe the scene: “As the bus pulls into the dusty, barren parking lot of Penn Dixie, the kindergarteners look anxiously out the window for signs of waves and sandy shores to play in. When they hear that the ocean ‘used to be there,’ they are at first confused and very disappointed. But once the fossil digging begins and the ocean of the past is brought to life through the finding of the creatures’ fossilized remains, the kids are hooked!”
The kindergarteners’ visit to the Penn-Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Preserve, an hour west of their classroom in Rochester, New York, supported their study about prehistoric life. More importantly, it helped them better understand what lived here long ago and how they are connected to the place, shared across millenia by trilobites and five-year-old humans. By connecting their sense of wonder to a sense of place, these kindergarteners have taken their first steps on a journey into their school’s place-based curriculum.
Embracing the Power of Place at Genesee
Place-based education (PBE) centers where we live as the touchstone for teaching and learning. Informed by the work of progressive educators and the nature study movements of the early 20th century (Dorris, 2019) and the work of David Sobel and the Center for Place-based Education at Antioch University (Smith, 2019), PBE is a powerful ally to project-based learning (PBL) because it centers a project in a place either known by students or valued by the community, making the work literally “grounded” in the students’ lived experience.
Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS), located on the campus of the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC), is part of the the EL Education network. At GCCS, centering students in a place-based curriculum provides them with a deeper understanding of Rochester and the surrounding region by engaging in meaningful work with local experts, rigorous fieldwork experiences, and carefully crafted classroom experiences that integrate social history and the natural world (O’Malley, 2016).
GCCS’s place-based curriculum grew out of the Genesee River Valley Project (GRVP), a teacher-led initiative of the Rochester City School District in the 1990s. By focusing on the Genesee River, students could “examine the geography and geology of the watershed, the human interactions with it, the groups of people that made the region home, and the industrial and technological changes and benefits that came with establishing a city on the river” (O’Malley, 2016). Like many innovative urban education programs, the GRVP fell victim to fickle budgets and shifting political winds.
However, the GRVP became the catalyst for a more fully-developed place-based curriculum that teachers at GCCS have used and honed over two decades. Students see how the place they call home has been transformed by natural and human development over the past 500 million years. Genesee students are immersed in place-based learning that empowers them to know their community’s past with an eye towards its future. The curriculum itself is broken into six school-wide time periods and is mapped across the K-1, 2-3, and 4-5 loops. For example, when the whole school is focusing on prehistory, kindergarteners are learning about life in the Paleozoic Era warm seas at the same time that second-graders are looking at the earth-moon system and the role of local astronomers in present day scientific research. Upstairs in fourth-grade, students are learning about the formation of the Genesee River and the role glaciers played in shifting the river’s course over harder rock formations, giving Rochester its signature waterfalls. Within each grade level, English Language Arts (ELA), science, and social studies standards are aligned to support teachers in crafting Learning Expeditions: twelve-week PBL units that map out what the students will learn, how they will be assessed, and what the final product will look like.
The sixth-grade curriculum at GCCS functions a little differently. After six years of studying the local history of their community, sixth-graders are ready to be change-makers in the place they know best. Their work coalesces around a student, teacher, or community-identified “hot topic” upon which teachers build a year-long curriculum. The idea here is for students to examine their community’s needs and pose practical solutions, from supporting bike lanes and equitable recess policies in schools to advocating for a food policy council and creating murals with local artists. Because sixth graders tackle a new hot topic every year, teachers need to be nimble and responsive in curriculum and product design. The grade-level content standards are still addressed, but they bend to the prism of the place and the needs of the expedition.
Building the PBE Learning Expedition
A learning expedition, like all PBL curriculum planning, requires teachers to know their content, know their students, and in the case of GCCS teachers, intimately know the place they are centering for the expedition. Learning Expeditions have been refined over the past twenty-five years in EL Education schools and are codified in their Core Practices handbook (EL Education, 2018). Learning expeditions at GCCS last ten to twelve weeks and are usually broken into three case studies. These case studies are shorter arcs of instruction lasting 2-4 weeks within an expedition that hone in on particular content and address a specific guiding question. These case studies build on one another and support students towards their final product, showcased at a public exhibition.
To better understand how all these moving parts work, let’s look at the most recent kindergarten expedition, “The Wonder Watchers,” in which students learn about the Paleozoic warm sea.
Teachers begin with a “big idea”—that is, the essential understanding they want students to gain, and keep for the rest of their lives. In “The Wonder Watchers,” the big idea is “The Earth has a long story that has changed over time.” This is informed by our school’s curriculum map and the Next Generation Science Standard disciplinary core idea ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth, which reads, “Some events happen very quickly; others occur very slowly, over a time period much longer than one can observe.” From the big idea, we derive a “guiding question.” For Genesee teachers, the guiding question most often comes back to Rochester, the place we call home. Long-term learning targets then name the content knowledge and disciplinary skills required to answer the guiding question. You can see how “The Wonder Watchers” progressed from “big idea” to “long-term learning targets” in Figure 1.
|Big Idea||Guiding Question||Long-term Learning Targets|
|The earth has a long story that has changed over time.||What is the beginning of earth’s story where we live?||I can describe the Paleozoic Sea.
I can sequence and explain the process of fossil formation.
Teachers translate these long-term learning targets into daily and weekly instruction using the standards-targets-assessment (STA) planner (see Figure 2). The STA planner provides teachers with a foundation on which to build the learning expedition and its three case studies. Standards-targets-assessment alignment requires teachers to think critically and holistically about what they expect students to know and do (Stiggins, et al, 2005). It also means bringing it back to time and place, as we can see in the long-term target. Under the long-term target are “nested” targets, such as “I can sequence the events in fossil formation.” These nested targets help teachers scaffold instruction towards the long-term target.
|Standard||Long-term Learning Targets & Nested Targets||Assessments|
|The earth has a long story that has changed over time.
|I can describe the Paleozoic Sea.
I can sequence and explain the process of fossil formation.
The STA document provides both the structure for the learning expedition’s case studies and serves as the pacing guide towards both formative and summative assessments. Teachers often view standards as antagonistic, bothersome dictates, but at GCCS they serve as powerful allies in helping shape what will be taught, what will be assessed, and how they will get there. Teasing out the genius in NGSS ESS1.C allowed our kindergarten teachers to craft an expedition that connects place across time and connects students’ awareness to a world beyond themselves.
Another example of how place shapes the development of an expedition plan is in our second and third grade “Village to City” Time Period (see Figure 3). This learning expedition focuses on Rochester’s rise as America’s first “boomtown” during the first Industrial Revolution as flour milling became the economic driver for the city and the construction of the Erie Canal allowed trade to move across New York and around the world.
|Big Idea||Guiding Question||Long-term Learning Target|
|Simple machines make work easier.||How did simple machines make the impossible, possible?||I can demonstrate how simple machines made work easier for the farmer, the miller, and the canaller.|
As the expedition plan takes shape, teachers also begin plugging in fieldwork, guest experts, anchor texts, and classroom experiences that will give substance to the case studies. A typical third grade expedition in this time period focuses on the farm, the mill, and the canal, so students visit a working wheat or grain farm, as well as the High Falls district of Downtown Rochester, where grist mills were located in the heyday of the “Flour City.” Ruins of former mills on the banks of a 96-foot waterfall provide a stunning example of how a specific place in our community transformed a city and its citizens. Classroom experiences with simple machines provide opportunities to see how levers, pulleys, and inclined planes made work easier in early 19th century Rochester.
As the expedition plan and its case studies are built, teachers identify texts, topics, targets, and tasks to provide for coherent instruction and assessment of social studies and science content. This “Four Ts” document helps teachers choose high-quality and high-leverage texts to teach both content knowledge and requisite ELA skills. A new addition to our expedition planning is the Dimensions of Equity Focus Area that requires teachers to consider how social justice and culturally relevant pedagogy is being attended to in the plan (Hammond, 2020). Informed by Dr. Zaretta Hammond’s work, this document helps teachers identify blind spots and build liberatory practices into their work with children.
Designing the Final Product with Place in Mind
As teachers at GCCS present their initial ideas at mucking sessions (named so because we often get stuck in the muck!) colleagues provide feedback through a series of protocols to further refine the product and learning expedition components. This occurs three times a year, one for each trimester’s expedition. Rounds of feedback provide teachers with increasingly tight and detailed plans. Critique is an essential part of expedition planning at Genesee.
Place is often the driving force in our school’s final products and exhibitions. For example, our Kindergarteners used their visit to Penn-Dixie as a crystallizing moment to bring the creatures of the Paleozoic seas to life in an arts integrated performance. Dressed in full-size trilobite and crinoid puppet costumes they designed themselves, students narrated the story of the animal defenses and food chains of this ancient era. Kindergarten teacher Keri Gonzalez adds, “Movement, song, play, and hands-on activities are critical to help kids understand this content. Acting out fossil formation, playing as sea creatures, singing about the sea and playfully changing lyrics to match what we learned, helps students know the earth has a story and it is told through the fossils of long ago.”
These exhibitions provide students an opportunity to share their learning and educate others about this place in time. While Gonzalez has taught this expedition eleven times, she gleans something new each time she does. Expeditions, while bound to place, can manifest varied products. For example, one year the same place-based content yielded a guidebook about the prehistoric creatures of Western New York while another time led to a classroom fossil gallery.
At GCCS, our Place-based curriculum can yield a variety of unique products to meet the needs of students and our community partners. GCCS final products honor the attributes of high-quality student work: craftsmanship, complexity, and authenticity. They are also deeply rooted in place, giving students a touchstone to their community. One field study in which fourth and fifth grade students participate follows the course of the Genesee River, from its source as a spring in the hills of Gold, Pennsylvania, to its mouth at the Port of Rochester on Lake Ontario’s southern shoreline. This overnight fieldwork provides students with opportunities to collect scientific data on the temperature, turbidity, and velocity of the river as it winds north over 157 miles, dropping over 2,000 feet in elevation as it flows. In the two decades that GCCS students have participated on this trip, there have been a variety of final products to help center the river and its place in our region and community. Many of these products can be found in Models of Excellence, EL Education’s Center for High Quality Student Work, and they range from poetry anthologies that weave together figurative language and earth processes, guide books, note cards that discuss the formation of waterfalls along the Genesee River, and a scaled topographic model that will be used to educate other classes.
Because the Genesee River is integral to the school’s curriculum and community, GCCS recently took on its first whole school learning expedition. In 2017, multi-age, vertical teams of K-5 students and teachers focused on a different part of the river or its tributaries, connecting the experiences back to grade-level standards and producing narrative non-fiction in grades K-3 and scientific writing in grades 4-5. This learning expedition also inspired students to participate in the Global Water Dance that year and with the help of the Dance and Movement teacher, they choreographed site-specific pieces that connected to the place their vertical team studied. In addition to connecting to the natural world, students had the opportunity to collaborate with peers across grade levels and contribute to a whole-school project, Bugs Tell a Story. Older students established a new rapport with primary students and teachers and parent chaperons remarked on the sense of community and purpose the students showed in their interactions with each other.
Visitors to our school often remark, “That’s great work, but we could never do that,” or “How do you find the time and resources to make this happen schoolwide?” We had the privilege of adapting and improving a curriculum that had already been established, but we also made some critical decisions about what is most important and robustly funding what we value. Fieldwork, for example, consumes a good portion of our school’s budget. It is that important to us. We make sure teachers have access to local experts to learn from and bring those experts to the school to help teach our students. We critique our plans and hold ourselves accountable for high-quality teaching and high-quality student work. Maybe you can’t change the funding mechanism of field trips at your school or shift professional development days to curriculum writing, but there are tangible steps you can take to lay the foundation for fostering a greater sense of place in your PBL projects.
Ready to Start?
Twenty years of products and hundreds of learning expeditions means GCCS has a pretty solid grasp on place-based education and has designed protocols and structures to support its program. So what key moves should schools and teachers consider if they want to center place in their PBL projects? While no means definitive, here are a few key take-aways based on our success.
Know Your Place
What do you really know about the place you call home? What are the hidden histories of your community? What natural phenomena have shaped it over the past 100 years? The past 10,000 years? Spend time with local experts—historians, naturalists, geologists, authors, to name a few—and build your own background knowledge. Each year, GCCS teachers work with local experts during summer professional development in service of their learning expeditions. Curriculum and product design rest not only on your pedagogical know-how, but on the site-specific knowledge of place, too. Every community has a prehistoric past. What evidence can be found where you live? Every city has been touched by the Industrial Revolution. What are the artifacts and stories that bring it to life for your students?
Take Small Steps
It’s tempting to “go big” with a place-based project, but less is definitely more. Start with a smaller unit or a case study to try out. Dabble in a few of the PBE design principles rather than all. Not used to taking kids out of the classroom? Co-construct norms with students and practice them. Not sure how to craft a full-blown product around a place? Start with a project you’ve already tried and adapt it (and use models from HTH Project Cards, EL Education’s Models of Excellence, and PBLWorks as inspiration). Before Genesee students delve into overnight fieldwork, they experience day trips to local parks, building stamina and skills. Teachers, too, have to go slow and make sure what they’ve planned will actually work. Test driving products and lessons with teammates helps us identify weak spots, potential places for student misconception, and misaligned standards.
Plan Tight, Hang Loose
As in any project, the more carefully crafted and prioritized the standards, targets, and assessments are and the more carefully you’ve curated texts, site visits, and learning experiences, the easier it will be to pivot if things change. Sometimes the “A-ha!” moments of students or pandemic teaching (as we’ve all experienced most recently) will take the study in a new direction. Knowing your plan and your students will provide you with flexibility to revise, omit, and adapt as needed. For example, this year, the lack of bus drivers in a pandemic meant the field study to Penn Dixie had to be cancelled. In response, teachers figured out a way to “bring the beach” to school by enlisting volunteers from Penn Dixie, who brought tubs of rock and fossils for students to explore, sort, and study in their classrooms.
Creating learning experiences that honor and center a place are unique and valuable opportunities for students. They can also be transformative for teachers, as we learn to see our community through a new lens and create projects and products in service of our shared history and as stewards of a shared environment.
Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Retrieved October 10, 2021 from https://crtandthebrain.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/41/Hammond_Full-Distinctions-of-Equity-Chart.pdf
Doris, E.(2019, June). Once upon a time: place-based education’s roots in the nature-study movement. https://catalyst.greenschoolsnationalnetwork.org/gscatalyst/june_2019?folio=22
EL Education (2018). Core Practices: A Vision for Improving Schools. New York: EL Education.
Models of Excellence: The Center for High Quality Student Work. Retrieved October 4, 2021 from https://modelsofexcellence.eleducation.org/
O’Malley, L. (2016, Sep. 13). Creating a sense of place instills love for river and environmental stewardship. https://greenschoolsnationalnetwork.org/creating-sense-place-instills-love-river-environmental-stewardship/
Smith, G. (2019, June). Project-based learning and place-based education: reproduction or transformation. https://catalyst.greenschoolsnationalnetwork.org/gscatalyst/june_2019?folio=14
Stiggins, R., Arter, J., Chappuis, J., and Chappuis, S. (2004). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right and doing it well. Portland, OR: Assessment Training Institute.
Vander Ark, T., Liebtag, E., and McClennan, N. (2020). The Power of place: Authentic learning through place-based education. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Appendix: Examples of student work from Genesee Community Charter School’s place-based curriculum.
Here are a few examples of the final products students completed as part of their learning expeditions over the past 20 years. Each of these products reflects a connection to time and place as part of GCCS’s curriculum map around the Rochester and Genesee River Valley region.
Shifting Gears (2013)
Using the bicycle as a lens for a year-long focus, sixth grade students at the Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, New York learned how they can make a difference in their own community by engaging in community activism.
Bugs Tell a Story (2017)
In effort to raise awareness of the state of a local river, GCCS K-5 classes developed a schoolwide expedition focusing on the health of the Genesee River in the spring of 2017.
Becoming #ROCBelievers (2018)
In 2018, sixth-graders were immersed in a year-long exploration of critically examining the city’s renewal efforts, asking, “Whose renaissance is it?” They explored individual and group identity, the impact of systemic racism, and analyzed the disparities across neighborhoods. Teaming up with local artist Shawn Dunwoody, students went into the city’s four quadrants and met with the people who lived, worked, and went to school there and collaborated with them to create colorful murals that shared a message of hope and unity for the entire city.
Being Haudenosaunee Then and Now (2018)
Through a partnership with the Rochester Museum and Science Center, first graders embarked on a project to interview people of Haudenosaunee descent and add a new installation to the museum’s Native People’s exhibit sharing ways Haudenosaunee culture continues to thrive and grow today.