We are happy to have the opportunity to feature two strong voices in the place-based ecology education (PBEE) movement in the Upper Valley. Elizabeth Burrows is the Mt. Ascutney School Board Chair, a parent of two boys age 9 and 11, and a new Vermont State Representative. Amanda Hull is a teacher of 18 spirited kindergartners at Woodstock Elementary School. Both Elizabeth and Amanda have direct experience witnessing the benefits of PBEE in the lives of children, are advocates for continuing to raise visibility and support for PBEE locally, and take action to further understanding and access to PBEE across the education system of the Upper Valley and beyond. Let their individual commitment to PBEE be an inspiration to all of us!
Elizabeth Burrows and Amanda Hull
Elizabeth Burrows is the Mt. Ascutney School Board Chair, a new Vermont State Representative, and a parent of two boys age 9 and 11. She has a passion for education, a belief in place-based learning as a positive addition to educational programming, and multiple perspectives from which to view place-based ecology education (PBEE). The Collaborative sat down with Elizabeth Burrows to explore these perspectives.
UVTPC: Elizabeth, as a parent, what do you see as the biggest benefit of place-based education for children today?
EB: My partner and I face a daily challenge to draw our boys back out of the world of electronic entertainment and root them in where we are. Place-based education helps them to forge identity that includes a sense of place– and, by extension, a sense of belonging to that place, and a very surface understanding of the symbiotic relationship of a place and its people.
UVTPC: How does a school board successfully further the goal of providing high quality place-based ecology education (PBEE) to students? Can you share some successes, challenges, and practical steps?
EB: One of the things I like about place-based education from the perspective of a board member is that it takes stock of, and focuses on, what we do have in our community/ies, which is an important, practical, and healthy viewpoint. If a board can fan out from that starting point, it is easier (but not easy) to get a handhold on it as a group. Really, though, it requires buy-in first from the administrative level, and then from staff, and both of those groups have to internalize it on their own, and on their own terms.
UVTPC: As a new Vermont State Representative, how do you see your passion for education being part of your work in the legislature? How might PBEE fit into the larger picture of education advocacy in Vermont?
EB: Well, I hope to get onto the Education Committee, but there is certainly no guarantee of that, particularly for a novice legislator. To me, PBEE is Vermont, and any student who is lucky enough to have it will be a potential ambassador for our great state wherever they land. That pulls in interest from all sorts of related areas in our legislature, which could benefit from a whole upcoming generation of Vermont experts wishing to protect Vermont’s vitality.
UVTPC: How do you feel the Upper Valley is doing with advancing PBEE?
EB: I see PBEE having reached a certain level of integration in most schools, and then leveling off for a time. But it seems to have gained another groundswell in the last couple of years, and I think the pandemic has brought about an odd sort of push for ideas about PBEE that were already brewing, to be acted upon. Hopefully, its benefits will be so clear to admins and boards that they will not consider dropping it once all of this is over.
UVTPC: Can you describe a time where you witnessed place-based education happening? In a formal setting at school, or in the backyard at home? What did that look like?
EB: My sons, my partner, and I have had many explorations of the entity of Mt. Ascutney. From its name, to what it would have looked like with dinosaurs roaming about on it. What elements make it a great launching point for hang-gliding? Why are the soils so different from mile to mile, and what does that mean for plant life and for its agronomic history? We live in a wonderfully rich milieu for these kinds of explorations.
UVTPC: Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
EB: In my mind, a place-based curriculum also has two very important parenthetical sets of goals. One set is social goals: participation helps students navigate social circumstances using their environment as a positive factor; helps students engage in physical problem-solving; is experience-based; accesses part of the human experience that reaches beyond class or finance; and promotes teamwork, within and also outside the framework of competition.
The second set of parenthetical goals is even broader, but no less important: community goals. Participants are likely to gain a greater sense of purpose; it accesses and reaches all ages and areas of expertise; it brings about a sense of belonging; and, as I said before, most important of all is that it brings about a shared sense of wonder.
Thanks to the work of Kat Robbins (Marsh Billings National Historic Park & Woodstock School District), Eliza Minnucci (ForestKinder), Becky Proulx (Outdoor Educator from Strafford, VT), and Dawn Dextraze (Education and Outreach Specialist with Sullivan County Conservation District and Natural Resources Dept), with funding from the Wellborn Ecology Fund and The Byrne Foundation, Naturalist Backpacks have been distributed to hundreds of students and educators in the Upper Valley.
With the help of the Naturalist Backpacks’ tools, students are literally taking a closer look at the world around them. The Collaborative sat down with Amanda Hull, kindergarten teacher at Woodstock Elementary to learn more about her experience as a place based educator using the Naturalist Backpacks.
With 18 active kindergarteners, Ms. Hull uses place based education to help her students, “develop a sense of wonder, grow their social-emotional skills and grit, increase engagement, and build a better understanding of the world.” Like so many other educators, Ms. Hull finds place based education critical now more than ever because it, “connects children to their place and builds community.”
With the pandemic upon us, teachers have been forced to shift their practice and individualize lessons in new ways, while reconsidering group work and materials. For Ms. Hull, “The naturalist backpacks were a huge help with having individual materials and tools for students to use.” Should students need to go fully remote, no problem! The backpacks can go home with them to give Ms. Hull and other recipients an extra way to facilitate nature based learning.
What’s in a Naturalist Backpack
“My students LOVE the Naturalist Backpacks!” While it’s tough to say which tool is the students’ favorite, it’s clear that they “love the magnifying glass because they can take a closer look at things they find in the woods. As for Ms. Hull, she loves “how the magnifying glass slows them down. They will be running all around and then when they take out the magnifying glass they slow down and really stop to look at the little things around them.” What more could a teacher ask for!