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Documentary Explores 'Place-Based' Learning

With the storm keeping us out of the office for a few days, I finally had a chance to watch a documentary I've been meaning to get to for several months now called "Schools That Change Communities."

The 60-minute film, directed by Bob Gliner, looks at five schools that are seeing positive results through the use of place-based learning (similar to project-based learning, but with a focus on serving local communities). Among other impressive educators, the film features Tom Horn, the former principal of Al Kennedy Alternative School in Cottage Grove, Ore., whom I profiled in an article last April. (Horn is now the principal of a K-5 school in Eugene, where he assured me by email he plans to continue to "hit project and place-based ed. hard" with a "serious continued focus on ecology and sustainability.")

The film puts a lens on some very different tacks for incorporating place-based learning into schools. In the tiny town of Crellin, Md., students help design a new playground, bake and deliver bread to neighbors, and pick up trash around their community. In the economically downtrodden neighborhood of Mattapan, in Boston, students take oral histories of their families and create radio programs to offer information needed by locals—on the causes of asthma, for instance. In Watsonville, S.C., students produce documentaries about migrant workers and gang violence in the town, and in Howard, S.D., students hold community meetings and reach out to politicians in an effort find ways to improve the local economy.

As for the Kennedy School, the movie details the partnerships Horn created with local organizations in Cottage Grove, including Aprovecho, a nonprofit focused on sustainability that worked with high schoolers to build a house with green materials. (I got to see the final project while visiting—the straw bale and mud mix made for thick, well-insulated walls. Like nothing I'd ever seen before.) It also goes into the Kennedy School students' work on a wetlands mitigation project that is helping improve water quality.

Gliner's film avoids investigating the obstacles that can make place-based learning hard to implement (curriculum and testing demands, scheduling, buy-in, etc.). And it does not include a look at programs that failed to get off the ground or did not show positive outcomes. But failures are not really the point. Gliner's goal instead is to show that instead of asking what communities can do for schools, some people are asking what schools can do for communities. And it turns out, they can do a lot. The payoff for kids, meanwhile, is engagement and deeper understanding. Very simply, as Gregory Smith, co-author of Place- and Community-based Education in Schools, explains in the film: "These kids don't have to ask their teacher, 'Why am I learning this?' They know why they're learning it."

The film is slated to air on some public broadcasting stations in January. In the meantime, it is available for purchase now on Gliner's website. Here's the trailer:


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