Jeanie Phillips (l) & Thierry Uwilingiyimana with Place-Based Curriculum Design, by Amy Demarest

#vted Reads: Place-Based Curriculum Design

This episode is all. About. QUESTIONS.

Why are we here? Who was here before us? What kinds of stories do we tell about the world around us? And: how can we change from seeing the world as something to be studied, to something that can be acted upon …and changed.

First-year educator Thierry Uwilingiyamana  — now in his second year at Winooski Middle-High School — joins me on the show to talk about Place-Based Curriculum Design: Exceeding Standards Through Local Investigations. The author, Amy Demarest, is herself a longtime Vermont educator who has touched both my guest and I deeply.

(We’re big fans!)

Plus: why you absolutely need to spin Google Earth with your students. Just once. Their reactions may surprise and delight you.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, this is #vted Reads: books for educators, by educators and with educators.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Today I’m with Thierry Mugabo Uwilingiyimana, and we’ll be talking about Place-based Curriculum Design: Exceeding Standards through Local Investigations by Amy Demarest. Thanks for joining me, Thierry. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Thierry: Well, let me start by saying thank you for having me. Myself, where do I start? I feel like it’s appropriate to start by maybe giving a visual to people who are listening. I am a Black man from Rwanda, a tiny little country central East Africa. It’s sandwiched between the Congo and Tanzania, and I have four siblings; three brothers and one sister.

Born in Rwanda, and I left when I was six because of the war that happened there. I left with my family. I was lucky enough to leave with my family. And we became refugees in Congo and Zambia for a total of six years before we came to the U.S., where we began our lives in Buffalo, New York.

So I did my high school there, at the college preparatory high school. It’s a private Jesuit school, where I was one of the very few Black kids in a majority white school. Ninety-eight percent white. And I think they were trying to reach out to kids from Buffalo, because most of the other students were coming from the suburbs or were driving in an hour, or two hours. This is an old school, a school that’s been around since the late 1800s. Its an all-boys school. It’s a multigenerational school. Kids go there, their dads went there, the grandfathers went there. So, that was interesting experience.

Then I left Buffalo for Stanford University where I studied electrical engineering.

And I also had the passion for – or at least I thought a lot about someday going back to my home country, or at least Zambia. Which was the last African country I lived in before leaving the continent. I thought about how I might go back. How I might give back. Maybe it’s a survivor’s — not remorse, but a mindset of, “I survived for a reason. What’s my responsibility?”

After Stanford, long story short, I found myself in D.C., doing engineering work. Software engineering work. After the recession I finally decided to dive into what I thought was going to be my life’s work, and this was trying to revolutionize education.

Given the background that I acquired through my undergrad and through my studying, I really felt that technology would play a big role in democratizing education, bring education to more people, and quality education. So this took me down the path of entrepreneurship. And that was five years, and somehow led me to Vermont, where I came here for a startup.

When that didn’t work out after I’d been here for two months, I scrambled around for a few months, and then luckily came across a STEM position that was open at Winooski Middle High School. That’s where I’m at. I just finished my first year, teaching engineering.

Jeanie: Congratulations!

Thierry: Thank you very much. I like to say “engineering” instead of STEM, because I think for students it makes them stand up a little bit, sit straighter, and think, “Oh, we’re doing engineering?” But it’s really nothing more than problem-solving but using the tools available to us to solve big, complex problems. Yeah, I’m nervous about my second year. But I’m looking forward to it.

Jeanie: It seems to me you’re the *perfect* guest to talk about this book, and I didn’t even realize why. And I’m thinking about it in two ways.

One is that place has been so important in your life, and you’ve experienced so many places deeply. You had to leave places that were so – the home place of your family. So, you have this lens or perspective on place that I think is really interesting.

And the other is that as an engineer I love that you’re using place-based curriculum design in engineering? And I think it’s a slant we don’t often think about. We think about social studies more, I think. So, I’m *really* excited to have this conversation with you.

Thierry: Same.

Jeanie: And just to talk books with you! Let’s start by just asking: what are you reading right now? What’s on your bedside table?

Thierry: Just the one? Because I have a whole list! It’s overflowing. I was taking pictures of the books that I have on the bedside table. I suppose the one that I should highlight is Worldly Philosophers. And this is a book by someone whose name I won’t remember right now, but he’s a political economist at the New School in New York. [Ed’s note: the author is Robert L. Heilbroner.]

Worldly Philosophers is about great thinkers who have shaped our world in sort of invisible but very powerful ways. I’m talking about people like Adam Smith and Kane, whose whole philosophy essentially admitted that capitalism left to its own devices exploits and leads to things like the Great Depression and saw a role for the government to step in. People like Karl Marx who’ve studied and critiqued in an academic sense capitalism, and how it works.

It’s a budding understanding, learning capitalism. It’s a budding passion of mine. And it’s not budding; I think it’s fairy deep. It really blossomed at Winooski.

When I left the world of technology and talking to teachers about what it could be doing, and the world of ideas and innovation… into the world of being the one receiving my students and seeing them everyday, and seeing them struggle with elements of poverty? And how they would come to me and we would create a safe space and we’d talk and empower each other. And then they would go home and have to deal with their stuff and then come back.

I began really thinking about the larger forces operating on my kids. And everything seemed to point back to our economic system that seems to widen inequities, and exploit people.

And with a government that I think has abdicated this responsibility? Yo making sure that this system that generates a lot of wealth — which it does — that that wealth is distributed equitably in society. So, that’s one book, and it’s an obsession of mine.

Jeanie: I feel like you’re breaking a big stereotype, that engineers don’t read philosophy, right? And you’re the humanist engineer.

Let’s jump into this tiny little book that you and I agreed you could almost read the whole thing aloud, it’s so quotable.

Jeanie: And I want to start just by quoting the dedication, which I don’t usually do.

Amy Demarest, our author, writes in the dedication,

“This book is dedicated to all the teachers who pursue ways to authentically engage students in the world as it is and might be.”

I feel like you’ve already given us some context about who you are and what you bring to your classroom, but I’m wondering if you could expand a little more on what you think it means to engage students in the world, both as it is and as it could be.

Thierry: Right. So as I think about that, what comes to mind is that we do need to help our kids see the world as it is.

When I think back to the way *I* studied history in high school, we were in a classroom and we studied from a textbook. And I never really once questioned:

  • who wrote this book and
  • what’s in it and
  • what’s not in it, and
  • why were some things left out and some things included?

That kind of critical thinking was not part of my education. So, seeing the world as it is by reading the world as text — something that we’ll talk about later — makes the space within a learning environment for students to pursue curiosities that they have.

So, if we’re walking downtown and we see something that alludes to the Civil War, for example, with my students and you have a question about something like that? That can go in many different ways. And the different students that I have in my class are going to ask different questions that speak to where they’re coming from and their sense of place.How they see themselves in Buffalo, per se, if that’s where I’m teaching.

So, there is an aspect of seeing the world as it is and not filtered through anyone else but your own lens and your own experience.

And then the other critical part that I think I’m learning to appreciate as a teacher, that I hadn’t before, is that it’s not enough to see the world as it appears.

I think our responsibility to our students, and if we’re going to be adults in the room or the people who have earned the right to be the learning facilitators, then we need to also do our research and find the tools that are going to help kids, our learners — kids, adults — peel the layers and start seeing not just how it appears but how it actually functions beneath. This gets to the critical theory, this gets to the hidden forces that make places the way they are.

I think there are a couple of things that maybe I wanted to highlight. On page 35, if I may turn there.

Jeanie: Please.

Thierry: Amy Demarest talks about Freirean trees, and I think we ought to take a picture of this and put it where people can notice it. I’ll turn to that page. Page 35. I could quickly, maybe read the little story that introduces it.

p. 35: "“The June Jordan School of Social Equity, in San Francisco, has a mission to include issues of social justice as part of their curriculum. The high school has a comprehensive structure in place to support student’s capacity for community engagement and ability to understand the many issues that challenge communities. One part of this structure was a class that met regularly to support the service work students were doing.”

And then there is a picture of the tree.

And this is a tree with a trunk and what should be roots.

  • On the trunk is the question: ‘What is the issue?’ and that’s sort of the trunk of what’s being explored.
  • And then there is fruits on the tree, with the question: ‘Who benefits from this inequity?’
  • Then there are branches of the tree with the question: ‘What are the effects of the issue?’
  • And then I like this little piece, fruits on the ground: ‘Who’s harmed by the issue?’
  • Then for the roots: ‘What are the root causes of the issue?’

The next little paragraph, Amy then goes on to talk about the teacher who uses these Frierian trees. This teacher, Chela Delgado, said that “The branches were the outcomes of the problem, but students had to dig down in their research to find its roots.”

The quote-unquote “tree of analysis” helped students clarify what part of the issue they wanted to address in their service projects.

And then she provides an example. There was one student who set out to study issues of gun violence and drop-outs and homelessness.

Then, on doing some analyses, ended up focusing on after-school programs. Students are going down these pathways because they are no better alternatives.

And that’s the kind of work that, learning facilitators and guides, we should hold those accountable to. It’s one thing to see the world as it is and it’s another to develop the capacity to see beneath and focus your energies on the root causes and not just on the surface level issues that you see.

Jeanie: I feel like you and I together could probably make a list that fills this large whiteboard? Of issues that need to be faced in our culture and our world. Whether it’s rising sea levels, or pollution, or global warming. Or inequity in schools, school segregation. Whether it’s if I’m thinking in my neighborhood. It could be about who uses parks and who doesn’t. Who has access to what resources, right? I could think of countless things. I could go on and on.

This feels like the work of being a citizen. And isn’t that what we want for our kids is to prepare them for the work of being a citizen?

Thierry: Exactly. And that thread is investigated and followed in one of the chapters. It’s chapter six, which is the local investigations build opportunity for civil engagement. That whole piece is about citizenship and how schools are the places where we should be learning to be citizens.

By the time you leave school, you’re almost of age to vote. If you haven’t been asking the kinds of questions that lead you to asking things like: who cleans the road? And who pays them? And why there are tires in the water, who’s responsible for cleaning it, and why isn’t it being done, why is this side of the river cleaner than that side of the river, and talking to people who do this work.

If you don’t know who runs your city, how are you going to vote and how will you be an engaged or responsible citizen?

Jeanie: Boy, we could go right down that path, but I’m going to take us back to the beginning of the book, and know that we’re going to get there.

Amy really starts the book by focusing on questions. She says right at the beginning,

“This book is about the many ways teachers organize curriculum around the significant questions students have about their world.”

This is right in the preface. I’m a librarian by training and a lover of questions. I just adore questions. I can spend my time asking better and better questions. So, I really appreciate this approach!

And I’m wondering about your own experience with starting with questions with your students in the classroom.

Thierry: Right. Yes. As a first-year teacher I haven’t yet built the professional confidence to try out things that I actually believe in. I think there’s a mix of what I think I should be doing and what I want to be doing. Although I think I was lucky enough to meet Amy Demarest, to be introduced to her, the summer before I started my first year. We had a few conversations and I don’t know,  she maybe liked my energy and thought, okay, we should invest in this guy. So, she’s sort of taken me on as a colleague? But also as a protégé, of sorts.

That gave me a lot of confidence. It gave me confidence to try things when a woman as esteemed as Amy is Socratically asks you what’s possible, it sort of led me to think, “Oh, yeah, I can do this. I can just go in there and dive in with questions and no sense of where things are going to go.”

Because that’s really what it is. Starting with questions is necessarily imbued with trust and faith that things will go where they need to go, that you’re creating a space for that to happen. A little confidence helps to go into that space and trust kids to come in there with you.

I’ve been lucky to have good, cool teachers, and to have incredible kids at Winooski. That I have been very comfortable diving into the water with them.

So, one of the classes that I teach is Newcomer Science Foundation, a class I co-teach it with Jean Plasse. She’s my English Language Learners expert. I bring the STEM, or the engineering and we mix it in.

And these kids are curious. These kids are asking big questions.

For example, just a quick example, we must have been talking about place – we’re talking about habitats, talking about what are habitats? What a powerful, simple concept. Places that provide us what we need to survive.

Then we talked about what it is that we need to survive and how we get it and how our place provides it. And we talk about shelter. How school can be a shelter, our home is a shelter, a friend’s home is a shelter. A tree can be a shelter from the rain. And food and where we get our food. Anyway, we were looking,  and we brought up Google maps and looked at Winooski, looking at where grocery stores are.

Then, for some reason I began zooming out. And if you keep zooming out, Google Maps actually shows the Earth as a nice, little round marble. And then the kids are, “Oh, my God.” There’s some of them who hadn’t seen that before.

  • Is there a point we can fall off?
  • Why is it round?
  • What else is round?
  • Why roundness?
  • How did this come to be?

And they begin asking questions that go to sort of the initial questions people ask when they were sitting down, not having found food. Just *fundamental* questions.

My class, our class became the place where if you had any question at all about how anything is or how anything works, you can bring it up.

And I was always very upfront about things I don’t know.

Even some things that I know, I think it was always a little opportunity to say, ‘I don’t know. How might we find out?’

But starting with questions, the power there has been – I like the phrase of ceding power to the people. And in a classroom: ceding power to the students.

Posing questions is an invitation to students to make the space theirs and to make the learning theirs.

That’s one thing.

Then the other is that they get this power where they can turn their lens on to anything. They can ask me why my hair is the way it is. They can ask me why my name is the way it is, or what it means. They can also turn it on to the dead bird in the backyard, why and how it got there. Or they can ask about why Winooski is renovating. So, there is them getting to own the space and then them getting to direct their curiosity where they want to direct it.

Jeanie: That feels like one powerful continuum that I hadn’t even thought of as a continuum. So, I’m going to just explore this for a minute.

Thierry: Okay, sure.

Jeanie: And what I’m thinking about is the class you’re taking about is New Americans.

Thierry: Yes.

Jeanie: They’re new to this country.

Thierry: That’s right.

Jeanie: And so, they’re learning this new place.

Thierry: Exactly.

Jeanie: And they need to understand this new place, right? I’m thinking about my own experience as somebody who’s lived in Vermont for 20 years now. In a workshop with Amy, she asked us to draw a map of a place that was important to us, and I drew a map of my favorite place where I live, Lowell Lake. I spent a lot of time walking around the lake, swimming on the lake, kayaking on lake.

We had our maps and she asked us to sort of put hearts in significant, emotional places, or some sort of symbol. I used a heart. She asked us to put symbols around places where there might be tension, like places where they might be conflict. And somebody drowned in this lake last summer. So, it was also a place of pain. I marked that spot as a place of pain.

But then at the end she asked us what are our questions. All these questions bubble up that I’d never asked in this place that I know like the back of my hand.

Thierry: My goodness.

Jeanie: So, I think about the continuum, for me, is about: people who are brand new to this place who need to know things for their own survival, to get what they need in order to thrive here. And then people who’ve lived in the same place maybe much longer than I’ve lived in Vermont and know a place so well and need to see it with new eyes. And need to ask questions about it, to know it differently.

Thierry: That’s right. That is a beautiful visual of that continuum.

Jeanie: I also just so appreciate that line you said, about, “I don’t know the answer; let’s find out. How can we find out?”

And that’s like the number one librarian thing I ever said. I don’t know; let’s find out together. I feel like that was my biggest tool as a librarian. So, deep appreciation for how you use that in your classroom.

Thierry: That’s right. And I think questions necessitate that. Because as the students get bolder, as the questioning is encouraged, it quickly goes into areas where the expertise is not in the room.

Jeanie: What I also love about this book is that it has these real vignettes. I’m using you sort of as a vignette to say what’s your experience. But there’s also some really lovely vignettes from teachers, several of them from Vermont, people that we know.

I know Kate Toland is one, on page four. Amy writes a vignette about Kate’s social studies class with ninth graders. And she talks about – Kate talks about engaging students with real world problems, and she says that the world isn’t – and I love this little quote – already done.

Thierry: That’s right.

Jeanie: I really love that approach: of thinking about the world as not done. As this place that we can interact with and improve, or change, or participate in its “doneness”. It’s becoming more done. And the real-world problems of communities.

And I’m just wondering if you have any examples from your own practice or from Winooski of kids participating in tackling real-world problems.

Thierry: Right. When I walked here, I was reading this little article on Paulo Freire. And there is a little quote, there’s a little quote by him that I think powerfully resonates with what Kate is saying there.

This is actually the abstract, from the paper ‘Paulo Freire: A Revolutionary Pedagogue‘ by Dr. Narasingha P. Sil. Here’s how the extract reads.

“Paulo Freire’s theory of education stands squarely on his conviction in the capacity of man to create” – this could be a little, you know, capacity of people – “to create as well as reconstruct their cultural reality. He thus denounces the conventional education designed to dull out the cultural values of the dominant and the dominator classes, to the dominated and the oppressed. Instead of the traditional banking concept of education, Freire pleads for a pedagogical method that will through the ‘problematization’ of reality result in men’s conscientization, and leads to eventually his true, or their true, existential freedom.”

The quote of the world not being done, it’s not just a cute thing or just an interesting realization. The world not being done is *fundamental* to education and it’s fundamental to my students.

The world is a terrible place for a lot of people. If it was done, then God help us. *laughs*

I hope it’s not done! Because there’s so much that needs to be done.

So, when I think back again to my education, which presented the world as something to be studied and interpreted, but not something to be acted upon and changed?

It’s great for people who are doing well in the status quo, which was most of my colleagues. But for people who are fighting, engaged in the struggle for their freedoms?

There is two ways to think about freedom that I think are very important.

One, which is the legal freedoms that we have. We can vote, we have freedom of free speech, but then there is that idea of freedom from. Maybe freedom from fear, for instance.

I think one could say living in the U.S. we have a lot of freedoms; we have a lot of rights. And there is this understanding or this multidimensionality to freedom that I like thinking about where yes, you have a right to vote and maybe you have the right to free speech and to be safe in this country. I know that.

And yet, if I’m being paid minimum wage, or don’t have a job, all of a sudden, I’m very limited. There is so little that I can do. Right? A lot of the freedoms and the rights that I have kind of go out of the window. Legally, I may be free, but then if I can’t afford a house in a place where my students can maybe get a better education. Or if I can’t afford to get out of a place where my my kids are – I’m talking as a parent – exposed to violence, or whatever, then how free am I?

So, the idea of looking at what’s not working for me and then making that the object of your study I feel like it’s a big part of what attracted me to Paulo Freire.

He’s all about waking you up to the reality and questioning everything. Not accepting everything for what it is, because accepting it benefits the ruling class and the people who are benefitting, not you.

So, that idea, that very simple idea of the world is not done that Kate shares is revolutionary. It’s a revolutionary concept.

Jeanie: I want to build on it a little bit, because Amy also draws on Freire’s notion that students of all ages should be taught to read the world. World as text.

So, thinking about, not lonely should we be working with students to participate in the world, because it’s not done, because it’s still under construction. Part of that work is helping our young people — and maybe our fully-grown people, too — to learn to read the world as text.

What does that phrase, “read the world”, mean to you?

Thierry: This kind of gets back to – forms a nice little loop back to the Freirean trees that we talked about, that there is going out into the world and seeing, just looking and creating holding space for questions, authentic questions. By which I mean students coming from different places to get to ask what they’re moved to be curious about.

But to then read the world as text, to me, adds this analytical dimension of then questioning: why are things the way they are.

There’s an excellent example in the book somewhere, where Amy says – or someone she’s quoting says – it’s nice to take your kids out to go and play in the river. It’s a very nice activity. It becomes an altogether different activity experience when the kids start asking why is there crap in our river? Where is it coming from?

Jeanie: Yeah, totally.

And that pulls us to this other notion of there’s a good bit in the book about what it means to have a sense of place? And about being responsible in where one lives, and living well in that community? That is tied up in this, I think. And especially, my librarian self smiles again at this, this idea of stories of a place.

I love the many layers of stories you can explore in a place.

So, thinking about these stories can be historical. Who lived here before us, right?

Even going back to before colonization:

  • Who was here?
  • Who’s lived here?
  • What people does this land belong to, or *did* it belong to at other times?

The geology of a place, which is a story, right? You can share how a place shaped and formed scientifically. There might be political or cultural stories of a place. And those could be historical, and those could be contemporary.

Then I think about student’s own stories of a place.

And seeing  a place through the eyes of other people, what their stories might tell.

The example that came to mind when you were talking earlier for me comes from Ruha Benjamin. She made me see a story of place that I hadn’t seen before, and I see it all over now. I was recently in St. John, Canada, in New Brunswick, and I was noticing the same story, which is: who are the park benches for?

When you create barriers so people can’t lay on benches, who are you excluding and who are inviting in?

So, that’s another way to see place, to learn to read a place, through story, really. The story that bench is saying is that some people are welcome here and others aren’t.

Thierry: That’s right. It makes me think about how learning to read your local place, you build muscle for reading other places where you may find yourself. When you learn to ask and pose questions of a place, it’s a gift you can take with you, wherever. Wherever you find yourself.

Jeanie: Right. Those skills are transferable even if you’re spending time looking  at the pond in your backyard, right? I love when I saw Amy recently, she talked about how concrete spaces are still places. Even if it’s the parking lot. That the skills you’re using to look deeply at a place, to learn the stories of a place, to ask questions about a place, that skill, that investigation, that critical thinking that you’ve talked a lot about, is transportable. Even if I were to move to Alaska.

Thierry: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Even if you go back to Rwanda, the skills you have travel with you.

Thierry: This being Vermont, it’s fitting to talk about transferable skills! Since Winooski has made a huge shift to really just teaching, focusing everything we do around transferable skills.

This approach — place-based education — it helps you build muscles that you can then really take with you wherever you go, that you are learning. You’re not just developing a sense of place as a citizen of here. You’re learning these critical skills that you can apply in many different domains.

Jeanie: Problem solving, communication, collaboration, all of those function in good place-based learning as far as I could tell. While looking at this book I kept thinking, “Oh, there’s another one! There’s another one!” 

Thierry: That’s right. That’s right. There is a sense of in my engineering at Winooski creativity.

We have these six graduation expectations.


I think we have creativity, communication, we have critical thinking. We also have well-being and persistence. And the beauty of having authentic learning experiences that are grounded in what’s around us, is that it just quickly ties all these things together.

I feel like even as we’re progressing towards this better way of looking at learning through these bigger, transferable skills that our kids will use wherever they go and through old age.

Creativity and persistence, these are not things you graduate from! *laughs*

Even as we move towards that, we’re still struggling with the siloed nature of how things used to be and I think some of that has carried over to this, but when we follow students’ questions, it really quickly starts breaking down the barriers between all these silos. And I find myself struggling.

Can we ask these questions? Can we go into social-political issues in a science class? And where is the place for asking about justice and fairness in science, and all these things? Because they all come together quickly.

Jeanie: Right.

Thierry: Yeah, because they all come together quickly.

Jeanie: When you contacted me and I asked you to be a guest in the podcast – I don’t know if you remember this – I was on a learning journey in Hawaii. And they’re doing a lot of place and culture-based learning in Hawaii. Place and culture are really so tied together in Hawaii that they go hand in hand. And I was thinking of an engineering task that first graders do there.

Thierry: Okay.

Jeanie: I was thinking, what would this be in Vermont? I’m sure we can come up with some things. But the task there is that in there are these invasive fish. They’re little. They’re like minnow-sized, I think. First graders, once they learn about this ecosystem, they’re tasked with the idea of creating something that captures these invasive fish, that can capture*just* the invasive fish, right? So, they have to do all of this exploration in order to create – to engineer – a tool that will —

Thierry: –capture just invasive species?

Jeanie: Right. And invasive species are a universal problem.

Thierry: That’s exactly right.

Jeanie: So, what would it look like to apply this idea of not just noticing which species are invasive. What do we do about it, and do some problem solving around it?

Thierry: Yeah. And I feel like that’s maybe the engineering leap for me. Where we see, we think critically, and then we take action.

Jeanie: Yeah! So, the other thing about Amy’s book and this approach – and I’m going to turn to page nine, where I think I can quote something specific – is the way that it is strength-based about students’ culture.

Place-Based Curriculum, p.9: "This awareness helps teacher design curriculum with questions that resonate with a student’s experience.” Their lived experience. This is most critical for young people whose school experience continually underlines differences or perceived deficits. According to Nietso, teachers need to build on what the children do have rather than lament what they do not have. When the content is more aligned with the truth of students’ lives, they gain tools that help them gain a voice in their community."

And so, in past podcasts we’ve talked a little bit about how schools are pretty middle-class places. They function well for the dominant culture. Like, in your schools, if you’re white, your family went there, where you went to high school, in many of our schools. I grew up working poor and I often had to sort of make a choice between the culture of school and the culture of my family and my home. And I’m not sure everybody has that experience. But what I love about this approach is that regardless of student’s culture, it has something to bring that inner strength.

So, on page nine, this quote, “This awareness helps teacher design curriculum with questions that resonate with a student’s experience.” Their lived experience. This is most critical for young people whose school experience continually underlines differences or perceived deficits. According to Nietso, teachers need to build on what the children do have rather than lament what they do not have. When the content is more aligned with the truth of students’ lives, they gain tools that help them gain a voice in their community.”

I just think about how school would have been different if I could have brought some of the strengths of my family that were not celebrated in the classroom. Or that were ignored or invisible in the classroom experience.

And anytime that we bring an appreciative lens to what students bring to the table, I feel like it’s a positive thing – not just for young people, but also for us, as teachers. Because it engages them more fully.

Thierry: I agree. I agree wholeheartedly.

One story this reminds me of, in my science foundation class once more, is that as soon as we’re asking all these questions about the very beginning, the Big Bang and how everything came to be? As we were looking at videos and exploring the Big Bang on a class that was probably supposed to be about habitats, some of the kids were very adamant that: no, Allah created all this. Or: God created all this. This is what our parents tell us. Who are you to tell us different?

And I made a decision – I hadn’t thought about this – I made a decision to say, “You know, there are many, many different types, different stories of how the world came to be. There is the science story, that’s one story. There is Allah creating the world. That’s another story. And there is the God of Rwanda, in my culture. We have the story of how the world came to be. Different people, different culture, come up with different stories for how the world came to be.”

I felt good about sort of placing science alongside other stories, other creation stories that these students are coming to me with.

I think a big part of this, what I would call humanizing education, that sees the humanity in people instead seeing them as empty vessels to be filled with information? We have to come as we are. And we learn as we are, and humanities are important. And what am I doing in a classroom if I’m going to shut down the kids’ beliefs, right? And say, “No, what you’re learning is false. Science says this and that.” No, no. We’re more complicated beings. We can hold multiple stories; places, like we’re saying, hold multiples stories. Who gets to say what’s right and what’s wrong is just power dynamics.

Jeanie: I love that you put it so plainly. Like it or not, we come with our whole lived experience. Our students come with lived experience. And we can choose to see that as a deficit in which they were empty vessels, but that’s not going to happen. The only person we’re harming is them and ourselves.

Or we can choose to see that as strength that we can use to build on, and then everybody flourishes. It’s our choice as teacher in the classroom to decide whether we embrace students’ lived experience and help them develop what they’ve already – to apply what they know to the world.

Thierry: That’s right. I absolutely would not want any kid come to me as an empty vessel. Just the story you just shared of your childhood. In your experience are answers to some of the challenges you’re facing, your family is facing, your community is facing. If school should be a place where you can go back and read the text and make it better? I *do* want you coming with your experiences and them hopefully acquiring some critical tools.

Jeanie: This text also addresses this idea of a hidden curriculum, which I think is related. And often the hidden curriculum in school is compliance.

Some people are good at school. But compliance doesn’t prepare our young people for life in a democratic community.

We aren’t living in a world where most kids are going to go off to factories and be compliant little factory workers. So, if we want to prepare students to be the community that we want to see in the world, we’ve got to move beyond compliance. Because compliance isn’t going to get us there.

Thierry: No.

Jeanie: It feels like – it’s not neutral. Schooling isn’t neutral. Sorry, did I just step on a soapbox?

Thierry: No, you did not.

Both: *laughing*

Thierry: I’m listening, and I appreciate the passion, and I agree wholeheartedly. It drives me nuts seeing lines in the hallway, it drives me nuts seeing kids, little kids, holding one rope, and – there are just a lot of little things. A lot of little things through which we train people to just stay on their line, stay on the lane, maintain the status quo, play by the rules. And yet, the survival of our species on this planet depends on breaking the rules we have, on thinking outside the box. So, we’re simultaneously shooting ourselves in the foot as we’re trying to save ourselves.

Jeanie: Yes. That was so well said.

We’ve talked a lot about the start of this book and the intentions behind it and why. I’m looking at page 42 and page 43, and when Amy gets into the meat of it, not just the why and what it can look like.

Place-Based Curriculum, by Amy Demarest. Page 43.

She outlines these curricular elements of local learning.

I think oftentimes, thinking about place-based curriculum design or other powerful pedagogies, the place where we get lost in schools? Is tying it to the curriculum, tying it to standards and proficiencies. So, she gives us these four curricular elements of local learning, and she talks about how the boundaries of these are not fixed. And that they can take up different amount of space. That they’re often mixed. And she adds this little quote, “The beauty is in the mix.”

So, I wondered if we could just outline those four and the I have an example, and maybe you do, too, of what that looks like in practice.

Let’s take turns. Do you want to talk about the first one?

Thierry: Sure. “Personal connections are the foundations of all learning and how can I better relate school to my students’ life experiences.”

So, this is one lens that a teacher should have in thinking about your curricular intentions. Thinking about how I can better, as a teacher, relate school to my students’ life experiences.

Jeanie: Right. So that’s part of knowing student well. That’s like going into the playground, because that’s their lived experience when they’re small, or into the community. Like, connecting with what they know and see every day.

Thierry: That’s right. And I’ve loved simple things, like: where does our water come from, our drinking water?

And go back to your home and maybe look around the house and come back tomorrow with your five most valued possessions. Like a day one activity and tell us about these different pieces. For my students, all my students who are recent arrivals as immigrants, they don’t have much.

But I remember myself coming here when I was 13, there are a few things that I’ve held on to. It may have been a piece of paper from a friend from Zambia. It may have been like an old t-shirt that’s all ripped but I can’t separate myself from it because it’s just about all that I have left. You know? And just bring those into the classroom. Having students share those bits about themselves and starting to create this web of relationships amongst the students.

Jeanie: It’s really like: how is this relevant to your life?

Thierry: That’s right.

Jeanie: The second one is: “Local investigations deepen subject understanding.” How can I help students better understand how this big idea works in the real world? So, that big idea could be a social studies big idea, or a science big idea, or a language arts big idea. But how does whatever it is work in the world, not just in the textbook or not just in the classroom? So, combining place and subject.

Thierry: The third one is: “Local investigations build holistic understanding of places.” The driving question there is: how can I help students better understand this place?

I think this is the beauty of choosing maybe a big question of you mentioned places like who was here before, who’s lived here. And holding that question as we walk around downtown Winooski and asking those questions. What was here before? That would be the social studies question, but you can also talk about how have machines shaped Winooski? And take that angle.

Jeanie: I love that this speaks to the complexity of places. I think that sometimes what gets in the way is how complex places are, right? It’s not simple. You have to really dig in.

Thierry: Yeah. And this gets to the story that you shared about drawing a place that you go to in your memories, where you grew up and spent a lot of time. And then just with a few prompts of places, with emotion, tension, pain, and the questions you have about it. And these are very generative questions. All of a sudden something that was very familiar has so many dimensions.

Jeanie: The fourth one is: “Local investigations build opportunity for civic engagement.” How can I help students better understand themselves and their possible futures? This one really reminds me of service learning. Like how do we have impact on a place, and it also gets to that idea of the world isn’t done. Like, what’s our goal, how do we contribute? How do we be responsible citizens of this place?

Thierry: That’s right. And all these things, they do build on each other once you’ve helped students better understand place and they’ve started to creatively think about it. Then essentially you’re prepped, you’re primed to do something.

Jeanie: So, I’m going to tell a story and try to parse out, maybe with your help, how this might play out. I’m going to talk about a place called Ka’ala Farm in Hawaii. It’s in the Waianae coast. Students go there with this organization called Place, to connect personally. These students are native Hawaiians, and they go there to grow kalo, which is a native Hawaiian food. Kalo is what poi is made from, it’s taro.

So, they go to this place and they did this watery trenches that – I’m getting all the nomenclature wrong. Sorry Hawaiians! They dig these trenches and the kalo grows in these, so they get muddy! They get dirty. They move rocks around, they’re in the soil, and they’re growing kalo. You have to pound the kalo to make the poi. They have to grind it and they have these specials boards, so they might do that there as well. So, it’s food! It’s the food of their ancestors. It’s their native food. And they’re using native language, the native Hawaiian language.

So, it’s their lived experience, right? It’s their family. They have deep connections to this, their culture. That gets to that personal connections are the foundation of all learning. It’s in their place, they’re learning the food of their ancestors, they’re growing it. It’s in their community. Then when I think about how local investigations deepen subject understanding, there’s a lot going on there with subject understanding. They’re learning about the science of growing things. And the kalo needs water.

So, part of what they learn is the story of this place. The Waianae coast was cut off from water when the plantations arrived. So, when the pineapple plantations and other plantations arrived, when Westerners arrived, when Hawaii became an American state, the water was diverted. Before that it had been shared. The water is diverted and this place is no longer green.

And what they have to do is bring back the water.

What ends up happening in this place, with these students, is they end up writing a water resolution which they read at local government. And why water? They’re investigating this deep question about who owns the water.

Thierry: Who owns the water.

Jeanie: Who owns the water? Who has the right to the water? And they’re claiming back the water in order to just grow their traditional crop, in order to make this place green again. So, that’s the also, how can I help students better understand *this* place? So, not only have they learned the history of this place, the history of Hawaii, the science of growing. Now they’re into this place where they’re understanding holistically all these interconnections between the science and the history and their people and their culture.

And then they’re doing something about it. The civic engagement piece is them delivering their water resolution, which they wrote, so we’re pulling in English language arts, which they wrote and they communicated. They delivered all those transferrable skills in communication to their local government.

It’s just such a beautiful project in a beautiful place that really shows how all these things are interconnected.

Thierry: That’s right. And they so naturally come together! I know it’s the skill of a teacher to plan and take a step back and envision how all these things are going to come together. How the transferable skills are going to be met.

But a big part of me is just: once you hold on to a question like, who owns the water? I would just love to let that go and see where that goes and *be present*. In planting and harvesting and making of the food and sitting around while we’re eating and talking about what happened to this place and getting into the history and having all that be one steady stream of learning.

But also, young people trying to understand their place better, and beginning to understand what it used to be and why it became the way it is and realizing that they can do something about it and actually moving to do something.

And then that’s just the beginning!

As soon as these kids write the resolution and present it, that’s just the beginning of their lives as citizens in that town!

Jeanie: And these kids were not empowered learners, necessarily. What I think we sometimes miss in thinking like, “Oh, but kids need. We need to make sure to march them through these standards.” You can tie the standards as learning and have much more meaningful experiences. They may take longer. It might be messier. But have *much* more meaningful experiences for kids who would otherwise be checked out.

Thierry: Right.

Jeanie: Who aren’t going to get there in the more traditional way.

Thierry: That’s right. Yeah. And what you just said brought to mind, I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”

Jeanie: Yeah. *laughs*

Thierry: Was it him? Because I think often, we let school get in the way of education. *laughs*

These students getting to claim the piece of themselves that was maybe lost with the diversion of the water. Is there anything more fundamental? Is there anything more fundamental. I enjoy the tension maybe. Maybe I’ll *grow* around that. It’s a different area of growth, of thinking, “But how are they going to get these standards? How are they going to get the standards?”

I think far more important, far more important that these kids develop that sense of place:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I here?
  • How does this place take care of me and how can I take care of this  place?

That it can continue doing the work that it does.

Jeanie: And, to me, what that means is that the standards are in service of this deeper thing, which is life in the world. Like that the standards have greater purpose and meaning. I think in Vermont one of the things I’m concerned about with climate change and global warming – one of the many things – is the maple trees. We have this concern that our climate may change enough that maple trees no longer grow in Vermont.

Thierry: Oh, my goodness.

Jeanie: And what does that mean for Vermonters, where maple is a big industry, it’s one of the cultural foundations of us as contemporary Vermonters. So, that would be an investigation it would seem to me that could tie into the standards, the science standards —

Thierry: Yes.

Jeanie: The NGSS standards or proficiencies, right?

Thierry: Yes!

Jeanie: Tie into language arts as you write about it and explore it, read about it. Get us into place, like that could draw us into history:

  • What’s the history of maple sugar in this country?
  • Where did it begin?
  • How does this play into our culture and get us involved in the world in a meaningful way?

Thierry: It pulls in the whole world. That question? That question pulls in the whole world. Climate change pulls in the whole world. Understanding it and educating the local community on it and its impact in our local culture and sense of place will be.

Jeanie: Thierry, I have this notion that if you and I spent a day together we could create a whole forest of Freirean trees.

Thierry: I was actually envisioning a space where we can have a lot of Freirean trees with… maybe people can put their issue? And then we can crowdsource what people think are the root causes. Just having it in public, with markers and chalk there so we can crowdsource.

Jeanie: Oh, I love the way you think.

Thierry: We need that forest of Freirean trees.

Jeanie: Listeners, we’re interested in what issues you would put on the trunk of your Freirean trees. In fact, if this episode goes live maybe Thierry and I will run a little twitter chat asking you what’s on the trunk of your Freirean tree? What Freirean tree do your students want to explore.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any other thoughts about Amy’s approach to place-based curriculum design in this marvelous little book? It’s so full of wisdom.

Thierry: I can close for myself by saying that I came across this little book maybe like a day before I was introduced to Amy. We went to the Phoenix Bookstore, and my partner, Whitney, was looking for books. I always go to the education section first, and then I saw this. It said place-based. I’ve never heard of the concept. Then I began flipping through it and I was seeing all these things that for me start to pull together what I think are my foundational learning philosophies. Critical pedagogy, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, which is, just simply put, about humanizing education. Human education that values its people as they come.

And then there is constructionism, which built off of Piaget’s constructivism, the idea that the material from which we build the next learning is cultural material. What we have, what we’re showing up with.   

Jeanie: And social. We build it together.

Thierry: It’s social learning. Everything that I’m going to build learning with in your classroom, when I come to your class, is what I already have. So, take time to figure out what I’m coming with.

Then the other philosophy that she was pulling from that I feel like this builds on is also Maria Montessori. The idea of humans being these self-constructing machines, self-constructing beings. From birth we’re moving, we’re purists, we’re trying to figure out the world. And that’s just how we’ve evolved to learn. So, we remain the same beings.

If whenever I find myself as a teacher trying to think of, “How can I create learning? How can I get this kid to do this? I know that I’m doing it wrong.” Because this kid, this child, this person is naturally developing towards something. They have interests, they have vectors on which they’re growing.

And if what I’m teaching is not on the path of their interest, then I need to get with the program and figure out where they’re growing towards.

Place, this philosophy, this place-based education the way Amy put it just brought all those things together. And the next day we met and I told her about it. I didn’t buy the book because I wasn’t working at the time, but she sent me a copy and yeah. I would say find the book, go get the book, or find one and talk to us about the book.

Jeanie: It’s such a delight to talk to you, looking across at you and watching the way you just combine the words about students learning with the word vector, and I just think that just sums you up as a person who has the brain of an engineer and a philosopher and a humanist in this really lovely way. It’s been such a delight to hear you think aloud and to socially construct new understanding for myself alongside you.

Thierry: The pleasure was mine. I’ve been looking forward to this and I hope we can have a couple more. Thank you for this conversation. It’s rejuvenating and I hope to carry this energy into my second year.

Jeanie: Yeah. Good luck in your second year at Winooski.

Thierry: Thank you.

4 thoughts on “#vted Reads: Place-Based Curriculum Design”

  1. This was such an enjoyable episode to listen to! The two of you are such deep thinkers, and it’s obvious you both really care about reaching students where they are, and really opening up learning to them. I was particularly struck by Thierry’s comments about how to create learning environments where students can think about the science of a place while still feeling that their religious beliefs are respected and made space for. Thank you both for this wonderful conversation. Off to read Amy’s book!

    1. Thanks so much for listening! Thierry offers a wonderful window into the lives of his students and how their lived experience enriches the classroom. And Amy’s book is full of ideas for how to connect the two and examples of educators doing just that. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. I just loved reading this episode! I’ll listen to it too. How incredible. This aligns with so many of my beliefs about education and the way you and Thierry engage with the discussion is so in-depth, clarifying, and inspiring Off to make my own Freirean trees and to find a copy of Amy’s book!

    1. Thanks so much, Katy! Thierry is such a thoughtful educator and thinker, I learned so much from him and from Amy’s book. I know you will find a lot of affinity with your work in Placed-based Curriculum Design! And I hope you will share your Freirean trees!

What do you think?