Article

Educating in Places, Not Spaces

by Gail Heffner and Dave Warners

Introduction

Geographer Mark Bjelland notes that a space is simply a set of geographic coordinates, whereas a place is a location that has become meaningful through human habitation. He goes on to define places as having three elements: (1) a material setting, (2) a set of social relationships, and (3) lived experiences that impart personal and shared meanings (Bjelland 174). We contend that schools occupy places, not spaces, and a worthwhile question to ask is, How can education happen such that the place in which it occurs is enhanced because the learning happens there?

Another way to think about this is to ask: Are the residents or businesses, farmers, churches or apartment dwellers grateful that they are located near your school? Is the neighborhood or environment within which the school exists utilized in ways that enhance the education of the students? And is the learning that the school promotes done so in a way that benefits the broader community in which the school belongs? These kinds of questions and the approach they encourage has been referred to as Place-­Based Education (PBE; Sobel).

Reciprocity of Place-­Based Education

When done well, PBE is a reciprocal arrangement. It focuses on the many relationships in which a school is involved—many that are necessarily present simply due to the proximity of the school and the residents, businesses, churches, and so on, who are located in the immediate vicinity of the school. PBE is an approach that recognizes those relationships, wakes them up, and engages and nurtures them to the betterment of both the learning and the community itself.

As an example, consider a history class in which students interview local senior citizens. When done well, this interaction will affirm the value of those being interviewed, and it will add meaning (in ways a textbook never could) to the history lesson learned by the students. Inviting the interviewees with their families to an event where students present the stories they’ve recorded would further enfold these neighbors into the learning process. The relationships forged through such an assignment could lead to further opportunities for learning and for service, all of which advances the well being of the community in which the school resides.

Places are More than Human

While spaces become places because of human habitation, it is important to recognize that not all relationships in a place are social relationships. For humanity to thrive, healthy relationships with the non-­human creation are required. This is true not only for our basic physical needs (clean air, clean water, food, etc.) but also for our psychological, emotional, and spiritual well being (see emerging fields of ecopsychology and environmental neuroscience).

Recognizing how creationally embedded we are in our places raises additional possibilities for engaging in PBE. How can students make use of the school grounds and broader neighborhood to understand the natural history and current-­day ecology of their place? How can a school’s campus be cared for in ways that invite back elements of local biodiversity that previously occupied the area? How can the school building and grounds together become managed in ways that work toward carbon neutrality or net-­zero waste? Can a garden be created to highlight native plants that were used by local indigenous tribes?

This expansive way of understanding the human presence aligns with Reformed teaching that all of creation belongs to God (Ps. 24:1), that God’s deep love and continued providence is extended to all creation (John 3:16), and that God’s people have the privilege of tending to and delighting in God’s creation (Gen. 1:26; 2:15). These principles provide a framework for paying attention to the places within which we dwell and for situating our educational institutions compassionately within those places. The hopeful vision of a full and vibrant creation in which all relationships are brought back to reflect their created integrity offers a compelling vision for Christian educators.

Re-­Inhabiting a Place

Some education scholars promoting PBE advocate for teachers and students to think about ways they can re-­inhabit their places—that is, to pursue the kind of action that intentionally and often directly works to improve the social, economic, political, and ecological life of places, both now and in the future (see Bowers; Braid and Long; Smith and Williams; Heffner and Beversluis). According to David Gruenewald, this approach does two things: first, it seeks to “identify, recover, and create” opportunities to live well in our environments, and second, it seeks “to identify and change ways of thinking [and being] that injure and exploit” (9).

Learning how to re-­inhabit our place requires developing the ability to notice, pay attention to, and care for what is right around us. It asks us to invest ourselves academically, as well as personally. When our places show signs of disruption and brokenness, these wounds should call to us; we should feel troubled because they indicate our places aren’t right. As Christian educators, caring for our place is not something we should leave for others or resign to do after hours or on the weekends. Instead, our teaching and learning can be a means through which God’s love flows. For this to happen, a critical first step is to learn about the specific strengths and needs of the people and the places wherein our schools dwell.

David Warners is a professor of biology at Calvin University. He is a co-editor of the recently published Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care. Together with Gail Heffner, he co-directs Plaster Creek Stewards, a community-based watershed restoration initiative. David has also been working with Garrett Crow on a field-based retrospective assessment of Emma Cole’s 1901, Grand Rapids Flora.

Gail Gunst Heffner is a member of the faculty at Calvin University, currently serving as the Director of Community Engagement in the Office of the Provost.  Her PhD is in Urban Studies and Resource Development from Michigan State University. Her most recent publication is a chapter on environmental racism for a new book, Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care.  Gail and Dave are co-founders and co-directors of Plaster Creek Stewards, a community-based watershed restoration initiative in West Michigan. Plaster Creek Stewards focus on education, research, and on-the-ground restoration of the health and beauty of Plaster Creek, the most contaminated urban waterway in West Michigan.  Plaster Creek Stewards celebrated their tenth anniversary in 2019.

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