Grounding Learning in Place: Three Case Studies Show How to Grow Passionate Local Leaders and Activists

By Smith, Gregory | World Watch, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Grounding Learning in Place: Three Case Studies Show How to Grow Passionate Local Leaders and Activists


Smith, Gregory, World Watch


In Coffeeville, Oakman, and 19 other communities in rural Alabama, secondary school students have taken on the task of publishing community newspapers in towns where local journalists closed up shop decades ago. With the support of PACERS (Program for Academic and Cultural Excellence in Rural Schools), an initiative underwritten initially by the Ford and Annenberg Foundations, they gain the skills of media professionals and the commitment of engaged citizens.

PACERS, in short, generates passion. At a May 2005 convocation celebrating the program's accomplishments, student Ozzie Pugh said that attending a PACERS event was like coming to a family reunion. "PACERS is a life source, a guide," said Pugh, now a graphic artist for a local paper in Montgomery, Alabama. "It taught us to help ourselves, to come up with ideas, to come up with a medium that helped our community. It gave students a chance to create voice."

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Like Pugh, Laura Pittman, then a senior at Oakman High School, also spoke of voice. "I'm not talking about me speaking to you, I'm talking about that silent voice you hear when you read," she said, "where somebody has gone out and researched an issue, or investigated something.... We help others determine what they want to believe. It has helped me feel proud when people in the community come up and say that my article helped them to decide where they stand."

PACERS "graduate" Fred Fluker, now on the staff of the Detroit Free Press, said that the opportunity to participate in the community newspaper project transformed his, and his classmates,' identities. Instead of being passive students, they became "active citizens, public servants, and professional journalists, providing a voice for our community." The citizens of Coffeeville quickly warmed to their work. Adults began to congratulate them for their efforts and, being sensitive to their new role, the students made sure their work was worthy of praise. At one point, Fluker and his peers decided not to distribute an issue because it contained too many grammatical errors. They knew that a failure to meet high standards would affect their capacity to fulfill their community responsibilities.

Reclaiming a Place for the Local

PACERS represents an emerging approach to curriculum development called place- or community-based education, which seeks to link classrooms more tightly to their communities and regions. In addition to the journalism project described above, PACERS has helped encourage teachers to document local art and history, to work with students to create new businesses, and to strengthen the teaching of science through the development of aquaculture and gardening projects. Place-based education works to cultivate students' knowledge of the unique characteristics of their home communities and to engage them in meaningful and authentic work. It begins with the belief that young people will be more likely to invest their time and energy in the care and support of the places where they live if they are familiar with local assets and come to see themselves as valued contributors to the common life of their families and neighbors.

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Humanity faces major global challenges, and it is becoming increasingly clear that neither nation states nor transnational corporations display much willingness to invest the energy or resources needed to seriously address issues such as climate change, the peaking of oil production, or the dislocations caused by economic globalization. Major cultural and social adaptations will be required in coming decades if the wellbeing of human populations and the integrity of natural systems are to be protected and improved. It is not surprising that those who have the most at stake in the status quo are reluctant to embark upon a transformational agenda that could threaten their privilege and power. This means that meaningful change must take place outside the centers of current political and economic authority--and those places include the neighborhoods and communities where most citizens lead their lives. …

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