Commentary

Teaching Students to Care About a Place

Erika Mitkus – Governor’s Academy
Published on
February 23, 2024
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One of the joys of working in education is that each year has predictable touchstones. At my school, The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, summer brings the close of another academic year, and fall brings the opportunity for a fresh start. I’ve never felt that “fall energy” more keenly than this past September, when I stood at the doors at the new Bill ’67 and Peter ’71 Alfond Coastal Research Center and welcomed students. It wasn’t just the first day of school; it was a new beginning for the academic program.

The Governor’s Academy is the oldest boarding school in New England, with centuries of tradition. When I was hired in 2018 as a science teacher, I was worried that the school’s pedagogies might be more in-line with the 19th century than the 21st. I’m glad to say I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I arrived, the school was planning a new facility on the banks of the Parker River, with a focus on the Great Marsh. Having grown up in this ecosystem, I started sketching out projects that would give my biology classes reasons to use the new research center. Only a few years later, when the Alfond Center became a reality, I was asked to take on the role of the Inaugural Director of the Bass Institute. As the intellectual center of experiential teaching and research initiatives at Governor’s, the Bass Institute is at the forefront of an educational philosophy I am deeply invested in: place-based learning.

Our student body is from near and far–from Byfield to Beijing. No matter their background, students will use a certain location – in this case, the Great Marsh and the communities around it – to generate questions, create partnerships, and ultimately dig deeply into ideas that have implications far beyond our little corner of the world.

What does this look like in practice? In the six months since we opened the Alfond Center, we’ve been busy trying to answer that question. We’ve partnered with ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards, to help bring their message of “Every Day is Earth Day” to our students. Our students were able to host a meeting with the ACES board, sharing their vision of youth environmental leadership. We’ve partnered with the Museum of Ould Newbury to host a day-long open conference, “History and Cultures of the Great Marsh.” Just today, I met with a group of students about creating a nature walk on campus, sent emails about a potential Parker River Action Day, and oversaw an evening boat-building class with the owner of Lowell’s Boat Shop.

Why do I believe in place-based learning? During their Ecology Unit, our ninth grade biology students caught mummichogs, identified plants, and reviewed data on invasive species with scientists from Mass Audubon. Afterward, one of my local students told me that although she initially had never noticed the invasive plant Phragmites, now she was seeing it everywhere. “My dad didn’t even know what it was, but I told him all about it!” she said triumphantly. She had moved from passively learning about something abstract - invasive species - to figuring out how they were affecting her hometown.

This interaction is a perfect example of how digging more deeply into a place can empower students to start conversations, educate others, and sharpen their observations of the world around them. To paraphrase Professor David Sobel, an advocate of place-based education, we must teach students to care about a place before we ask them to protect it.

The students and the adults in our community still have a lot of learning and experimentation ahead of us. I am excited to continue digging deeply into this place that we all call home. Erika Mitkus is the Director of the Bass Institute at Governor’s Academy and can be reached at emitkus@govsacademy.org

ACES Youth Corps members hope that you will share any ideas about how we can help more people understand the importance of place and write to acesnewburyport@gmail.com

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