What do polishing brass lights, planting trees, riding bikes on the canal towpath and visiting the White House have in common? They are all activities used to get students involved with learning about places and problems close to them. Students at Nittany Valley Charter School step outside of their classroom to make learning real on a regular basis.
Seeing, touching and interacting with a place and all there is to see helps students understand the importance of that place. They detect real problems that they can work to solve. Last year the school’s Helping Our Earth Field Project was an excellent example of “place-based learning,” a new initiative in education. That successful, all-school undertaking was recognized by the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Environmental Education.
But NVCS uses place-based learning for more than just environmental studies. For the past three years, students in the upper grades have begun the school year making history real by going on location. It all began with an overnight stay at the Lincoln Motor Court on the Lincoln Highway near Bedford. Students helped the owners polish old brass fixtures and install a new sign before touring the highway and its many famous tourist attractions. All of the changes to our country since the time the Lincoln Highway first spanned the continent just more than 100 years ago provided motivational projects for student learning for months after the overnight stay.
Students next focused on the Mainline Canal. Looking back to the time before highways, visits to various sights along the previous waterway helped make the canal experience real to students. Walking on a path through the “Narrows,” visiting the National Historic Portage Railroad museum, engine house, Lemon House and bicycling 11 miles along the old towpath of the canal helped even the most concrete learner visualize the days of canals in this country. Again, related projects back at school took on a new meaning for students.
Venturing a little farther away from school, students spent three days in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with studies on government and history. Each student was challenged to identify the features of the capital city that were most significant to them. Using digital photography and old fashioned journals, students kept notes of what they saw as they toured museums, monuments, the Archives, the Capitol and the White House. Students developed a new appreciation for their government and their country and look forward to many related research projects back in the classroom. At NVCS, we feel that visiting the “place” helps to build an excitement for learning that a book or computer can’t quite match.
Carolyn Maroncelli is the founder of Nittany Valley Charter School and a classroom teacher.