From “The Forest” to “Our Forest”: A Q&A with Teacher Amanda Frank

Amanda Frank is a science teacher at Springfield High School in Vermont.
 
Please describe what PBE looks like in your classroom.
 
Over the past few years, I designed and began teaching a high school science course called “A Walk on the Wild Side: Nature, Community, and Environmental Research.” While the course is still a work in progress and changes each semester, it’s grounded in place-based education. 
 
My philosophy of education has roots in the work of authors like Richard Louv, David W. Orr, and David Sobel. Therefore, as a science teacher, engaging students in place-based education involves helping them re-build intimacy with nature. Intimacy suggests love, respect, honor, and fidelity, as well as a kind of dirtiness, a grubbiness, a secrecy where private moments and private bonds occur. Building such intimate knowledge of nature entails getting your hands dirty and exceeds the facts and narrations that fit neatly into textbooks. Though, or because, I’m a high school teacher, many of my students come to me sorely lacking an intimate relationship with nature. Therefore, place-based education starts, first and foremost, with an intimate exploration of the forest and pond directly behind our school. We build forts and catch frogs, make maps and climb trees, observe silently and not-so silently, and come back inside with grinning faces, dirt under the fingernails, and a rekindled joy that comes from knowing and loving your place. 

Building such intimate knowledge of nature entails getting your hands dirty and exceeds the facts and narrations that fit neatly into textbooks. 

But, we cannot spend all of our time mucking about intimately with nature; we as humans have some global “repairs” to make. Thus, it’s my job to turn student focus from their individual relationships with the environment to the human relationship with the environment. At this point, my task becomes one of helping students see the science in their observations and wonderings; I must help students turn their “dirt” into questions, their questions into methods, their methods into skills, their skills into knowledge, and, ideally, their knowledge back into a new topic of inquiry. 
 
Over the course of using place-based education, my students have mapped the school forest and determined the forest’s species composition, natural community type, successional stage, and environmental conditions. Additionally, they’ve predicted future impacts of climate change and invasive species on the health of the forest. Students have investigated how natural resources have shaped human settlement and use, from post-glacial indigenous populations to current, of the Springfield area. We’ve compared and contrasted Springfield’s landscape both built and natural over time. 
 
Why do you incorporate PBE into your curriculum? What benefits are most important to you and why?
 
By asking scientific questions about their own backyard and then answering these questions with their own hands, eyes, ears, noses, and minds, students become scientists with an ever-growing expertise on the immediate world they actually inhabit. Science should originate in the field but arrive at abstractions, not the other way around. To wholly understand their environment, students must recognize that universal concepts govern all natural systems. As I encourage my students to ask and answer questions, I guide them so that we balance practical inquiry (the way things work) with the theoretical (how or why something works the way it works) and the predictive (how might other things work). 
 
How do you measure success related to your PBE work?  
 
I measure success in many ways. First, the science learning students do while engaged in place-based learning is assessed with the official proficiency scales our science department designed for assessing the Next Generation Science Standards’ disciplinary core ideas and the science/engineering practices. We also assess transferable skills like effective communication, initiative and independence, and responsible citizenship, and non-academic skills such as respect, integrity, and engagement using a school-wide rubric. 
 
Maybe more importantly, I’m always assessing my students every second of every class by watching their eyes, faces, and body language. How engaged are students in what they’re doing at that moment? Is the day’s work too easy, too tough, or just right to require productive struggle? Are the kids having fun while they work or are they too frustrated to make progress? I know I’ve been successful as a teacher when the different indicators of achievement ー from the proficiency score in the gradebook to a glint in an eye and mud under fingernails ー all align.
 
Within your work, can you provide examples of how you might cultivate a sense of belonging to the land and community?
 
In order to help students strengthen their sense of belonging to the community and land, I try to get them to see these things, which they’ve often looked at for so long, through a new lens. With the land that’s often a lens of wonder and curiosity that was last used early in their childhood. Just getting outside for the sake of being outside goes a long way: wandering, listening, watching, smelling, sometimes tasting. Building forts, getting wet and muddy, climbing trees. Catching frogs and salamanders, watching the mind-boggling work of ant colonies, learning to identify local trees and plants. Testing water quality, collecting and analyzing core samples from the trees in our forest and the sediments in our local bog. We build slowly from wonder to questions to analysis and answers. All the while students develop a relationship with the land; language changes ー it begins as “the forest,” but before long, is “our forest.”  

All the while students develop a relationship with the land; language changes ー it begins as “the forest,” but before long, is “our forest.”  

In terms of connection to the community, I try to help students see Springfield through its past. We explore why people ever settled there in the first place (likely due to the location at the confluence of the Black and Connecticut Rivers) and learn that archeological evidence identifies the Skitchewaug site, with the Connecticut’s alluvial soil, as the earliest site for agriculture in Northern New England. We look at how Springfield’s location, at the mouth of the Black River, would make it a starting or ending point for an east-west travel corridor from the Connecticut Valley to the Champlain. By tracing the use of natural resources in the area, we watch the powerful history of Springfield unfold. Situating students in this natural and cultural history seems to give them hope. 
 
What have been some of your challenges with this work? How have you responded to these challenges?
 
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have supportive administrators and colleagues. Probably my biggest challenge has been finding the time to design my place-based course, and it continues to be finding the time to revise the course as necessary. I’m constantly reflecting on my work and wanting to do things better. 
 
What gives you hope?
 
My students give me hope. If they didn’t, I’d have quit teaching long ago. For example, a couple years ago I had a student who, on one of the first days of class, left his paper blank when I asked them to draw or reflect on a place ー indoor, outdoor, current, past, anything ー that has special meaning to them. I thought he was just avoiding the work, but upon talking with him, it became clear that he never truly felt that way. Over the first week or so of the class he barely participated: he’d never spent much time outdoors before and sort of just trudged along, head down, when we’d go out into the forest. I couldn’t drag observations out of him; his written responses were no more than a word or two. 
 
Then one day, as we were heading back into school at the end of class, I heard him calling me rather frantically from near a tree at the edge of the woods. My first thought was that he was hurt. Instead, he was watching a wasp fly through the air carrying a huge caterpillar. And he was awestruck, fully and completely captivated. That wasp flipped a switch for this kid. Basically overnight he developed a deep interest in “our” forest and all of its life forms. A couple weeks later, teachers from another school came to visit. They accompanied us as the students went about their work in the woods. Instead of dragging his feet, this student made himself their self-appointed guide, overflowing with exuberance and wonder. I’m pretty sure I had to quickly blink away a tear when he bounded up to me and declared, “Mrs. Frank, we HAVE to take them to see our giant aspen!”

Project City Springfield
Project State Vermont
Project School Springfield High School
Pedagogical Area
  • place-based education, environment as integrating context (EIC)
  • outdoor education, experiential education
Subject Area
  • science, math, engineering, technology (STEM)
Outcome Area
  • academic performance
  • environmental knowledge, attitude and awareness
  • stewardship behavior
  • environmental change
Participant Area
  • student
  • educator
Age Area
  • high school (14-18 years old)