An Educator’s Story: Connection is at the Heart of Place-based Education

Vanessa Stern is a fourth-grade educator at the Union Street School in Springfield, Vermont.

On the Black River in Downtown Springfield, Vermont, just below Comtu Falls, is Grout Park — a tranquil spot and community gem. Springfield resident Harold Grout spent many volunteer hours cleaning up and removing invasives from the shared space. The park was named in honor of Grout and his commitment.

Just like Mr. Grout before them, Vanessa Stern’s fourth-grade class at the Union Street School found the personal and practical benefits of land stewardship. Stern knows her students have a more meaningful learning experience when they have the opportunity to recognize a lesson’s relevance to their own community and self. Grout Park was a perfect project to encompass these ideas.

Leading up to the park’s dedication, Stern’s class visited every Friday; they met with state foresters, studied soil and macroinvertebrates, and created wayside exhibits. Topics for the new waysides were chosen and researched by students, then donated to Mr. Grout. 

At the heart of place-based education is connection. The fourth-grade class took it upon themselves to organize the presentation of the wayside exhibits, collaborating and taking ownership of the project together. In these efforts, Stern’s class connected to the park, the ideas and the science it represents, and the Springfield community.

At the heart of place-based education is connection.

These community partnerships, says Stern, are indispensable. When creating a school pollinator garden, the local hardware store and the garden club were happy to collaborate and contribute. Stern explains how valuable it is to have new voices and viewpoints in the classroom, including members of the historical society and the class’ Assistant Teacher, the latter of whom helped Stern open the narrative for discussions on Indigenous people and land, social justice, poverty, and climate change. 

Stern recognizes that some of these conversations are formidable, especially for 10-year-olds, but necessary given the embedded and systemic issues within the school population. She estimates that 85% of her students have “big troubles,” already facing hardships of their own, and that these troubles don’t stay at home; they follow students to school, impacting their academic and social lives. 

There’s evidence that factors like hunger and stress influence standardized testing performance (Berwick 2019). And if 17 out of 20 kids in Stern’s class are dealing with similar issues, what then? Is their intelligence being accurately represented by test scores? Regardless, Stern must prepare students for this mandatory testing, which, she shares, has indisputably impacted the way she teaches. As the focus on testing increases, her freedom to implement play and place has been reduced. Another hurdle for Stern is what she describes as an almost addictive relationship her students have to technology, which she connects to shorter attention spans and patience levels. The need for instant gratification, she says, is prominent.
Despite the challenges, Stern is committed to her students’ wellbeing; she loves them and wants to support them in having productive and joyous lives. To Stern, it’s obvious that the time they spend outdoors making connections is influential. The most common response when students are asked what their favorite experience was at the end of the year? The forest. Mr. Grout would be proud.

Project City Springfield
Project State Vermont
Project School Union Street School
Pedagogical Area
  • place-based education, environment as integrating context (EIC)
  • outdoor education, experiential education
  • education for sustainability
Subject Area
  • environmental science, environmental studies, ecological restoration
  • agriculture, plant and soil science, food systems
Outcome Area
  • stewardship behavior
  • community change
Participant Area
  • student
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)