Bio: Sarah Anderson is an educator and author specializing in place-based education and curriculum design. Previously a middle school humanities teacher, Sarah is the fieldwork and place-based education coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon and the author of the book Bringing School to Life: Place-based Education across the Curriculum. In this interview, Sarah provides an overview of her experience with place-based education and outlines research interests for her doctoral work at SFU.
Within your main area of study, Educational Theory and Practice, you describe your focus as place-based education and curriculum design. Can you say more about what “place-based” means or what it involves?
For the last several years, I have been a place-based education practitioner. Place-based educators ground curricular units in the places where we live. Science, social studies, art, literacy, wellness, and more are framed and explored through local history, ecology, and current events. Students and educators work together to bring learning outside of the school and into communities by building partnerships with neighbouring organizations, agencies, businesses, and individuals. Students work on projects to benefit the school, land, and city, learning how to be responsible and caring members of a community.
Yet, while interest in place-based education is growing and much has been written on the theory of place and education, there is a gap between theory and practice. I see opportunities to examine the overlap between place-based education and other pedagogies, such as culturally responsive teaching.
What sparked your interest in this research focus? Are you branching out in any other ways?
My interest in place-based education came from my desire to create an educational environment that values and cares for community: both human and ecological. Growing up in a small rural town, I saw how our family relied heavily on others for support and collaboration. I also developed concerns about the power of wealthy interests and corporations to make decisions for the community that did not necessarily prioritize the health of the ecosystems or the people who lived in them. These influences led me to place-based education, which I practised as a middle school classroom teacher for nearly 10 years.
More recently, I had the opportunity to coach and train other teachers and to develop curricula. Through this work, I have become more aware of perceived barriers to disseminating a place-based approach. For this reason, I wish to focus my research on professional development—particularly on teacher support.
Do you draw from or are you building on previously published work, such as your book Bringing School to Life?
Yes, I certainly draw from my experience as a teacher and administrator—the basis of much of my writing to date. My book and related work also serve as a launching point for future research. Moving forward, I am interested in learning more about critical theory and Indigenous studies, as well as the experience of educators practising in other parts of the country and world-wide. What are the major barriers to bringing a place-based approach to schools? How can place-based education challenge traditional schooling (the status quo) by prioritizing community-building and reimaging concepts such as “rigour”? How can place-based practices foster students who value democracy and have the skills needed for creating a truly democratic system? And how can we support teachers who want to centre place and community in their practice with students?