May 9th, 2010

Sustainability and Schools: Educating for Interconnection, Adaptability, and Resilience

By Greg Smith

In my home state of Oregon it’s impossible to pick up the daily paper and not encounter some article that deals with concerns about environmental or social sustainability.  With climate change, dramatically increasing energy costs, economic instability, and growing worries about the availability and cost of food, journalists and the public are at last paying attention to issues that for decades were pushed to the margins of the nation’s collective consciousness.

This shift in public awareness has yet to have much impact on American schools where a preoccupation with testing remains the central concern of the day.  This should not surprise us.  Education tends to follow social trends rather than initiate them.  Given the rapidity with which changes are occurring in the environment and the economy, however, schools may need to take a more active role in preparing young people to address challenges posed by a warmer and oil-strapped world.  All of our futures could well depend on their capacity to respond to these new conditions with intelligence and a spirit of generosity and compassion.

Fortunately, some educators are now adopting teaching approaches that promise to help young people grapple with the dilemmas of civic involvement and problem solving.  Few teachers explicitly address climate change, rising fuel prices, or food shortages head-on; what they do instead is create learning experiences that engage students in community issues while preparing them to become actors more than consumers or victims.  I believe that these educators are laying the foundations of an education for sustainability and equity.

What I find reassuring is the frequency with which I encounter these educational innovators.  In the first few months of 2008, I heard stories about three schools where students are being drawn into experiences that demonstrate young people’s capacity to problem solve and act.  They represent the possible and demonstrate what thoughtful educators can accomplish despite funding dilemmas or the constraints of No Child Left Behind.

The first is from the Oregon City School for Service Learning, at the end of the Oregon Trail just south of Portland.[1] Students had been complaining about the awful taste of the drinking water at the school.  Interested in creating service learning opportunities that didn’t require transportation dollars, teachers encouraged them to do something about it.  The Oregon City students contacted the South Fork Water Board and asked for their help in conducting a variety of water tests.  To their surprise, they discovered that the water contained high levels of copper—safe but unpleasant to drink.  They assumed that the source of the copper was old plumbing in the building.

Students then investigated possible solutions, including retrofitting the building with new pipes.  Conversations with district officials convinced them that this latter option was prohibitively expensive, so they suggested that one of the drinking fountains be dedicated to include a water purification unit.  Students researched costs for installing and replenishing a Brita filtration system and presented their project to the School Board, requesting its support.  The Board and superintendent agreed with this solution, and the students no longer had to drink copper-laced water.  Reflecting on this experience, one student noted, “I had always been told that one person could ‘make a difference’ but never really understood what this meant.  Now I do, and I know that if I have a problem, and if I apply serious research to it and collect my facts along the way, that I will be taken seriously, and I can make a difference!”

I heard the second story from a middle school principal in Winnetka, Illinois while attending a conference north of Chicago.[2] He had brought a group of eighth-grade students to the North Dakota Study Group’s annual meeting to make a presentation about a project they had been involved with the year before.  In their social studies class, they learned that in 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. had delivered a speech about ending housing discrimination to approximately 10,000 people on the Winnetka Village Green.  After conducting a search, however, they could find no written documents about the speech in any libraries or on-line sources.

Working with their teacher, Cecilia Gigiolio, they developed a proposal to construct a historical marker at one corner of the Village Green to commemorate the speech.  They met with other civic groups to seek their support before presenting their ideas to the Winnetka Village Council.  After the council accepted their proposal, an unobtrusive monument was designed, funds were raised, and the monument installed.  Now future generations in Winnetka will be reminded about King’s speech every time they pass that corner of the Village Green.  Their teacher observed that this was one of the most powerful learning experiences she had ever orchestrated.

The third story is again from Oregon, this time in Cottage Grove in the southern Willamette Valley.  Earlier that year, I had a chance to spend an afternoon at the Kennedy School, a program that works with students who are credit deficient and in danger of dropping out.  Under the leadership of a young principal, Tom Horn, the school has gone through a transformation over the past couple of years, partly as a result of Horn’s efforts to reach out to families of his students, and partly because of the way teachers at the school are linking student learning to the needs of the community.  Students work in crews of 15 along with a teacher and are involved in a range of different projects.

In the spring of 2008, the school embarked on the development of a number of comprehensive garden sites around Cottage Grove, including the three trailer parks where many students live.  The locally-owned Territorial Seeds Company provided seeds, and students planted about 1,000 a week as starts in the school’s greenhouse.  These were then transplanted into garden sites as the weather warmed.  Another project involves working with the City of Cottage Grove to initiate wetlands mitigation efforts on industrial sites.  Students use native plants they propagate themselves, and the school receives compensation for their efforts.  This money is then used to pay for school trips to places like Utah where students engage in biological field studies.  The school’s work is resulting in regular press coverage and extensive public support as well as real engagement and excitement on the part of the school’s students.

I take a number of things from these stories that will weave throughout the remainder of this article.  The first is that the learning experiences they describe reflect issues that are important to students or important to their communities.  Second, in each of the stories, students were given the chance to develop competencies clearly transferable to the work of adults: research skills, communication skills, gardening skills, environmental restoration skills.  The answer to the question, “Why are we learning this?” was directly in front of students’ eyes.  Third, these experiences gave students the opportunity to learn how to work collaboratively as members of a team for important shared goals.  This kind of  collective endeavor is what often inspires people to continue to seek out similar opportunities for community involvement when they become adults.  Finally, these projects proved to the involved students that they could make a difference, that they had voice and power, and that their lives mattered.

What is sustainability?

So, what does all of this have to do with the creation of more sustainable communities?  Doesn’t sustainability mostly have to do with recycling and using less energy and fewer resources?  Of buying locally and organically?  Of building green schools and driving hybrids?  Of installing solar panels or purchasing green power?  Yes, sustainability has to do with all of these things, and all of these responses will need to come into play if we hope to reduce humanity’s ecological footprint and forestall some of the consequences associated with climate change, water and food shortages, or wars over diminishing resources like oil and natural gas.

But people seeking to grapple with these challenges are now arguing that more will need to be done than adopt different production methods and technologies.  We will also need to change the way that we interact with one another and the planet as well as—to borrow Einstein’s phrase–the way we think.  What I’d like to move on to next is a brief discussion about sustainability and then an exploration of an approach to curriculum development that focuses on giving students access to the kinds of experiences described above, learning experiences that I’ll argue may underlie changes in attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions related to what may be necessary to forge more sustainable societies.

The term sustainability began to be used with reference to the environment and society in the 1980s.  The most commonly cited definition is from a United Nations report published in 1987 entitled Our Common Future.  The authors of this report said that a sustainable society is one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[3] The initial concept of sustainability is very similar to the concept of sustainable yield from the field of forestry.  If a forest is managed sustainably, its long-term productivity over generations is never threatened by current cutting practices or levels.  If a society were to become sustainable, the same idea would be applied to all resources.

More recently, the notion of sustainability has been extended beyond resource use, itself, to the impact of industrial and agricultural production on people and the land.  In the late-1990s, British writer John Elkington introduced the concept of the triple bottom line, which asserts that when businesses assess their own activities they need to look not only at the financial bottom line but also at their impact on the environment and the human communities in which they operate.[4] This attention to economy, environment, and equity—the triple bottom line–has come to dominate most contemporary discussions about sustainability.  The primary advantage of this formulation is that it links the economy to the environment rather than setting these domains in opposition to one another.  Over the past decade, many major corporations and a number of European states have bought into this perspective, something that Toyota’s recent advertising campaign about its green practices demonstrates.[5]

In the Pacific Northwest, a program developed by a Swedish oncologist, Karl-Henrik Robert, has been especially influential in business and public discussions about sustainability.[6] Called the Natural Step, it provides a more specific way to think about the impact of economic activities on the environment and human communities. Working with a broad range of Swedish scientists, Robert articulated four system conditions necessary to achieve a sustainable society.  These are:

(1) No accumulation of toxic or potentially toxic materials from the earth’s crust

(2) No accumulation of toxic or potentially toxic human-made materials

(3) No destruction of habitat in ways that threaten species diversity or natural services

(4) Equitable distribution of resources to all human beings[7]

The Natural Step has found a North American home in Oregon where scores of corporations, architectural and engineering firms, and public agencies have adopted elements of Robert’s agenda.  These include nationally known firms such as Nike, Norm Thompson, Hewlett Packard as well as locally-focused Portland General Electric and TriMet (public transportation).  Although few of these organizations have truly embraced all of the system conditions, especially the fourth about equity, many are in other ways attempting to reduce the use of resources as well as pollution associated with their activities.  Their efforts are one of the main reasons that Oregon is on the global sustainability map.

Most mainstream discussions about sustainability focus on the economy and the kinds of technological and production changes mentioned earlier.  Other activists, however, share Einstein’s perspective about needing to change our way of thinking, especially our allegiance to an economy predicated on endless material growth and rising standards of living.  These are the people who argue that not only must we produce things in a more environmentally conscious way and distribute them equitably, we also need to consume less and organize our communities to assure that despite having less, the basic needs of a greater proportion of the world’s population are better met than they are today.[8]

These spokespeople argue that the planet simply does not contain enough trees or oil or fish or water to allow everyone to achieve the same standard of living as people in the United States, Europe, Japan, or the upper classes in China, India, and other parts of the developed world; residents of industrialized and industrializing nations will need to reduce the amount they consume and find other sources of meaning and security while being willing to share equitably the remaining resources that do exist.  Attempting to grapple with this dilemma may seem virtually impossible, but the advocates of this position suggest that if the basic needs of all are not met, human beings risk the creation of a fortress society in which a decreasing number of groups enjoy economic privileges which must be defended against a growing majority of impoverished and disenfranchised people—a situation that in many respects uncomfortably resembles our current circumstances.[9]

So what are humanity’s options?  This is where my initial stories come in.  My suspicion is that because contemporary conditions lie so far outside the ways of thinking that have created modern institutions and the expectations associated with them, humanity is going to need to invent or reclaim ways of being with one another and the Earth predicated on a recognition of planetary limits, our fundamental dependence on natural systems and other people, and a willingness to participate in the shaping of more sustainable cultures.  This transition seems unlikely to happen in Washington, D.C. or Tokyo or Brussels or Beijing.  People who have risen to positions of political and economic power in these global cities have done so because of their allegiance to systems that are now proving themselves to be unworkable.  These leaders also are showing less and less willingness to invest in the needs of common citizens.  The fact that people in New Orleans lived for years in formaldehyde-off-gassing FEMA trailers is a grim indicator of this possibility.  I suspect that if real change is going to happen it will be enacted by growing numbers of people acting locally like the students in Oregon City and Winnetka and Cottage Grove.

Climate change activist Ross Gelbspan—a former editor of the Boston Globe—says much the same thing.  Writing in the web-based environmental journal, Grist, he argues in an article entitled “Beyond the Point of No Return” that humanity’s response to climate change will necessarily have to be largely local—this is where human adaptations happen, and that if we wish to avoid descent into a world in which the wealthy are protected and supported by the Blackwaters and Haliburtons of the world, we must, to quote Gelbspan, “reorganize our social structures to reflect our most humane collective aspirations.”[10] This, I think, is the task that educators concerned about sustainability must take on: to surface those “most humane collective aspirations” and prepare students to reinvigorate our community and democratic processes while enacting the innovations required by changing planetary and social conditions.

What kind of people will be needed to move society in the direction of sustainability?

OK.  How might this be done?  This is where I’d like to turn to the subtitle of this article: “Educating for Interconnection, Adaptability, and Resilience.”  What do I mean?  First, the experience of interconnection seems to lie at the heart of ethical and caring behavior.  When people grasp the degree to which their own physical and psychic welfare is dependent on the welfare of others or the health of natural systems, they become much more likely to behave responsibly towards them and to take steps to protect them from harm.  Humanity’s higher aspirations tend to reflect this sense of interconnection and the desire to preserve and extend it.  The root of the word, religion, for example, means to bind together.  Absent that sense of being bound together, anything can go.

This is one of the reasons that nature writer Robert Michael Pyle worries about what he calls the “extinction of experience,” the fact that many children growing up today have such limited contact with the natural world.[11] Without that contact, Pyle fears that they will demonstrate little interest in preserving it.  The same could be said of children’s diminished contact with their communities.  What will lead them to care for those communities if most of their lives are spent in isolation from them—as they play video games, watch TV, or are safely sequestered in the aural cocoons of their i-Pods?  One thing educators can do to acquaint students with those higher collective aspirations is to make sure that students are given a chance to know their own communities and places well.

Second, human adaptability has been the characteristic that has allowed our species to populate the planet and survive as well as we have without the kinds of physical protections that permit other animals to successfully navigate the world.  The ability to adapt, however, depends on our ability to perceive what is happening around us accurately and to respond appropriately.  This is where awareness and intelligence come into play as well as the willingness to task risks and try new things.  People in the future will need to be able to observe, problem solve, and act in order to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change, resource exhaustion, an unstable economy, and the forms of social instability likely to accompany such events.  To prepare young people today for these challenges, they can be given opportunities to participate in efforts to address issues in their own schools and communities in an attempt to make them better places for everyone.

Finally, the difficulties students are likely to encounter in coming decades are almost certain to be daunting.  Dealing with them will require resilience, persistence, and determination.  Resilience is tied into the ability to keep coming back despite challenges, failure, or even the threat of failure.  Studies of resilience in children often point to their relationship to at least one person who has faith in their capacity to succeed and do well; that faith then contributes to their own self-efficacy.[12] A classic psychological exploration of resilience, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, argues that Nazi concentration camp survivors tended to be people who saw their personal experiences as linked to the experiences of others and a broader sense of meaning.[13] They were people whose own individual stories were folded into the stories of their communities and of life, itself. Engaging young people in learning activities that connect them to others and that give them an opportunity to address challenges to their community could potentially foster in them such resilience as well as a deep understanding of the satisfaction and sense of personal well-being that come with purposeful action in the company of others.

What contribution could educators make to the development of interconnection, adaptability, and resilience?

I can almost hear readers thinking, “Nice words, but what does this look like?”  Fortunately, I’ve spent a share of the past decade or so visiting schools and collecting stories that demonstrate how this kind of education might happen.  Although not all of the schools where this work is occurring would necessarily say they are directly confronting  issues of sustainability or cultural change, they are in different ways cultivating interconnection, adaptability, and resilience.  They are doing this by incorporating curriculum and instruction characterized by a focus on local and regional issues, oftentimes coupling this with opportunities for students to engage in projects that have value for the broader school or community.  Called place- or community-based education, this approach is aimed at developing in children a sense of relatedness to their own regions, familiarity with important local knowledge and issues, the capacity to act collectively with fellow students and outside-of-school partners to address community concerns, and a commitment to participatory citizenship and stewardship.  An additional benefit in our era of accountability and standards is the way these experiences are often associated with higher levels of academic engagement and achievement.[14]

In talking about place- or community-based education, I do not mean to suggest that all of a students’ school experience should focus on local knowledge or issues, but enough to draw them into a sense of community membership and connection to the natural world.  I am furthermore not suggesting that these kinds of educational experiences on their own will be a panacea for the challenges humanity will face in coming decades.  I believe, however, that adults who recognize their connectedness to others and the world, have learned how to adapt to changing conditions, and who possess the resilience needed to turn difficulties into opportunities will have a better chance of creating a sustainable society than people who have not developed these attributes or skills.

Nurturing interconnection. Now it’s time for more stories. Boston’s Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School models how connectedness can be cultivated in an urban setting.  In addition to focusing on math and science, the Young Achievers School also places social justice and environmental issues front and center in its curriculum development efforts.  During the 2007-2008 academic year, second graders invested much of their energy in an investigation of important community issues.  Students explored the experience of people living in Boston’s Chinatown, air quality issues and asthma rates, the role of public art murals and community health, and space needs at their own school.  In the spring, they shared their findings on WBUR’s weekly Saturday night radio show, Con Salsa, a public presentation that required high quality written work and speaking skills.  This experience provided both an incentive to develop literacy abilities as well as a self-esteem boost for all participants.[15]

I saw similar efforts to connect students to their places in Montgomery, Alabama, during a 2005 convocation of the Program for Academic and Cultural Excellence in Rural Schools (PACERS).[16] PACERS is a project that has been addressing educational and community development issues in rural Alabama since the 1990s.  Central to its efforts have been strategies to engage students in their communities in meaningful ways.  An especially powerful initiative involved giving students the skills and resources needed to become community journalists.  Throughout Alabama as well as other rural regions of the United States, small town papers have become a thing of the past.  Newspapers published in larger population centers rarely carry news of anything other than crimes or scores from athletic contests in outlying villages and towns.  It is difficult for citizens to get information about local issues that require their attention.  High school students in 21 communities took on the task of informing their families and neighbors about these issues and in the process developed both the skills of budding journalists and a sense of belonging to communities where their energy and attention and voices were listened to by adults.  One former student at the convocation—now a graphic designer for the daily paper in Montgomery—observed that when he was in high school three things were central to his world: God, family, and PACERS.

At the Wells Community School in Harrisville, New Hampshire, a second grade teacher has adopted an even simpler approach to connect her students to their place.  After moving to a new classroom, she noticed a stand of Eastern white pine two dozen yards away.  She decided to focus on nature observations throughout the year and thanks to a small grant bought kid-friendly field guides, binoculars, and a digital camera to help out with the project.  Students became eager participants, carefully keeping track of birds or other animals that passed by over the course of the year.  Following up on students’ suggestions, they built a brush pile and put out feeders to attract wildlife.  They then shared their findings with students in Italy and Brazil who were keeping similar records of animals and plants they encountered in their schoolyards through the web-based service provided by

In each of these examples, educators provided opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the human and other-than-human life of their communities and places.  By doing so, they created a space where students can develop the relationships that undergird both citizenship and stewardship.  Research conducted by the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative over the past six years points to the positive impact that learning experiences grounded in community issues and the natural world can have on students’ civic involvement, environmental awareness, and achievement.[17]

Cultivating adaptability. Cultivating adaptability can be more challenging.  Nurturing a sense of interconnection is generally non-threatening.  Problem-solving, innovation, and action can potentially lead to conflict and must be handled with thoughtfulness and tact.  Demands related to their discovery of high levels of copper in their school’s water supply in Oregon City, for example, could have alienated district officials if students hadn’t learned how to negotiate and been willing to consider multiple solutions to the problem they had identified.  Dealing with challenging issues both now and in the future requires such abilities.

A program called Promoting Resolutions with Integrity for a Sustainable Molokai (PRISM) is giving upper elementary and middle school students in Hawaii a chance to learn how to do this.[18] Created in the mid-1990s by two fifth- and sixth-grade teachers at the Kualapuu School, PRISM uses a process developed at the University of Southern Illinois called Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions.[19] The process requires students to identify all of the important groups concerned about a particular issue, uncovering their beliefs and values, and articulating their proposed solutions.  After gaining this knowledge and investigating the dimensions of an issue, students then begin to develop their own suggestions and the actions that follow from these.

At the beginning of the school year, teachers work with students to choose a topic that will be the focus of their inquiry for the next several months.  Students have studied and developed proposals about solid waste disposal at the school and on the island, the impact on native habitats of an expansion of the airport runway and ecotourism developments, the restoration of traditional Hawaiian fishponds, and emergency preparedness.  Students interview resource professionals, read technical documents and plans, and then create presentations for a two-day meeting generally held in the spring.  Parents and community members are invited to attend these.

Students’ work has come to influence adult involvement in these topics, leading family members who might not have seen themselves as activists to begin contributing their energy to the issues students have investigated.  Students also develop action plans.  They initiated a recycling program at the school that subsequently grew into an island-wide recycling program.  They wrote a bottle bill that was introduced but defeated in the Hawaii State Assembly.  They have engaged in the restoration of traditional fishponds and regularly write columns about their research in the island newspaper.

Students in other schools have taken on economic as well as environmental concerns, an issue that will be especially important when communities grapple with what it means to transition to a post-fossil fuel economy.  Howard, South Dakota, is located in the southeastern quadrant of the state.  Like many Midwestern communities, it has experienced a steady drop in population and job opportunities for decades.  In the mid-1990s, Randy Parry, a business teacher at the local high school, joined up with faculty at a local state college to write a grant to the Annenberg Rural Challenge aimed at creating more economic opportunities while doing so in ways that preserved the integrity of natural systems.  Awarded the grant, Perry proceeded to involve his students in their community’s economic life.[20]

One of their first projects involved surveying county residents about where they spent their money—in local businesses or in the nearest big towns of Mitchell or Sioux Falls.  They found that half of their respondents did most of their buying out of the county, depriving businesses of the multiplier effect that occurs when money is re-circulated locally.  They also asked survey respondents about what kinds of changes would lead them to spend more of their earnings in Howard’s businesses.  They learned that placing an ATM machine close to the stores would make a difference. After tallying the data, students let county residents know that if they spent only 10% more of their disposable income close to home, seven million additional dollars would be added to the regional economy and more sales tax revenue would be available for local government.  People listened, and over the next year, taxable sales in Miner County increased by $15.6 million–and then gradually stabilized at this level.

Through students’ collection of data and their development of plans and proposals, they are helping their community adapt to changing circumstances in ways that are allowing it to survive.  Similarly, on Molokai, students involved in the PRISM project are gaining the tools needed to make thoughtful decisions about how their island home can respond to development pressure from outside forces in ways that preserve the beauty and integrity of local ecosystems.

Developing resilience. In many respects, resilience could simply be one of the outcomes of educational experiences that connect children to others and their place and that give them the opportunity to use their lives and energies in activities that win them the respect and appreciation of their families and neighbors.  A final example, however, demonstrates how an exploration of local history in Montana affirmed for students their ability to deal with difficulties and contribute to the improvement of their communities.

In the mid-1990s Jeff Gruber, a Libby High School social studies teacher invited his students to participate in a community study aimed at surfacing information that might help them to figure out how to make good decisions about its future.  Libby at the time was experiencing even more challenging forms of economic disruption than Howard.  As in many places, conflicts and fears ran so deep that civic leaders avoided calling a public meeting to explore these issues.

Gruber and his students did what others could not.  They began a conversation about who Libby residents are, why they stay in Libby, what cultural resources they possess, and how they could make life better.[21] Students then embarked on an investigation that continued for a number of years.  One of their first projects involved collecting thousands of photographs from Libby and assembling them as an extended photo essay about the town’s future.  Other projects took students to the local plywood plant where they interviewed millworkers about their jobs and learned first hand about the steps that transform trees into wood products.  They wrote a pamphlet about what they learned, which to their and the millworkers’ surprise became an historical document, itself, when the mill was closed by Stimson Lumber in 2003.

Now deeply committed to their place, students were not prepared to take this event sitting down.  With their teacher, they prepared a presentation summarizing what they had learned about their community and took it to the headquarters of the Stimson and Plum Creek Lumber Companies in Portland.  As writer Michael Umphrey observes:

“. . . the kids did not imagine villains—their game was understanding.  In that spirit, they wanted the corporate officers to understand the sometimes devastating impact their actions had on the local community.  They were beginning to understand that one reason for learning was to find their voice.”[22] Students also developed a deeper understanding about the factors that had contributed to Libby’s continued survival.  As they reported in their presentation, “We looked to Libby’s past for answers to our current troubles.  But we didn’t find answers.  What we found was that life had always been difficult, but that our grandparents and great-grandparents had always found a way to help each other and get along.  And so will we.”[23]

In Libby and other Montana communities, young people have begun to realize that their success and well-being are intimately tied to the success and well-being of others, a story that is not regularly conveyed by the mainstream media.  From this story they are gaining a sense of resilience essential to the creation of more sustainable societies.  This story of mutual support and collective identity is exactly what Libby and other small towns like it will need if their current residents are to weather the storms of economic globalization and a declining natural resource base.

Stepping up to the plate and making it happen

In conclusion, I’d like to share one more story about the work of a high school teacher that has become a model for community regeneration worldwide.  It again points to the possible and serves as an exemplar of what educators concerned about the welfare of their communities and the planet can accomplish.  In the 1950s, Ari Ariyaratne taught in a high school in Colombo, Sri Lanka where he worked primarily with children of the upper class.  He realized that many of his students would become business or political leaders of the country, but that few of them had any personal knowledge about how most of their fellow citizens lived.  He started a community service program that involved taking students out to rural villages where they would ask people to brainstorm projects whose completion would make everyone’s lives better.  Not uncommonly, villagers would go to a file drawer and pull out requests that had been submitted to government officials but never addressed.[24]

Ariyaratne and his students would ask the villagers what resources they needed to complete projects—things like building cisterns or constructing a simple school or community center—and how many people would be required to do the job.  The students would then help them organize the event.  These school-based efforts eventually became an organization called Sarvodaya Shramadana that has operated in over 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka and has touched the lives of 11 million people.[25] A rough translation of sarvodaya shramadana is lifting everyone through the gift of labor.

What is especially significant about this program is its emphasis on uncovering community assets and cultivating participants’ faith in their own capacity to take positive action.  A central tenet of the program is that everyday people have the capacity to govern themselves and respond appropriately to the conditions of their lives when given the support and encouragement to do so.  After the tsunami in 2004, for example, people who had participated in Sarvodaya were not uncommonly those who created make-shift emergency kitchens or organized efforts to contribute clothing and other household items to people who had lost everything.[26] It is this kind of leadership that the coming decades with all of their projected economic and environmental uncertainty will demand of all communities.

As educators, I would suggest that the world now requires us to find ways to prepare our students for the roles they will need to play as citizens and stewards responsible for imagining and then creating new social and economics structures as well as technologies that truly represent humanity’s highest aspirations.  This is the way people will be able to grow cultures that are sustainable both ecologically and socially, cultures that will be worthy of our children for many generations to come.

I heard this story from Susan Abravanel, the education director of SOLV, an Oregon non-profit heavily involved in environmental restoration and service learning projects.

Dan Schwartz is a regular at the North Dakota Study Group meetings.  I heard this story from him in February, 2008 and later spoke with Cecilia Gigiolio, the teacher who saw this project through.

The text of Our Common Future can be accessed online at, retrieved on June 3, 2008.

John Elkington, Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Press, 1998.

See the March 31, 2008 issue of Time Magazine for an example of this.

Karl-Henrik Robert, The Natural Step Story: Seeding a Quiet Revolution, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, 2002.

Retrieved from on July 12, 2008.

See Wendell Berry’s article entitled “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits” in the May, 2008 Harpers Magazine (pp. 35-42) for a cogent and passionate presentation of this position as well as Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, New York: Holt, 2008.

Allen Hammond, Which World? Scenarios for the 21st Century, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1998.

Ross Gelbspan, “Beyond the Point of No Return,” Gristmill, December 11, 2007, paragraph 47, retrieved on June 4, 2008 from

Robert Michael Pyle, The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, New York: Lyons Press, 1993.

Reginald Clark, Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, New York: Washington Square Press.

See David Sobel’s Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms to Communities, Great Barrington, Mass.: Orion Press, 2004, and Gregory Smith’s “Place-Based Education: Learning to Be Where We Are,” Kappan, April 2003, for more complete descriptions of this approach and its possibilities.

Robert Hoppin, personal communication (e-mail), June 5, 2008.  Hoppin is a place-based education coordinator at the Young Achievers School.

John Shelton’s book, Consequential Learning, Montgomery: NewSouth Press, 2005, provides a description of many PACERS projects and the spirit that undergirds these

See , retrieved on July 3, 2008, for a full listing of research reports written by this organization.

Marie Cheak, Trudi Volk, and Harold Hungerford, Molokai: An Investment in Children, the Community, and the Environment, Champaign, Ill.: Stipes Publishing, 2002.

John Ramsey, Harold Hungerford, and Trudi Volk, “A Technique for Analyzing Environmental Issues,” in Harold Hungerford, William Blumm, Trudi Volk, and John Ramsey (editors), Essential Readings in Environmental Education Champaign, Ill.: Stipes Pubishing), pp. 190-195.

Rural School and Community Trust President Rachel Tompkins provides a history of this project in “Overlooked Opportunity: Students, Educators, and Education Advocates Contributing to Community and Economic Development,” a chapter in David Gruenewald and Gregory Smith’s (editors), Place-Based Education in the Global Age: Local Diversity (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008), pp. 173-196.

This story is drawn from Michael Umphrey’s volume, The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place, Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

Umphrey, p. 6.

Umphrey, p. 8.

Joanna Macy, Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement, West Hartford, Conn: Kumarian Press, 1983.

See for more information.  Retrieved on July 12, 2008.

Sharif Abdullah, personal communication.  Abdullah is an American social activist and writer who has acted as a consultant to the Sarvodaya organization for more than a decade.

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  1. Kathy says:

    The stories within offer enriching and positive examples of place-based education in action. In each one, a little bit of the world is restored, and the quality of life for many is uplifted. The collaboration between the students and the communities in which they work teaches deeply valuable lessons, most notably, the students learn how to use their collective voices and knowledge to do good work in this world. I complete the reading of this article with much hope for our future.

  2. Greg Smith Greg Smith says:

    Hi Kathy,

    Thanks for your response. I just spent three days at the Kennedy School mentioned in the article. The visit confirmed the value of this approach. I’ll be writing an article about the school this summer.


    Greg Smith