Story and photos by Aaron Scott
At the Dewey Short Visitor Center above Missouri's Table Rock Dam, a group of young educators examined their autumnal surroundings and began to wonder. How deep is the water? What species of fish can be found in the lake? How do the turbines work? These are not merely questions that can be answered through a scientific approach—these are questions about place.
Leslie Cook, Senior Director of Educator Development at Teton Science Schools (TSS) in Jackson, Wyo., led members of the Ozarks Teacher Corps through the exploration during a workshop on Oct. 26 with help from Dr. Kate Muir Welsh, a professor at the University of Wyoming. They stressed the importance that everyone consider the place they live special.
“Either all places are special, or no places are special,” said Cook. By exploring the places they call home, students can better understand the unique elements that define their communities. To reach this understanding, Cook uses TSS’s inquiry model to apply the scientific method to place-based education.
Place-based education is a core value of the Rural Schools Partnership, a decade-long Community Foundation of the Ozarks initiative. Learning about one’s place can improve students’ engagement with the local community. In turn, place-based education can also help them recognize a connection to the rest of the world, an important lesson for students in small towns whose rural communities can often seem isolated.
Two experienced educators — Wayne Stewart, Superintendent at Glenwood R-8 Schools, and Dr. Shirley Lawler, Chancellor at Missouri State University–West Plains — sat among the OTC members for a first-hand experience of TSS’s inquiry model.
The Glenwood school district has dabbled with place-based education in the past, participating in the Placeworks Arts Outreach program and constructing a community garden. But after Stewart recently initiated an overhaul of the district’s science curriculum, TSS’s Place Network Schools program appealed to him.
“We’ve been looking for something in science, because our science isn’t what we wanted it to be,” he says. “We’re looking for better ideas.”
There are plenty of opportunities to apply a place-based science curriculum around Glenwood’s service area. Encompassing the area directly south of West Plains, the K–8 district is a short bus ride away from a number of Ozarks wonders, like the North Fork of the White River, Eleven Point River, Grand Gulf State Park and Mammoth Spring.
“I think, in the area where we live, we have an abundance of natural resources that kids take for granted and don’t realize what a special place they live in,” Stewart says. “I hope to give them greater appreciation for the place where they do live, and the assets that we have that can’t necessarily be defined by dollars.”
Lawler attended the workshop to see how place-based education can be used by members of the Ozarks Teacher Corps, many of whom attend MSU–West Plains. The college has an agreement with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks to offer scholarships to education students willing to teach in a rural school district for three years. Lawler knows from personal experience the importance of curriculum tailored to a rural setting.
“I grew up in Wright County, in Hartville, so I understand that a K–12, very rural setting is a different culture,” Lawler says. “We really need to develop strategies to help those students look at the world, to appreciate locally but to think globally.”
Lawler believes the scholarship opportunities through the Ozarks Teacher Corps will have a long-term benefit for rural communities across south-central Missouri.
“We want to go out to the 27 area high schools in our specific region of the state and encourage high school students, finishing up, to major in teacher education,” she says. “Most of our teacher-education students want the degree, but they want to stay home. They want to come back to Ava or Gainesville, Mansfield, Hartville, Lebanon, and teach.”
After having a taste of TSS’s inquiry model, Lawler sees how place-based education can be an exceptional tool for these educators as they return to rural communities.
“I think they’re more successful when they have some insight into the community and to the culture,” says Lawler. “Equipping young teachers with the skillset they need to go in and make certain that those students are successful and want to think outside their community.”
It’s that worldview for K–12 students, both of the community around them and their connection to the wider world, that the inquiry model and placed-based education helps expand.
Below: left, Dr. Shirley Lawler; right, Wayne Stewart.
Editor's Note: Aaron Scott is the director of marketing and communications for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, which is a founding partner of the Rural Schools Collaborative. The nationally recognized Ozarks Teacher Corps has a placement and retention rate of 93%, and it is an exemplary model for RSC's ongoing work to develop the Rural Teacher Corps concept. The Rural Schools Collaborative is proud to support Teton Sciences Schools Place Network Schools, and we thank TSS for anchoring our Northern Rockies Hub.
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