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Every Voice Matters: Michael Goodwin on Place-Based Education

Schools are often places filled with barriers between different kinds of knowledge, between people with different backgrounds, and between activity inside vs. outside the classroom. What would a school look like that consciously sought to dismantle such barriers? Educator Michael Goodwin and his students have set out to answer this question, and the result is a provocative vision of place-based interdisciplinary learning in a student-centered classroom. Dubbed the Rivers and Revolutions program, a semester-long “school-within-a-school” at Concord-Carlisle High School, Goodwin works alongside students, administrators, and fellow instructors to break down barriers and transform them into productive ways of understanding the world.

Like the interdisciplinary work at the heart of CHE, Goodwin asks: How is one’s understanding of a place enriched when explored through the lenses of math, science, art and literature? How can a school be a space where everyone feels safe to be their full selves? Michael and I sat down for a conversation after his keynote address at UW-Madison’s Center for Culture, History and Environment Graduate Student Symposium, during which his core belief about education came through clearly: that every individual has an equal amount to offer.

Andy Davey: I really like the language you use to talk about interdisciplinary learning—that disciplines are lenses through which to see the world. Could you elaborate on that metaphor?

Michael Goodwin: When I introduce students to the concept “how is life like the water in a river?” I put on one pair of sunglasses: here are my science shades and I’m looking at the hydrologic cycle and on top of those I’m going to put math shades. The goal of interdisciplinarity is ultimately to get to the point where you can wear multiple glasses at the same time so you really start to develop a habit of mind to be able to truly look at this through all these different lenses. Yes, it’s about how different disciplines relate to one another, but probably more importantly how different people’s perspectives in the world relate to one another: where they overlap, where they don’t. If you can start looking at it through a disciplinary approach it become a way to think about human interaction in general. Annie Dillard has this beautiful moment where she says, “what’s the difference between a physics lab and a cathedral? Are not they both saying hello?” So frequently in our discourse we tend to think that science and religion are competing impulses—not to say they are one and the same; there are some differences—but maybe what compels somebody to enter a physics laboratory is the exact same thing that compels somebody to enter a church. Trying to connect to something larger, trying to understand something larger, trying to understand what it means to be a human being.

AD: In your approach to teaching, like in much of place-based education, you emphasize synthesis over fragmentation, but you’ve also talked a lot about diversity and difference. Could you say a little more about navigating that tension, particularly the differences students bring into the classroom, whether that’s in terms of race, gender, sexuality, or other ways?

MG: That’s a great question. For me, the value of taking this coherent approach is ultimately to create a place in which everyone feels like they have a voice. These things are not just related to each other but one forms the foundation for the other. One of the things I find myself doing often is trying to disabuse my students of the notion that somehow their voice matters less than the teacher’s voice or they have less to add than any of their peers. Creating multiple access points isn’t just about different access points for different kinds of learners—kinesthetic, auditory, people with learning disabilities—it’s about creating different access points for students with different backgrounds, different identities, and ways they think about themselves.

This morning [at the CHE graduate symposium] I was able to follow the big picture of what everybody was talking about but there were moments when I was totally lost, which I sort of expected because there was a language that I wasn’t used to speaking. It left me with the question: how do you translate? I think it’s important for everybody to think about because, God, the work you guys are doing is so important. The challenge is: how do you get the work out there that’s actually digestible and actually going to make changes? That’s what I love about what you’re doing. It seems like you are—and maybe other students are doing this too but I don’t know the other students in the same way—but you’re making a real effort to actually go out there and do the things you’re talking about with your research now.

AD: Well, that’s very kind of you, Michael, and I really appreciate that. And you’re absolutely right, there are a lot of people in CHE making those connections as well, but I think we need help. We need more contact with other folks like you who are really smart and have a sense of what happens in the academy but are also doing work out in the world. I have another question along those lines: part of my research is on how environmental education is a kind of moral education. What are the ways in which ethics are being spread, either explicitly or implicitly, through your curriculum or through the stewardship program, which provides opportunities for students to connect with community organizations outside the classroom? How does one do moral education in a way that’s not dogmatic?

MG: That’s a great question. I think our approach is less about trying to get students to move towards a particular stance or come down firmly on something and more just sort of making them aware of the fact that a lot of decisions they make and things that they do have moral implications. The way we do it is by teaching, highlighting, stressing the importance of uncovering connections that are otherwise invisible. And we provide students with the tools to do that. One powerful tool we use to do that is the journal. It’s a new thing for them because it never gets looked at but it’s a place for them to quietly reflect on their own thoughts, not in the context of a paper or something that’s going to be graded. I guess the approach we take is creating the conditions under which students actually have the space and the time and the comfort to actually consider what matters to them and how to live a life that matters to them. Once students develop self-awareness about their actions—I guess I have enough faith in humanity to believe that the decisions that are good for the community will be made but I’m also totally naively optimistic [Michael laughs].

AD: Yeah—what is that line between just giving people knowledge and making them aware and expecting them to act with it vs. giving them knowledge, making them aware, and then showing them models for action as well?

MG: Well, I think that’s where our stewardship program gives them the next step. We give them an opportunity to leverage what they’re learning in the service of the wider community. Even if that particular project isn’t necessarily the way they’re going to go out and do it, it shows them how to make what they’re learning manifest in the world. When those projects go right they’re incredibly powerful. That last slide I showed today of the students running a professional development workshop on intrinsic motivation, that was their stewardship project. They planned it and executed it. My colleague Chris and I totally stepped back. We let them do the whole thing. Even if teaching about intrinsic motivation or working with teachers and administrators is not their thing, they’ve actually been given the tools to take an idea and turn it into something that actually impacts other people.

AD: I don’t mean to impose words or frameworks on what you’re doing, but in the learning community you and your students have created, it does seem like there’s a kind of ethic of care—that you’re trying to get students and teachers to care about each other but also care about their place, and how the school is connected to Concord and the broader area. Is that a fair assessment or would you push back against that?

MG: I wouldn’t push back against that at all. What’s interesting is I felt like the first year we ran the program that was more implicit and we’ve now made it explicit because it was so clear that was a piece students were really resonating with. If there is something we’re trying to inculcate or be dogmatic about, maybe it’s just that: give a shit. Give a shit about the people that are around you and the place where you live. I have no qualms about saying that’s a worthy goal. But it’s funny, when you start talking about goals or purpose you realize quite quickly there is often no overarching sense of what the hell we are doing. Even internally within most schools, there are as many different interpretations of what the school is trying to do as there are people in the building, even if there is some mission statement, which is generally totally out of line with what’s actually happening in practice.

AD: It’s so vague that it’s hard to tell what it means.

MG: Right—what the hell does that even mean? When we get to the love unit, towards the conclusion we watch a clip of my friend Michael talking about his farm in which I ask him to talk about love. He says, “Love? Love? Well, let me tell you, the bees come and they pollinate these trees, and then the apples grow. And I feed the apples to the pigs, and the pigs eat it and I can smell the apple in the bacon and the pork, and then their shit fertilizes the field.” He’s describing this system where nothing is disconnected. “What do I call that? I call that love.” That’s a very interesting response to “what is love?” It’s not this romantic version of love, but he’s talking about connectivity. So I show that and I say: guys maybe what we’ve been doing this whole time is love. That highlighting connections and understanding connections between things is ultimately about care because it allows you to actually be in a space where you can act in a way that squares with what you care about. So—I wouldn’t push back on that at all.

AD: To go back to the question of difference, would you be willing to talk about moments when there’s been conflict or tension, especially when students or teachers don’t seem to really understand the world from which another person is coming?

MG: Great question. Conflict arises all the time. I think the key to that is, if you’re truly in an environment where there’s a safety net where there’s enough trust in the room, then a response to someone isn’t an attack on the person, it’s just trying to challenge an idea. We so frequently conflate feedback or criticism with an attack on me, on my character but it’s not about that. We all have blind spots; we all have things that we don’t see. The students coming from Boston, there are things about their experience I can never understand. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try like hell to understand what their experience is all about. What I’ve found is even just opening the conversation and acknowledging the struggles that other people face that are different from your own is half the battle right there. So frequently we’re so afraid to talk about race, we’re so afraid to talk about difference—that is much more deleterious than anything that might be said wrong.

AD: Have you also thought about difference in terms of the teachers in the room?

MG: Yeah, absolutely. We don’t think of ourselves necessarily as representatives of a particular discipline—I mean we’re trying to be our full selves and full human beings too. And that’s the thing, because the work we do is expansive, my interests in something not directly related to literature comes to bear. It brings out all these different experiences that I have. If I’m comfortable doing that and bringing those things out into the room, it allows other teachers to do that, and then if we’re all doing that, it allows students to see, “Wow, this is giving me an opportunity to share something I never thought I could share.” The other day we were looking at rhythms of the universe—where does music exist in the universe—and we had four students get up and dance and talk about their love of dance and where they feel that music comes from. And these are kids—the idea that they would ever be able to get up and dance in the class—right? Never had they had that opportunity and how proud they were of themselves. For me, there’s almost nothing more satisfying than seeing students take pride in their work—seeing them take real pride in what they are doing.

Featured image: Michael Goodwin teaching as part of the Rivers and Revolutions program.

Andy Davey is a PhD student in the Geography department at UW-Madison. He is currently studying how and why different models of environmental ethics and education, such as Catholic stewardship, evangelical creation care, and secular environmentalism, developed at American liberal arts colleges during the 20th century. He is also working with community groups in the city of Madison to help facilitate place-based storytelling about food, gardening, and racial justice. Contact.

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