Place Based Education

Snails Have Faces

Place based education class in Coyote Canyon, October 15, 2013

Place based education class in Coyote Canyon, October 15, 2013

This week, the 20th class of the Teton Science School Graduate Program is taking the Place Based Education course, taught by Leslie Cook. We have been learning about the history of place based education along with the many different forms that it has taken over time. We have also been investigating the benefits of place based eduction, including mental and emotional benefits along with increased proficiency on standardized tests. In our discussions, I was reminded of an essay by Paul Gruchow titled “Snails Have Faces.” Although place based education is not the explicit topic of this essay, it is the best description of place based education that I have encountered.

Snails Have Faces by Paul Gruchow

Warm weather brings the pleasure of nature walks with children. I like the exuberance of children on such walks, the way they take small things seriously, their unjaded acceptance of the everyday world as a place still waiting to be discovered.

The world still is undiscovered, as a matter of fact, until you have found its secrets for yourself, but only children (and some artists) seem to understand this with any conviction.They don’t delegate the work of discovery.They boldly assume it for themselves. When I go walking with children, thinking to show them a bit of the natural world, I usually end up learning something about my own understanding of it.

In the clear, sallow water at the edge of a pond the children are captivated, as I always have been, by the pond snails floating on the surface.They fish them up in their hands.

“Snails have faces, you know,” I say.

We turn a snail on end, find its big flat foot and, forward of it, the eyestalks and tiny mouth edged with Lilliputian teeth. Children believe that a snail has eyes only when they have peered into them with their own, demanding, subconsciously, I suppose, the verification of experience. My statement — a snail has a face, you know — is received not as a fact but as an interesting proposition worth testing. I am granted, among a group of children, the authority to raise questions but not necessarily the right to proclaim truth.

They ask their own questions. What does a snail eat? Does it sleep? Where does it go at night? How old does it get?How does it go to the bathroom? I am brought up against the limits of my own knowledge with discomforting abruptness.

After we have walked for an hour or so, the same thing always happens. A child comes forward and takes my hand. Then someone clasps my other hand and we walk, the three of us, palm against palm. No child ever asks permission. The warm, soft hands, offered so confidently, feel trusting and loving.

Sometimes on a passage through a woods or along a road one of the children will clutch my hand a little tighter and tell me something urgent.

“I have no mother.”
“What happened?”
“She died. When I was five.”
I don’t know how to respond.
But I do wonder what provokes such intimacy in these circumstances.

I think the posture involved in walking in wild places induces it . [This posture] is wide-eyed, erect, open-eared. Such posture straightens you up, slows you down, and focuses every particle of your sensory system on all the particulars of the wonders of the world at your feet. Among those wonders is the possibility of taking a teacher firmly by the hand and sharing with him something he ought to know but doesn’t.

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