There is no such thing as a perfect school. Educators who teach in all schools in all countries devote their time to improving their tasks; to effectively teach the population they are charged with. We notice trends in deficiencies and accomplishments by country, town, school type, and size and we use these to guide our desires for improvement, innovation and progression. Schools are categorized in many ways – by their source of funding: public or private; their teaching methodology; Steiner, Montessori, comprehensive, parochial, etc.; and their location: urban, suburban or rural. It often makes sense to study each group individually as the challenges are distinct and often without comparison to their counterparts across categories.
Rural schools in the U.S., defined by their geographic isolation and small population size, are challenged by hurdles unique to each location, sharing one common thing: they are called on to do far more with far less. Despite the fact that roughly 25% of U.S. schools are rural, the obstacles they face are often absent from the conversation. Rural districts face hardships stemming from high transportation costs, limited funding, high poverty rates, teacher shortages, and professional isolation. Many rural districts face declining enrollment issues as the national and international trend of declining rural populations continues. When enrollment drives funding, the smaller the school, the smaller the budget and the fewer the resources for students. The arts, often being the academic facet that is perceived to be superfluous is a sure casualty. Within the limited span of research topics centered around rural education, arts education in rural communities and how the two can become mutually beneficial is far from covered.
The need for a strong art education presence in each school is familiar and backed up by copious amounts of research. What has been studied far less is the connection between arts education and the problems many rural communities face due to declining population. In their working paper entitled, “Leveraging Change: Increasing Access to Arts Education in Rural Areas.” Lisa Donovan and Maren Brown state, “Rural communities are finding innovative ways to use the arts to catalyze activity in rural areas, build community, highlight community-wide issues, and generate a sense of place.” The paper suggests that creating arts networks, comprised of schools and community organizations can help to strengthen not only the arts opportunities in the schools but the overall community needs. Beyond networks, pedagogy can be examined to determine which process is best to promote a deep connection and commitment to the catalyst of change in a community. One such methodology has been around for some time and gaining steam in rural environments: place and community-based education.
Place-based education has been embraced by rural communities as a way to connect students with their local surroundings in order to help them practice the skills necessary for global understanding and perspective. The Center for Place-Based Learning and Community Engagement describes the philosophy as, “an immersive learning experience that places students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences and uses these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum.” Place-based learning offers students opportunities to feel relevant and take ownership of their role in their communities. This method, combined with the idea that the future of the economy relies on students who understand innovation connects closely to the curriculum I have been designing for my students since I began teaching. Lessons that have relevance in the community, help them solve real-world problems and serve a goal larger than themselves are among those that appeal to me.
Successful place-based education establishes a relationship between student and place that not only nourishes the student's local community but provides the scaffolding necessary for the student's curiosity and respect for other communities. An education that is solely place-based would not benefit a student just as an education which focuses only on global perspectives would miss a large piece of the puzzle.
The writing in this blog is the result of my experiences in Scotland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching Fellowship. These posts offers art related place-based lessons, ideas about the pedagogy of place and community based education, museum and community organization involvement and ideas for students to feel empowered community members. My hope is that these ideas will bring education out of the confines of the school walls and connected to the broader community in the hopes that this engagement will make positive change in a rural community.