As a Social Studies Teacher at New Haven Academy, a social justice themed public magnet high school, currently serving just under 300 students from New Haven and surrounding towns, I presently teach Civics/Choosing to Participate, U.S. History, and two different Facing History and Ourselves courses. With this teaching load I cover all four grade levels, and often have the opportunity to work with the same students multiple times before they graduate. I will be teaching an elective for a semester during the 2023-’24 school year and have designed this unit for the course. This elective, “People and Place,” typically has focused on the reciprocal relationship between a place, the culture of the people who developed or settled the area, the ensuing changes made by those people, and the impacts. This unit of study will allow a much deeper exploration of these ideas in New Haven than in years past as it is grounded in a series of local case studies and field experiences and is open to all students.
New Haven Academy’s magnet theme focuses on social justice and civic engagement. Our motto is, “Think critically. Be responsible. Get Involved.” Although we support all our students in their active participation in their learning and community, senior year contains the most concrete example of community involvement with the Social Action Project.
This unit provides an opportunity for students to practice some of the key skills embedded in the Social Action Project, while connecting with a contemporary environmental issue that has a lasting impact on the local community.
I decided to participate in the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute because I yearned to reconnect with the ideas and content that I love and drew me to education initially. Ever since I was a young boy exploring the woods near my home, I have been fascinated by the history of specific places. To this day my time out in the forests, parks, and waterways is often punctuated by questions; What happened before I was here? Why did it happen? What if things had been different?
The content of this unit provides a grounding in the historical context of the development of the neighborhoods adjacent to the school, while allowing students to physically explore the banks of the Mill River, and associated ecosystems, where accessible. By combining classroom work with primary and secondary sources and work in the field, students will be better able to make connections and apply their learning to the world around them. In several of the lessons, work in the classroom is centered on an inquiry process during which students will generate and investigate questions, make predictions, and gather evidence all in service of applying their learning to our visits to sites along the Mill River.
The practice of getting out of the classroom and into the neighborhoods around us generally fosters high levels of engagement, deepens the learning experience, and provides opportunities for students to experience something they otherwise may not have been exposed to. Additionally, Place Based Learning (PBL) or Place Based Education (PBE) can more effectively develop students’ sense of agency and connection to their surroundings in both the natural world and the urban built environment. According to Children, Youth and Environments, the place-based learning approach,
“emphasizes democratic, participatory and action-oriented teaching–learning that can help students develop their ability, motivation and desire to play an active role in finding democratic solutions to problems and issues connected to sustainable development.”1
This unit is not only a series of historical case studies and field trips, it also builds community and fosters skills necessary for social activism. After establishing a deep understanding of the historical and environmental context, students will turn their focus to be more forward looking. Students can apply the ideas of “be responsible” and “get involved” from our school motto. As we reflect on the choices made in the past regarding land along the Mill River and the impact on the natural world and local community, including the specific challenge posed by English Station and the contamination of Ball Island, students will find themselves in a position to propose and/or advocate for direct action in their own community.