A Conversation with Artist and Educator Paula Purnell

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Paula PurnellZmuda: What is it that you hope to inspire in our kids — your personal mission? How does that connect to Sense of Place Learning?

Purnell: I’m a long-time advocate for arts-based learning in the classroom. I believe that the arts are a perfect medium through which students can apply learning across the curriculum in meaningful ways.
I served as an artist in residence for many years, and traveled to schools throughout western Pennsylvania. My expertise is in regional folk music. As part of my residencies, I would do a little research on the history of the town I was visiting so that I could tie the songs to local historical events.
It always surprised me to learn how little most people knew about the history and heritage of their local communities. Of course, there are wonderful people in most communities who are involved in historical societies and such, who have great knowledge to share, but this resource was rarely evident in the classroom.
Then, several years ago, I became aware of the place-based education movement. The movement began in the area of environmental education with an awareness of the importance of connecting children to their local ecology. It was apparent to me, however, that our goals were the same; whether you want people to become stewards of the environment or to preserve their local history, heritage, and works of art – they first need to feel a real connection to the places they live. Unfortunately, our current system of education has become increasingly focused on standardized tests and dependent on nationally produced textbooks, both of which have little relevance to our immediate surroundings.
Zmuda: How does that translate into the projects and curricula you have designed?
Purnell: Sense of Place Learning (SPL) strives to address this issue by creating educational programs and materials that celebrate the history, heritage, ecology, and arts of the places we live. Our interdisciplinary programs are designed to engage children and adults in exploring the fascinating world that lies right outside our own back doors.
Zmuda: Can you highlight 1-2 examples that you are most proud of?
Paula Purnell
Photo c/o senseofplacelearning.org

Purnell: In 2009, SPL was invited to design and implement summer programs at the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, PA. This lovely farmhouse was the childhood home of the esteemed environmentalist and author of Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson.

Our program, called Bug Camp, served children ages five to thirteen years. What a wonderful opportunity to celebrate local history, heritage, ecology and art! We explored the interconnectedness of the natural world by learning all about insects, including anatomy, taxonomy, insects’ role in sustaining a healthy ecology, and our responsibility for providing safe habitats.

We imagined what Rachel Carson’s life might have been like, living in Springdale as a child one hundred years ago, and the children wrote songs, put on skits, and created works of art to share what they’d learned.
We were so excited about the program, and pleased with the feedback we received, that we extended the content and created a Bug Camp Curriculum Package (2012) so that others can implement Bug Camp and explore the wonderful world of bugs (and so much more!) in their own neighborhoods.
SPL is currently working with The Consortium for Public Education (CPE), designing and implementing a three year, STEM related, place-based, after-school program, funded through a 21st Century Learning Grant from the PA Department of Education. The program is being conducted in a small, economically depressed, post-industrial town near Pittsburgh.
Each year, middle school students will explore their local history and address environmental issues related to a different element of the local ecology; Water, Air, and Land. Most importantly, students get outside for real-world encounters with history, heritage, ecology and the arts – whether through a field trip to the local wastewater management facility, collecting and identifying macro-invertebrates in a local stream, or capturing and sharing their perspectives through nature photography.
Zmuda: What types of partners do you need to make the program work?
Purnell: We are looking for collaborative partners who have identified a need and are interested in creating innovative, interdisciplinary, place-based programs and materials.
Zmuda: Describe 1-2 of the obstacles you have faced or are facing now in creating and implementing projects. How did you overcome them?
Purnell: SPL is not currently a non-profit organization, which makes it difficult to apply directly for funding for programs. However, we have been very fortunate to develop partnerships with some exemplary non-profit organizations in the Pittsburgh area.
Zmuda: What’s an action that kids, parents, and educators can take right now if they want to be more connected to their natural environment? Can you point them in a direction?
Purnell: I’ve encountered some parents and teachers who say that they would like to get their kids outside more, but don’t know what to do with them “out there.” The wonderful thing is that children are so immensely curious, all you have to do is point them in a direction and let them go!
Create an observation station in your garden and keep a tally of insects you see. Get a field guide (I like Peterson First Guide: Insects for children) and try to identify them, and then draw their pictures in a nature journal. Collections are a terrific way to engage kids in the natural world. You can collect and sort leaves, nuts, or rocks – it really doesn’t matter. The important thing is learning to closely observe the world around us. Who knows what you may discover!

About Paula Purnell

Paula PurnellPaula Purnell is a musician, educator, and advocate for place-based learning. She holds a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction and is an adjunct professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her company, Sense of Place Learning, provides a wide range of programs, curriculum materials, and professional development classes. She is a Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Commonwealth Speaker with an expertise in regional folk music. Her band, the Newlanders, researches, records, and performs music by and about the people of Pennsylvania. Paula has released eight albums of original music, including two Parents Choice Award winning Family Arts Theatre children’s albums.


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