Interview with Matt Dubel, Project Coordinator for the Sustainable Schools for Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, VT

Interview by Willi Paul, Magazine

Reflection forms an essential part of the learning process, both for students and for the educators.
What is sustainability?

We think of sustainability as the process of improving quality of life-economic, social, and environmental-for all in current and future generations. There are many perspectives on sustainability, and frankly there should be, because acknowledging multiple perspectives is an important element of thinking sustainably.

But there are common elements: obviously the focus on the well-being of current as well as future generations; the recognition of the interconnectedness of economic, social, and ecological systems; and the commitment to equity (“for all” being perhaps the most unassumingly radical words in our definition). In fact, one way to think about sustainability is to think about equity in three dimensions: intra-species equity (between humans), inter-species equity (between humans and the rest of the living world), and inter-generational equity (between those living now and those that will follow us).

Are you espousing a service learning model?

We believe that service learning is an important strategy in education for sustainability, since it challenges students to use their understanding and skills to improve the well-being of their community and work in the present toward their visions of a desirable future. When done well, it cultivates empathy for others (human and more than human) and makes learning relevant for students by connecting it to real lives in real communities.

Please share some specific programming innovations from Lawrence Barnes Elementary School and Champlain Elementary School (VT); As an introduction, how is SSP using sustainability as an integrating context for :
a. curriculum
b. community partnerships
c. campus practices

Well, to begin with, Lawrence Barnes Elementary School (in Burlington, VT) is transforming into the Sustainability Academy, a public magnet school for grades K-5. To our knowledge it’s the first elementary magnet school in the U.S. to have a sustainability theme. They’ve done remarkable work in using sustainability as a lens on the things that elementary schools need to teach–from persuasive writing to history, from scientific inquiry to cultures.

The idea is not to teach sustainability as a discrete topic, but to use sustainability as an overarching theme to help connect the many things that schools need to teach. At the same time, there’s a recognition that students learn many lessons each day, and that many of them are not part of the formal curriculum. The way schools use energy, the way they interact with the community, the food they serve, what they do with their waste, how people are treated within the building–all of these practices teach the students. So the Sustainability Academy is explicitly designed to use what we call the “4 C’s” to teach students: Curriculum, Campus Ecology, Community Engagement, and Collaboration.

A great example that integrates all of these is the Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids project, which was developed by 4th/5th grade teachers working with the Sustainable Schools Project and Smart Growth Vermont. This project engages students in acting like community planners: identifying the features that contribute to quality of life in their community and developing indicators to measure those features; conducting community-based research by collecting data on these indicators in their neighborhood; sharing their findings with the community and public officials; and designing and implementing a service project that improves community well-being by addressing their research findings.

In the process, the project helps students learn many of the things that 4th/5th graders need to learn: persuasive writing, oral presentations, inquiry skills, data collection and analysis, project planning, not to mention content knowledge involving government and civics, energy and ecology, etc. The neighborhood becomes their classroom, public officials and community groups become their partners, and all of their work has tangible results that students can see. In a sense, I think this project exemplifies what education is for in a democracy: to prepare us to work together to do the work that needs doing in order for us to create the communities we want. That’s powerful 21st century learning, whether or not there happens to be a PowerPoint presentation involved.

Tell us about the interaction between SSP and Shelburne Farms.

Shelburne Farms is a rather complex and wonderful non-profit organization, at once an environmental education center, working farm, National Historic Landmark, and demonstration site for stewardship and sustainability. We’re based in Shelburne, Vermont, but we work with schools and communities around the region, around the country, and around the world. The Sustainable Schools Project is an initiative of Shelburne Farms, working in partnership with schools and school districts, other non-profits, government agencies, businesses, and higher education institutions.

When was the last evaluation completed for the SSP? How are you doing?

Evaluation of SSP is continuous. We’re part of the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative (PEEC), a group of several similar projects who do shared evaluation. Our findings suggest that the work we’re doing energizes teachers, transforms school culture, helps students learn, connects schools and communities, and encourages students to become stewards and active citizens.

How are urban schools different from country schools?

I think it’s hard to generalize about urban, rural, suburban, etc., because in my experience the biggest gaps arise from socioeconomic status. Poor rural schools often share the same challenges as poor urban schools. Their students can often feel trapped and without options, certainly without a sense that their community needs them. Our conviction, whether we’re working with an urban or a rural community, is that lots of good things happen when students are given opportunities to learn by making a difference in their own community. Student engagement increases, student learning increases, teachers feel revitalized, social capital is built, community perceptions of students shift, students’ perceptions of themselves shift, etc.

What is a Legacy Card?

Legacy Card is a project which involves students in learning about sustainability by visting sites throughour their community. Students receive a booklet, like a passport, that guides them to various sites–businesses, non-profits, community spaces–and participate in an experience that develops their understanding of the work that people in their community do that contributes to quality of life.

How does SSP deal with the notion of citizen? Is this controversial in any way?

We feel that anyone at any age who engages in the process of community decision-making or who collaborates to improve the well-being of a community is acting as a citizen. Of course it includes participating in decision-making within formal channels (city councils, legislatures, etc.), but it’s more than just that. And of course it’s about engagement to improve human lives, but it’s also more than that.

I think of it as closer to what Wendell Berry describes as “membership,” a sense of engagement with both the human and ecological community within which we live and a commitment to collaborative action on behalf of those communities. We believe strongly that we’re not preparing students to be citizens someday; they’re citizens now, and the best way to learn to be a responsible citizen is to get lots of practice. Schools are well-positioned to support students in this practice.

I love the notion of wonder. What is this?

I would describe it as the innate sense of fascination with the world around us and the desire to connect with it and learn more about it. We feel that when teaching builds on students’ inborn sense of wonder, it’s likely to be more powerful and more effective.

What is the green movement and how does it differ from other movements? Are you creating a mythology of sustainability? What are the new symbols and stories?

I think the way forward involves a certain amount of rediscovery of ancient and indigenous symbols and stories. Interestingly, much of what scientists are discovering about complex systems is reflected in the wisdom of ancient and indigenous cultures, particularly the profoundly interconnected nature of the world. Linda Booth-Sweeney has done a great job of collecting these stories in her book Connected Wisdom.

But these ancient sources will also be synthesized with new insights. Biomimcry is a great example of this. I think nature provides a lot of potent symbols to inform the way we design human communities. Borrowing from Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, I think the new story is that it’s not about More, it’s about Better.


“We think of sustainability as the process of improving quality of life-economic, social, and environmental-for all in current and future generations.”

Matt Dubel is the Sustainable Schools Project Coordinator for Shelburne Farms, a non-profit environmental education organization based in Vermont. A former classroom teacher with experience working with students from pre-school through graduate school, Matt coaches schools in using sustainability as an integrating theme to connect curriculum, campus practices, and community engagement.

Contact Sustainable Schools Project:

Matt Dubel
mdube at shelburnefarms dot org
Sustainable Schools Project
Shelburne Farms
1611 Harbor Road
Shelburne, VT 05482
(802) 985-0331


The Sustainable Schools Project is sponsored by Shelburne Farms, and is a partnership with VT Education for Sustainability. SSP uses the integrating concept of educating for sustainability to improve our communities economically, environmentally, and socially for current and future generations

Specifically, the Project:

• Facilitates staff, community and/or student priority-setting for curriculum, community and campus projects; ongoing study groups and/or in service sessions.

• Supports teaching through curriculum consultations, classroom support, resource library, and network of community partners.

• Offers professional development on sustainability topics and skills, concept-based/integrative curriculum development, standards-based assessment, place-based teaching, schoolyard habitat improvement, and service learning.

• Identifies funding sources for school sustainability projects, professional development, training, etc.


About [ open myth source ]

The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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