The Power of Place-Based Learning: Promoting Civic Engagement for Teachers and Students

The 2017 Civil War Washington participants at Fort Stevens. Photo by Alex Wood.

There’s something special about being in the place where it happened. Here in D.C., we are spoiled with special places. History happened all over this city. Often, we don’t even realize that we are standing in an historically special spot. And for teachers and students who don’t live in D.C., all that history can seem so far away and long ago. It’s quite a challenge to make it matter.

Field trips and place-based learning can meet this challenge; and every summer, Ford’s Theatre brings up to 75 teachers from all over the country together to learn how to do it. 

With the Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows, Ford's Theatre Education spends a week exploring historic places, using the place itself as a primary source and unlocking the stories of the people who lived, worked and walked there.

We visit historic sites that make the “Top 10 things to do in D.C.” like Ford’s or the Lincoln Memorial, and sites that are farther off the beaten path, like President Lincoln’s Cottage, Tudor Place and Frederick Douglass’s house. Many of our local teachers are surprised to learn about the history right under their noses. Then, after we’ve activated historic Washington together during the summer, the teachers are empowered to share it with their students with field trips during the school year. But what about our teachers from Wisconsin, California, Alaska? How do they take their new knowledge and fervor for historic Washington and make their students care about it 2000+ miles away?

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The 2017 Civil War Washington Fellows. Photo by Alex Wood.

It turns out that the teachers’ enthusiasm transfers to their students. Every year we hear from teachers that their students care more about Ford’s Theatre and the other historic sites in D.C. when they know their teacher has been there, than if they’re looking at stock photos in a text book. It lessens the degrees of separation.

The other key element of “enthusiasm transfer” is not just enthusiasm for the place, but enthusiasm for learning. During our summer program, we model both formal (specific activities teachers take back to their classrooms) and informal learning strategies: the connections made from one historic room to the next; the conversations in passing, the questions asked and answered in a dialogue with peers. We, the program administrators, learn alongside our summer teachers, and then they go back to school and share and model for their students the kind of curiosity and excitement visiting places can ignite. And this enthusiasm is infectious. It makes the history matter.

My goal at the end of each summer program week is that our teachers will walk down the streets of their hometowns and notice the street names, notice the statues, notice the historic markers on assorted buildings and ask, “What is that? Who lived or worked here? And what does that mean to me?” My goal is that after a field trip to a historic place, each of us will walk down the street and realize where we are standing.

And isn’t that the heart of Civic Engagement? Moving through the world around you aware, with your eyes open, knowing that how everything came to be is part of a dynamic story, in which you are a key player, and which is still being told.

For more information about our 2018 summer professional development programs for teachers, and how to apply, please visit:

Civil War Washington

The Seat of War and Peace

Alex Wood is the Education Programs Manager at Ford’s Theatre. Her favorite part of her job is the summer professional development programs because year after year she continues to learn something new. Follow her on Twitter @xela415, and Ford’s Education @FordsEdu.