Ndakinna: An Exploration into Place-based Teaching

“No video, no photographs, no verbal descriptions, no lectures can provide the enchantment that a few minutes out-of-doors can….”

– Ann Zwinger from Into the Field: a Guide to Locally Focused Teaching


Last winter I had the privilege of attending a night of student presentations at Burr and Burton Academy’s Mountain Campus in Peru, Vermont. What I found when I entered the timber framed building perched on the edge of the Green Mountains that evening was a place bustling with activity: students talking, explaining, and giving life to the ideas they had been working on during the semester they had spent at the school.

At the center of the room, around which all of the students were presenting their work, was a round table carefully organized with quiet, humble pieces of paper. As an English teacher, I am drawn to the quietness of paper and ink, and so I picked up one of these sheets of paper and began to read. What I noticed almost immediately was a word at the top of the page that my mouth couldn’t pronounce: “Ndakinna” (En-DA-kin-ah).

“Ndakinna” is an Abenaki word, and in rough translation Ndakinna means “my homeland.” The Abenaki were the original inhabitants of the land we know today as New England, and the use of this word is a reminder of these first people. At the Mountain Campus they say, “One purpose of the Ndakinna project is to create a sense of home in the woods; to find comfort in familiarity, to discover the extraordinary in the everyday through close observation and attention, to develop curiosity, deepen thinking, and give time and space for reflection.”

I left that evening inspired by Ndakinna, and this summer as I was preparing curriculum for my Environmental Literature class at White Mountain, I decided to reach out to Jillian Joyce, the humanities faculty member at the Mountain Campus, and see if she would share her resources with me. Jillian and I exchanged emails over the summer, and in August she gladly passed along all of the material she has put together over the past few years. As I sifted through the shared work, I began to think about how I might incorporate this practice in my classroom: how could I get the students out into our forests? How could I give them time to think and reflect on their place here at The White Mountain School?

In late-August, as the year approached, I walked our campus trails searching for a location that would make sense to bring the students to: a place that was close enough to the main building that we could quickly access in our block of time together and yet deep enough in the woods that they would be firmly enmeshed in the life in the forest. Eventually, I found an appropriate site, just across the dirt road from our main academic buildings on a small trail that heads off into the forest through a break in the stonewall that runs the length of West Farm Road. I decided that in the forests off of this trail each student would select his or her Ndakinna place. Early on in September, we went for a walk and the students each selected where they would each sit for the semester and write.

Now, it is December, and as the snow begins to pile up outside, the students have returned five times to their Ndakinna places to track the changes of the seasons, observe the world around them, and take note of what they witness. Responding each time to a prompt I have prepared from our readings, the students have kept record of their time in the nearby forests in small journals. In these prompts, the students have been asked to observe, record, and track how their place has changed over the past three months.

For these students, Ndakinna has been my constant reminder to them that knowing their happenings in their backyard matters. Through this practice my hope has been to inspire my students to make connections with the terrain beyond our classroom walls and in being witness to the happenings of the forest, return to a relationship of wonder with nature.

Jacob Northcutt, English Faculty

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