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The Pinelands Project -Public Land Learning from Scratch.

Murky forests, sugar-sand soil, folklore-laden history, and Sopranos episodes. Declared the nations first national reserve in 1978, the are known as the Pine Barrens encompass over 22% of the entire land area of New Jersey, a total of 1.1 million acres making it the largest continuous forest between Maine and Virginia on the Atlantic coast.

This expansive area has been protected and preserved thanks to the efforts of a dedicated coalition of governments and community organizations that recognizes its natural and cultural value and vigorously pursued protection for it. However, this patchwork of allies, while instrumental in ensuring the preservation of the pine barrens, resulted in a lack of singular leadership, the result of which is that finding resources that can be leveraged in the classroom is the equivalent of the world's worst treasure hunt.

So how exactly does one proceed in instances like this? If you find a monument or park that you’d like to incorporate into your next project, but there doesn’t seem to be any single repository of resources or lessons that you can use, how do you do it?

This is as close to a formula for uncovering resources that have a learning potential as I have come across and the one I use in my own work all the time.

1. Find the primary or largest organization that administers the site.

If it's a piece of public land, somebody is in charge of maintaining the roads and making sure the bathrooms are clean. Search out that organization first and foremost. Generally, preservation funds are also accompanied by at least some money for educational services to ensure that public support remains steady.

In the case of the pine barrens, the National Park Service is the most well-known entity charged with coordinating overall management, but they have nothing educational available on their site. If you were to stop there, you'd be disappointed because there is one other key stakeholder, the State of New Jersey Pinelands Commission, and their site is much better. It provides some foundational biographic information, a curriculum guide and contact information for two educational centers who may be able to send more info if you contact them. So already, we've hit pay dirt and we're not even past the first layer yet.

2. Look for community orgs and non-profits.

Even if the government is in charge of paying people to lock the gates at night, there’s a lot of other work that’s done by volunteers who are passionate enough about a place to dedicate a lot of time and money to its protection. Sometimes, to better coordinate their efforts, individuals create nonprofits, or booster clubs that are endorsed by government organizations as official partners. and sometimes, but not always, they also provide support to educators and may even be put in charge of educational outreach all together to free up government resources.

In the case of the pine barrens, The Pinelands Preservation Alliance bills itself as "the leading voice for protecting the natural and cultural resources of the New Jersey Pinelands" and as luck would have it, they have a "Learn" page on their website. It has extensive information on both science and history as well as multimedia content and a full curriculum called Up Close and Natural. So once again, pay dirt, but we've still got some places we can look for more resources!

3. Search for kindred spirits

Chance are that if you are an educator who sees potential for learning in an area, there are other folks who probably think the same as you, and they may not be classroom teachers. Doing a simple Google Search can reveal bloggers, community historians, fellow educators, or other passionate folks who, like you, just love to share what they know with others.

In the case of the pine barrens, there happened to be a lesson plan on PBS that caught my attention and that could inform project processes. Sometimes lesson plan repositories may have additional resources, so they could be worth a check, but one of the best resources I found was a blog all about the history and culture of the area that reads like a library! This resource, written by a local resident with unique knowledge the area, might also provide an opportunity for connecting students with an outside expert on the work they are doing. Now, for the fourth level.

4. Find what others have done

If you have exhausted official connections as well as large repositories of community knowledge or "armchair educator" content, then another avenue you might consider is looking for projects that others have done and recreating their processes. Not only does this give you a clearer picture for how content standards can be incorporated into real-world work, you can use what you find as an example of "exemplar" for your own work.

In the case of the pine barrens, one of the best examples of professional work would be this documentary that was produced in 2017 and focused on the offbeat "piney" culture of the region. There is also a podcast that focuses on all sorts of topics - environmental, cultural and even the arts. Either of these would be a great way for students to share their work.

5. A little help from your fiends.

Let’s say that, despite your best efforts, there is nothing out there, or at least nothing that you think would be developmentally appropriate/engaging for your students. Hope is not lost, in fact, this can be an excellent opportunity for a real world, project-based work. If the park doesn’t have a website with easily accessible information, maybe that’s what you need to create. If there isn’t a virtual walking tour or official podcast, maybe you found your calling? Helping to be the source of information that you were unable to find, might actually be the best learning opportunity available to those who seek to learn from national parks.

You can also reach out to collaborators to get ideas. The National Park Classroom Facebook community is a great one, as many of the members travel extensively and are always finding inspiration in different places.

While I was hiking through this region, I came up with some additional ideas for using the pine barrens as the focus for great, authentic learning;


Comparative Analysis of Folktales: Students can choose a specific folktale or legend and compare different versions of it from various cultures. They can analyze the similarities and differences between the stories, looking for common themes and variations.


The pine barrens, like all ecosystems, are affected by climate change. Students can learn about the ways in which rising temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and other impacts of climate change are affecting the pine barrens and other ecosystems around the world.

Social Studies

Continuity and Change Over Time: Students can analyze the changes and continuity of the region over time, including the shifting cultural and economic factors that have shaped the Pine Barrens. They can also study the role of technological advancements, such as the growth of the cranberry industry and the construction of military installations, in shaping the region's development


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