Talking Chicken and Critical Pedagogy of Place

by: Ed Brantmeier

Where do I come from? Since moving to Harrisonburg from the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, where the Big Thompson River provides water for Loveland and fly-rod fishing flourishes, I’ve quickly learned to talk chicken here in the lush Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Growing up in rural Wisconsin on an 80 acre farm near Stockbridge, a small village named after a local Native American tribe, my fondest memories are hanging out by the chicken coop. It was the gateway to the fence-line that formed a T where it met Calumet County Park. I could see Lake Winnebago over the tree-line of Calumet County Park—a park named after the Calumet—a peace pipe. My sister painted the sign at the gateway to the park that reads, “We extend the Calumet to all Humankind.” I have so many connections to that place and land—we ate the peas, corn, and cucumbers that grew in the farm fields and in our garden as children. I have so many connections to that place.

What is at the heart of place? Memories, connections, sustenance, community, love, family. The place we live now, Rockingham County, was once the poultry capital of the United States. It is a good place for talking chicken. Talking chicken has afforded me a connection with locals beyond the “town and gown” divides present in our demographically mixed locale—brought by two universities in a historically agrarian place. Raising chickens and talking chicken has allowed me to re-connect with my farming roots. Raising chickens and talking chicken simply means understanding the difference between barred rock and dominiques, mash or pellets for food, awareness of the need for sea shell to harden egg shells for layers, and knowing that free range is hands down better for the chickens, nutrition, and for your nostrils. The local knowledge arises from place. It arises from conversations with chicken enthusiasts and these opportunities have connected me with local people in positive community building ways.

What is a critical pedagogy of place? Thanks to Carole Nash, CFI Associate and friend, I was introduced to this powerful pedagogy with limitless applicability. Gruenewald (2003) synthesizes and analyses the orientations of critical pedagogy with place-based education and thereby defines the aims of a critical pedagogy of place:
a) identify, recover, and create material spaces and places that teach us how to live well in our total environments (reinhabitation): and
b) identify and change ways of thinking that injure and exploit other people and places (decolonization) (Gruenewald 2003, p. 9)
Gruenewald argues that the processes of reinhabitation and decolonization simultaneously put place and connection to the non-human world (place-based education) at the fore of educational endeavors while simultaneously deconstructing the power dynamics inherent in relationships (critical pedagogy)—both human to human and human with the natural world.

How can we use place to learn and connect? Community engagement is one of the mountains of pride we have at James Madison University. We have been designated a prestigious Carnegie Community Engaged University. A critical pedagogy of place seems a natural pedagogical fit to deepen that engagement with place—the stunning Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. We have multiple efforts going on with Community Service Learning, our Office of Outreach and Engagement, Institute for Innovations in Health and Human Services, and much, much more. I see much promise in my own students tutoring in the homes of local English Language Learners, working at after-school programs, volunteering for the fall International Festival. These efforts are building bridges in knowledge and experience and contributing to a positive sense of place in most cases. No doubt community engagement deepens the learning process, though we need more scholarship on this topic to “show what we know” to the rest of the academic community.

What do I want for my children? Connection, a sense of place. To bring this short musing full circle back to my present realities beyond the university—I want my sons to have a strong sense of place. Place-based pedagogy encourages this. My sons are talking chicken now. They know the difference between dominiques and Rhode Island Reds. They know that the dominiques have stopped laying because they are molting. They learned about the circle of life when a coopers hawk killed one of the dominiques—a first lesson in life, death, predation, and that life feeds on life. They are learning where their food comes from, a sense of place, of connection, of community. My hope is that one day they will remember these lessons of life, death, and connection to place. My hope is that the shadows, dances, and fall colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains will be fixed in their historical memories and provide them inspiration in times of hardship. In short, I hope they appreciate the beauty of talking chicken and the connection it affords.


Gruenewald, D.A. The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher 32, No. 4: 3-12.

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