Some Background

There are many ways to structure place-based learning experiences with students. In place-based education, you can give students a range of freedom to make choices. Sometimes it is difficult to frame a place-based inquiry in a way that is clear to students. Often-times place-based educators begin an inquiry with students by doing community mapping activities and inventories to surface questions, problems and community strengths. But then, what next? Challenge Letters can support teachers in contextualizing and structuring issues that students can decide to take informed action around. These letters can make student-led inquiry more meaningful and responsive to real issues in their communities.

What is a Challenge Letter?

A Challenge Letter is a letter written by a community partner directly to your students. This letter asks students for their help with a community-relevant social-ecological problem and poses a ‘challenge’ to the group. Some letters are very broad, allowing more open ended solutions; others can be more specific. In specific letters the classroom teacher and partner work together to outline the process; Here a few things to consider before crafting more specific letters:

  • The challenge & letter is appropriate for the age of the students; students are able to respond realistically with a type of solution that is safe and developmentally meaningful.
  • Planning the letter includes classroom visits by experts from the organization.
  • There is a built in performance assessment/presentation to the organization or to a public decision making body (e.g., city council) at the end of the project.
  • Built into the challenge, students must pose questions, make choices about the issues they want to focus on, gather evidence, and take some kind of action. The action piece is especially important.

Why use Challenge Letters

Sometimes place-based educators have a hard time creating a focused inquiry for students at the same time that they maintain structure. This is especially true for teachers in their first years of using a place-based approach. The Challenge Letter is a way of anchoring the place-based inquiry, and creating more structure. What the teacher gives up, is an open choice of community issue. Through NOAA B-Wet project support this year (2016-17), we will be experimenting with creating a set of challenge letters on a variety of issues that students and teachers can choose from (these will be general, broad letters and will be found at

Challenge Letter Example #1  Challenge Letter_Exp1

Challenge Letter Example #2  waterfilterproblem_challengelettermrsh

Challenge Letter Example #3 Phragmites Challenge Letter (2)