Flint initiative redefines place-based education in urban schools

Education can take place anywhere. Students in Genesee County are learning their core content while also learning more about their own communities through an innovative, place-based sustainability education initiative.
 
A team of teachers and students at Flint's Southwestern Classical Academy has been busy working on turning the school's courtyard into an ADA-accessible garden. In the process, they discovered ducks nesting on school property. The students knew it really wasn't a healthy habitat for ducks, so they worked with the City of Flint to create a duck habitat on a nearby, city-owned property where the nesting ducks and their ducklings could thrive.

This is no extra-credit activity; these students are participating in Discovering PLACE, a program that has them learning core curriculum content while also learning about, and making a difference in, their own communities.

It's called place-based education, and it is part of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, a program founded in 2007 and backed by a $10.9 million, 10-year commitment from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. The aim of the GLSI is to motivate students to learn by making content more relevant to the places where they live.

"The goal is to develop knowledgeable, active stewards of the Great Lakes and its ecosystems, which includes inland watersheds," says GLSI coordinator Mary Whitmore, who oversees the program across Michigan.

Discovering PLACE, the Flint regional arm of the program, started up in 2011 and offers two-year mini-grants to teachers and schools to help support place-based education projects.  Coordinator Leyla Sanker says many of the program's projects are working to redefine what our idea of "nature" can be; in an urban environment like Flint, it might mean reclaiming a small corner of wildlife habitat or learning about local food systems through a community garden.

"We try to offer opportunities that expand the conversation about what place-based education is," says Sanker. "Students connect with nature in their own, urban community."

The GLSI was formed in response to a shift in thought among Michigan conservationists toward the idea that positive environmental change requires a generational change in attitude about our lands and waters.

"I think we have some magical thinking going on, when we assume that adults will step up and be stewards." says Whitmore. "A person’s affinity for nature  and an interest in environmental stewardship is established when that person is young.”

The GLSI employs three strategies to develop stewardship. First is place-based education, which is connecting students to the places they live through learning. Students can actually learn core content by learning about the place they live, and it makes it more relevant for them, so as a result they are more engaged . Second is sustained professional development for teachers, so they can be effective educators. And last, and perhaps most importantly, school-community partnerships. Each project has at least one community partner, like a land conservancy, local business or parks department. Goodwill, for example, assisted in the development of the ADA-accessible garden at Southwestern Classical Academy.

At Discovering PLACE, those partners include the University of Michigan-Flint, Goodwill Industries, the City of Flint and local urban farmers. Seven schools in Genesee County are currently running active projects.

At Beecher Middle School in Flint, students addressed the problem of lack of green space or parks in the neighborhood in a creative way. They reclaimed part of the school's own property, doing invasive species removal and creating a nature trail and outdoor classroom where future environmental education can take place. Along the way, they ended up creating a community-friendly space that the public also can enjoy.

"The kids wanted garden space and someplace they could go and just sit," says Teresa Krawscyk, a teacher at Beecher. "So we decided as a group to make an arbor with seating on the inside and crawling vines that could produce food."

As part of the work, students had to figure out how much wood and soil to purchase.

"So eighth grade geometry kids had to calculate volume by square feet and then convert that into cubic yards, because they don't sell dirt by the square foot," says Krawscyk. "If they don't see a real use for it, they are not going to be engaged. But if you can make geometry mean something to them besides figures on a piece of paper, you've got them."

Not all projects are on that scale, though. Sanker says Great Lakes stewardship education can be as brief as one assignment in an English class that makes good use of an outdoor classroom or finds a way to connect to the local community.

"We're working to build the understanding that place-based education can happen at a number of levels. Core teams can lead a big project, or it could be a single segment of a lesson," she says. "It can happen anywhere; you can do it any time. It's just about thinking outside of the box a little bit."

A major concern for Discovering PLACE is connecting students with tools they need to improve local food systems, since some areas of Flint are food deserts, says Sanker. A greater understanding of urban agriculture and community gardening helps solidify that link to the Great Lakes and its watersheds, too, as students come to see how they all are connected.

Whitmore says the best way to help kids become stewards of their environment is to show them, through the students’ own direct experience, that they can contribute on a personal level in their community--so that’s what the GLSI gives them a chance to do.

"A lot of the kids say something like, 'I understand now that I can make a difference in my community.' Or 'I can show my family the trees I planted'," she says. "The world needs stewards, and it needs good problem solvers, and people who can come up with solutions and work collaboratively. And that’s what we're giving these kids practice at doing."

Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor in Marquette, Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @magdalen13.
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