Detroit kids become environmental citizens through place-based learning

To whom does Detroit belong? The answer to this oft-debated question depends on who you ask. 

But if you look at it from a sustainability perspective, one group holds more claim to the city than any other: Detroit's children. Members of a growing movement in education believe that children can begin thinking deeply about how the city's current condition, what direction it's heading, and how they can change that direction well before they can vote or pay taxes.

The Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition is the local arm of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, which uses place-based education to teach children to be good stewards of the Great Lakes. In Detroit, that translates to using environmental themes to teach Detroit kids some important lessons about eco-justice, sustainability, and their place in the community.

It's called place-based education, and it is made possible by a 10-year, $10.9 million commitment made by the Great Lakes Fishery Trust to create the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. The GLSI is a program that seeks to motivate students to learn by teaching them -- and engaging them -- in their own communities. There are nine other regional hubs like SEMIS across the state.

Stable funding allows the program to form longstanding and meaningful relationships with teachers at their 18 partner schools, says Ethan Lowenstein, director of SEMIS and a professor of curriculum and instruction at Eastern Michigan University. Teachers have nine days of professional development with SEMIS throughout the year, as well as curriculum coaching where teachers learn to align what they are doing in their classrooms with the latest research on place-based education.

Projects done through SEMIS partnerships are planned around place-based inquiry, Lowenstein says. That means using the surrounding community as a tool to think deeply about some of the issues they are studying. For example, instead of accepting something like illegal dumping in their communities as a given, children are encouraged to think about how and why dumping happens and how they can change it.

"Oftentimes, people talk about preparing young people to be citizens in the future," Lowenstein says. "We give them opportunities to be an active citizen right now. Society sometimes patronizes children and we don't think they can do amazing things. These children are making incredible contributions to their communities right now."

SEMIS runs a Summer Institute for teachers to learn about their model. This year it was hosted at Neinas Elementary in Southwest Detroit, one of SEMIS's partner schools. Third, fourth, and fifth grade students spoke to the teachers attending the institute about their work and performed a play they had written, designed, and staged with the help of Matrix Theater, another partner. As a result, these young students begin to see themselves as leaders, who have something to teach adults as well as their peers.

At Hope of Detroit Academy, another partner school, students organized a tire sweep in the community along with Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. The students themselves mapped the sites of illegally dumped tires, got the city to send trucks to get them cleaned up, and then were able to visit Cass Community Social Services and see where the tires were being made into doormats and other products by formerly homeless workers. The next year, they actually spotted a truck with tires on it looking for a place to dump and called police, and the dumper was eventually ticketed.

At Neinas, a similar project led to adult community members creating walls of discarded tires around vacant lots, so dumpers could not get in and leave more trash and tires behind.

"Youth are doing significant work, and they see the results in neighborhood improvement." Lowenstein says. "They are taught to be citizens in the moment."

There are academic benefits that go hand in hand with the social ones, says Amy Lazarowicz, a science teacher at Neinas. Students are required to do lots of writing under the new Common Core Standards, for example, and having hands-on experiences such as those available through SEMIS proves helpful in giving the students a rich vocabulary and a detailed experience to write about.

"Kids can't write about anything unless they have experienced it," Lazarowicz says. "I can see the difference in their writing from the beginning of the year to the end of the year because of what we do."

The partnership between Lazarowicz's school and SEMIS gives her access to funding and technical assistance she otherwise would not have, which in turn makes the school experience much more interesting for her students, she says. For example, students wanted to create planters on a flat roof section outside the science lab. Thanks to help from SEMIS partners, students were able to research how to make that work, design planters and an irrigation system, and choose plants for the planters.

"It gives us a platform to jump off of," she says. "Their natural curiosity helps guide the learning."

Forming authentic communities is a big part of the place-placed education model, says Lowenstein. Because the GLSI is a statewide organization, teachers are forming partnerships across traditional boundaries of race, class, and geography; similarly, in the neighborhoods where the school partners are located, students might find themselves working with an older person and forming intergenerational bonds.

SEMIS and its place-based education model help young people identify the assets of the community around them and emphasises their own abilities to contribute, which counters common narratives about Detroit that devalue the city's neighborhoods and residents.

"When young people in Detroit internalize those messages and they internalize deficit thinking, they are taught that their communities are worthless," Lowenstein says. "One of our goals is to help young people feel like Detroit is an incredible place so that they want to stay, and that they recognize the city's strengths as well as the real, incredible challenges."

There is, after all, so much good about the place where these young people are being raised.

"Detroit is the most hopeful place that I have ever been to," Lowenstein says. "I have never been in a community where there are so many activists who are so committed. There is an incredible amount of energy."


This piece was made possible through a partnership with the Great Lakes Fishery Trust and Public Sector Consultants

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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