M’lis Bartlett knew that if she wanted to create an outdoor learning space that students would actually use, she should just ask them what they would want to see.

So she began working with a ninth grade science class in February 2013 discussing environmental justice issues and ways to address them. Through a process of participatory design, they chose and began re-designing an under-utilized concrete space at the Beecher School District’s Ninth Grade Academy.

She spent ten weeks in the summer constructing an outdoor classroom space next to the school’s Moses Lacy Field House.

Bartlett asked the students to make models of the existing site and what their dream space would look like. Teachers also provided feedback. Students wanted the outdoor learning space to be used for eating lunch or hanging out before sport events. The class voted on each other’s ideas and then volunteers from University of Michigan’s Landscape Architecture program compiled those ideas into a final design.

The concrete was torn up in June and volunteers began recycling chunks of it for paver stones and inside s-shaped benches made from recycled urban Ash trees that were cut down because of Emerald Ash Borer infection. Permeable red gravel, colorful flowers, a water catchment barrel and an ADA accessible ramp were added to the site. There will be a free- standing arbor installed for shade by October. Four trees will also be planted on the space and Bartlett said an intern will work with teachers to effectively use the outdoor space and to design and plant a vegetable garden. The project was funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation and a University of Michigan Arts of Citizenship grant.

A lot of teenage space is criminalized in places like Flint or Beecher, Bartlett said. She said that Beecher students discussed how there were not many safe spaces in their community to hang out and so this was an opportunity to create one right on their school campus.

Read More →

The Fall 2012 issue of Flint Currents highlights the dedication and enthusiasm of two dynamic Discovering Place community partners, Dyanna Mitchell and Earma Cooper, and their work with teacher Shelly Roberts and Beecher’s Tucker Elementary school courtyard garden.

Cooper and Mitchell are among the Beecher Community Development Council members working for the local good.  They also belong to the Dailey Nolan Neighborhood Association, the Clean and Green program to maintain Genesee County Land Bank properties and a community garden.

Flint Currents also features Southwestern Academy teacher Linda Heck, who is working with her students to create an accessible outdoor classroom and garden where students with special needs can work with their fellow students on projects.

Heck’s love of science is the reason she started teaching, but she cites her life experience and expertise as the source of the compassion and practical wisdom that she shares with her students.

Flint Currents is a publication of Discovering Place, a regional hub of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative facilitated by University Outreach at the University of Michigan-Flint.


To develop stewardship among students, and help them learn lessons that take root, several of our Discovering Place teachers are planning school gardens for the fall.

The California School Garden Network offers a free guide to help get your garden started. It’s also a great site for lots of other school garden resources, including curriculum ideas, which can be modified to meet Michigan education standards.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds just posted suggested fall crops for northern gardens, which could be helpful for teachers; this kind of information ─ geared specifically to school gardens ─ will be shared at next month’s 2012 Our Cities, Our Classrooms conference. The free conference, which will share expert ideas on school gardens, healthy food and place-based education,  is slated for 8:30 – 4 p.m. Aug. 23 on the campus of  the University of Michigan-Flint. Michigan educators can register  here: http://www.umflint.edu/outreach/programs/discovering-place.page.

Place-based education doesn’t have to be about gardens, but gardens can be worthwhile place-based efforts.

Whether your school is planning a garden, taking over cleanup of a nearby park or figuring out a way to help a local business thrive, place-based education is simply the process of continually connecting kids to their surroundings.

When students authentically work side-by-side with community members for the good of their neighborhood or their local environment, it’s easier to connect with that place, and want to be part of keeping it healthy. And because it’s relevant and meaningful, they’re more likely to remember the academic lessons learned in the process.

There are plenty of reasons for our Discovering Place teachers to be at the Feb. 16 workshop! Which is why you’ll want to RSVP today (if you haven’t done so already).

Top 5 reasons to go:

5. Borrow great books from our lending library

4. Learn about a mini-project opportunity

3. Free tour of the Flint Children’s Museum and info on their educational programming

2. Free food (tropical meal!) and free environmental landscape architecture consultation!!!

1. You can tell your boss you’re actually developing your project (and one step closer to getting grant funds)!

Details and RSVP info here.

Note: This workshop is optional for partners.

Until last month’s workshop, Discovering Place teachers were clamoring to dig in and figure out their projects. Several said their biggest need was understanding how to connect a project to school day requirements, since educators need to build around Michigan’s curriculum standards.

Time to dive in! Teachers brought laptops to look up state standards. After dividing into elementary and junior high/high school groups, they began brainstorming project ideas and writing down related curriculum standards on supersized easel sheets to share. You could practically see the wheels start turning as the preliminary pieces started falling in place.

For a Saturday, the room sure was abuzz with energy. It was worth the snowy trek just to hear all the ideas bouncing around.

Granted, our educators have built a solid foundation to support their projects. Since September, we have been studying place-based education (PBE) and associated concepts such as environmental justice, inquiry-based learning, building community and partnerships, as well as asset mapping.

Of course, we want to remain judicious as we go forward, ensuring projects truly deliver place-based education.

Keeping in mind the importance of mutually-beneficial partnerships, curriculum that benefits the local environment/community, and the need for real student voice for authentic engagement, here are some questions to consider:

  • How can students have a real voice in shaping this project?
  • How can we include parents and families?
  • How does this directly impact our students’ neighborhood and community?
  • What partners could logically help coach and mentor us in this project? And what needs can we meet for those partners?
  • How will this project be sustained?
  • For older students especially, think about how they can authentically be part of positively impacting their surroundings, so they can experience the rewards of being stewards.

More curriculum and project connections are on tap! Check your e-mail for information on our next curriculum workshop, slated for Feb. 16.

Once I really got into the Annenberg inquiry videos, I found them fascinating. Because I’m not even remotely a fan of sharks, it’s huge that the shark segment on the first video grabbed my interest. So even though I don’t have a class of students, I was eager to try inquiry for myself.

My ninth-grade son unwittingly helped. He’s traditionally been a good student but is finding high school history a challenge. Last semester we agonized over pages of what felt like dry, meaningless review questions before finals. So when he mentioned the class is studying World War I, I asked him to start writing down questions on the topic, then found him a book that looked promising. (Since then I’ve also found a great resource to view primary WWI documents and artifacts.)

Last night, I told him we were going to study WWI for 30 minutes. He balked a bit until I told him HOW we would study. I opened a Word document and said I’d type what he remembered about WWI, and what he wondered about it (I also gave him the option to type, which he declined). Pretty soon I was hearing much more than I ever knew about World War I – all about U-boats, how easily zeppelins could be shot down compared to the planes being used in the war, trench warfare, and the fact that more than 20 countries were engaged, with millions of casualties. I heard about the Duke of Serbia’s assassination, about early tanks, the effects of mustard gas and tripod-mounted machine guns that needed six-man teams to operate them.

We also typed a few questions under the “I wonder…..” section, centering on how so many countries became involved, why the U.S. became involved, what people called the war at the time, which side the Red Baron was on, and what organization oversees the rules of war.

Most study sessions involve a lot of feet-dragging and balking and overt glances at the clock to see how many more minutes have to be endured. This time he voluntarily studied an extra 15 minutes! I explained a little about inquiry, that it was a learning process he could use his whole life. He said he liked the process.

As for my observations, I loved that he was so much more engaged than I’ve seen in a long time. This is going to become a new homework process for sure! I do wonder how it will go when we take it to the next level, asking him to form hypotheses and then to branch out, maybe, into comparing WWI to other wars. Since he’s also studying Spanish, I’m wondering how inquiry can be used with a topic like this.

If you haven’t yet used inquiry, I strongly encourage you to give it a try!

– Elizabeth Lowe

Summer has hit Michigan, with a vengeance. No doubt educators have already factored the less-active summer months into garden projects, but the following tips may prove handy.

Low-maintenance garden tricks

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as remote-control veggie gardening: gardens require hands-on contact. But there are a few tricks that can reduce the time – and gas – spent visiting your garden.

Plant choices. First, choose plant varieties that are disease resistant, says Carol McTaggart, coordinator of the MSU Extension Master Gardener Program. “Certainly some are more disease resistant than others,” McTaggart said. Choosing easy-care varieties can make the difference between thriving plants and a wiped-out garden or a battle with bugs.

Mulch. Along with choosing the right plants, it’s important to put a breathable barrier between the ground and the atmosphere. “Mulch, mulch, mulch,” said McTaggart. Using a natural mulch, such as untreated wood chips, suppresses the growth of weeds, keeps moisture from evaporating too quickly and helps soil stay cooler. “Start with good soil and healthy plants, and mulch and water regularly,” said McTaggart, who doesn’t recommend materials such as stone or recycled rubber. While straw can be used, it blows away more easily than wood chips. 

Irrigation. Unless your garden has been flooded with rain, you’ll want to ensure it regularly gets a good soaking. You can recycle 2-liter pop bottles to water the plants and extend the time between your garden visits. Create a makeshift irrigation system by thoroughly washing several 2-liter bottles. Next, carefully punch a hole in the caps with a nail or other sharp object. Using kitchen scissors, cut the base off the bottle. Screw the cap back on the inverted pop bottle, and bury the end with the cap as near as possible to the plants you want to irrigate. The bottles should be deep enough to remain upright on their own. Use more than one bottle for plants that require more irrigation. Finally, fill the bottles with water before you leave the garden. Learn more on eHow.

Recruiting help

The above tips can extend the time between garden work sessions but won’t substitute for hands-on help. Here are some resources to find volunteers.

Summer school. Ideally, students will be involved in the garden. If your school is holding summer sessions, investigate working with summer school teachers to ensure the garden is cared for.

Summer garden club. Would students, parents or family members be willing to sign up to work in the garden on specific dates, in exchange for a share of the produce?

Senior centers. Check with your local senior center director to see if members may be willing to volunteer working in the garden, perhaps in exchange for some fresh produce they harvest there.

To make it easier for volunteers – and possibly prevent young plants from being weeded out – plants should be labeled, recommends McTaggart. Consider making plant labels by laminating or covering a seed packet with waterproof packing tape, then using the tape to attach it to a popsicle stick or plastic knife. You may wish to make a laminated chart of your garden, with pictures of the plants growing there, and store it with your gardening supplies.

Expert advice

Remember, your community partners are a great source of gardening wisdom, so ask for their advice if you need answers.

The Michigan State University Extension office can also offer expert tips.

Contact: Carol Groat, Master Gardener at (810) 695-0881, or Carol McTaggart, MSU Extension Master Gardener program coordinator, at (810) 244-8531 or carolmct@ msu.edu

For nearly the past decade – almost half of her career – Sandy Carey has worked with students in the Westwood Heights school district as a speech and language therapist.

Born and raised in Illinois, Carey lived in northern Wisconsin before moving to Michigan when her husband was transferred to Lansing. She returned to work after her three children were born.

The McMonagle Elementary speech teacher was instrumental in bringing a hydroponics garden to the school. Getting youth involved in gardening stems from an early childhood memory of working alongside her mother and grandparents in her family’s Victory Garden.

During World War II, citizens were encouraged to raise their own food in Victory Gardens, so commercially-grown produce could be canned and shipped to the troops. Because her family’s yard was small, the family obtained extra gas ration stamps to drive to a section of farmland where they grew vegetables, enough to load up their dirt-floor cellar with jars of tomatoes and green beans.

“Grandma, Grandpa, all of us worked on it,” said Carey, whose father and uncles were veterans. “It was very much a place-based kind of a venture.”

After working in education, Carey realized “children don’t have much of a connection to the outside at all, much less a place to safely be doing some gardening.”

Thanks to the hydroponics garden – where plants are grown in water – elementary students practice academic skills while charting pH and nutrient levels. Youth fill the garden reservoir with water, pick peppers and tomatoes and learn that food origins don’t have to be a mystery. “I think they’re proud they can grow their own food,” Carey said.

Bringing hope to students is especially important in a community where Carey knows students who were victims of shootings.

Along with working on students’ speech and language skills, she spends her days encouraging youth to help others, hoping they “find some success in something they like to do at school, something that can overshadow the darkness in their lives,” Carey said.

Carey’s upbeat nature and sense of humor give children a reason to smile.

“I try to give kids cheerfulness and hope,” Carey said. “I think the garden does that too.”


When work began last month on the Tucker Elementary courtyard garden beds in the Beecher district, Carol and Dave Groat were leading the way. The courtyard garden will eventually become home to both flowers and vegetables. But it won’t be students’ first exposure to raising plants.

For the past three years, the Groats have been helping teacher Shelly Roberts with her Tucker grow lab, where students raise plants year ‘round. In Roberts’ kindergarten class, children grew herbs to take home for Christmas, and planted cuttings donated by Davison Greenhouse to grow houseplants for Mother’s Day.

The Groats, who co-chair the Grow Lab division of the Genesee County Master Gardener Program, oversee 26 grow labs in 18 Flint-area elementary schools. Last year, Carol and Dave together logged 1,200 volunteer hours.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it,” said Carol, who says it gives her a chance to use her degree in education. Carol has worked with schools the past eight years; she brought Dave on board after he retired from General Motors. Dave, who grew up on a farm and has an engineering degree, often takes care of mechanical issues with the grow labs.

Carol teaches four to five lessons in each classroom every year, based on curriculum requirements. That might range from teaching about desert or rainforest plants for classes studying land forms, to teaching which plants American settlers brought with them, to planting peanuts while learning about George Washington Carver.

Although Carol grew up a “city girl” without gardening experience, she took classes to become a Master Gardener through the Michigan State University Extension program.  In the grow labs, Master Gardeners rely heavily on the help of other volunteers, known as “shepherds,” who check plants between visits. Roberts, a Master Gardener who acts as a shepherd for the grow lab in her class, started working with the Groats while teaching at Dailey Elementary.

Because children are fascinated with grow labs and motivated to take care of their own plants, Carol said she rarely encounters discipline problems. When students run into her outside of school, they excitedly point her out as the “plant lady,” she said.

The plant lessons apply not only to curriculum, but to students’ lives. Similar to a seedling growing toward the light, Carol tells young students, “Look for things that help you grow, eat right, get outside, keep your mind healthy, work hard. You’re all very capable of being successful.”

Dr. Don Hammond found a creative way to get around budget cuts hitting schools statewide:  The Beecher High School teacher started writing grants.

Hammond’s class was awarded $2,250 by Discovering Place for supplies and equipment to be used along a nature trail students built near the school.

Funds were also used to visit Flint’s Stockton Center – where students relocated seven types of plants – as well as for soil and brick pavers used along part of the trail. Students have already fed birds along the trail this winter. This spring they look forward to identifying plant and animal life in the outdoor classroom they have created.

“I think it makes us more environmentally conscious,” said Tyiesha, a Beecher High School junior who was involved with the project. “We’ll be attracting more wildlife and see more variety of species. Some people don’t get to see a lot of (wildlife).”

Students were instrumental in steering the project. They chose plants, mapped out planting locations and last fall began clearing out an invasive plant species to preserve a pond on the property, work that seemed to inspire the community, said Kevionte, a senior at the school.

“The Dailey Elementary kids come over and see how hard we work, and they want to help too,” he said. “We do a lot for our community and the community loves us back.”

The students are grateful for the effort Hammond has invested in the project. Some even see him as a “second father.” The project not only grabbed their attention, but has helped students bond as a class.

Hammond said place-based education creates this kind of rigor because it makes schoolwork more relevant to students.

Teaching along the trail has become a positive symbol for the district.

“I believe other schools look at Beecher as a violent community,” said Dantairous, a sophomore at the school. “But if they see what we do, it might influence more students to come to Beecher.”

Staff, students and the Beecher community will officially celebrate  the opening of the trail during a kickoff event, 2:30 p.m. April 21 at Beecher High School, 6255 Neff Road in Mt. Morris.

The event will feature food and fun; brochures will be available in the high school office to aid in identifying wildlife species along the trail.