Place-Based Stewardship Education Initiative
Eco-justice education – a blend of environmental education and social justice – is at the heart of the Place-based Stewardship Education Initiative of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition. Based out of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, the program works closely with teachers to create and implement inspiring curriculum that helps children grow into good environmental stewards.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition Director Ethan Lowenstein
: There are at least three aspects of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS) that make it innovative, if not unique. First, the program takes an EcoJustice perspective on Place-Based Education. It helps teachers and their students to not only identify social-ecological problems in their communities, but to gain a better understanding of the root cultural causes of these problems. We live in a culture that supports environmental degradation. So what is it in our thinking that allows us to treat the “natural world” in this way?
Another innovative aspect of SEMIS is that we function as a Coalition of schools and community partners in diverse communities in Southeast Michigan. Six of our schools are in Detroit, two in Ann Arbor, and one in Lincoln Park. We have 28 community partners, some more active than others, but all part of the Coalition. Being in a Coalition means that you stay in
...we’ve learned that it’s not enough to work with single or small groups of teachers, although we can certainly do that with some positive effect. You really have to involve the entire school in instructional reform.
relationship for a long time and that as relationships deepen, so does the collective ability to know the strengths that different people and organizations bring to the community. When a teacher from one school volunteers to model a lesson for a teacher in another, not because she’s getting paid, but because she’s in a coalition with that teacher, then we know we have a true coalition, and that’s happening in SEMIS.
Finally, we respect teachers as professionals. Believe it or not that can be considered innovative these days. The research says that to support teacher growth, they need ongoing sustained support, both on-site and off, and many hours of it. So we have a four-day intensive summer institute that is aimed at transforming how teachers see themselves, the world, and their teaching. We then offer a variety of site-based supports including curriculum coaching, lesson modeling, and on-site workshops. We then provide the time and space during the year for teachers to reflect on their practice and to form meaningful partnerships with each other and community organizations that can help them accomplish their goals.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
The best thing that’s happened in the last year is that our partnerships within the coalition have reached an impressive level of depth. This is the fifth anniversary of our program; we are a young organization, so there’s a lesson there about the time that it takes to build authentic, trusting, and reciprocal relationships. These are really the defining characteristics of a strong coalition. We tend to be so isolated in our society. We’re isolated as individuals and we’re isolated as organizations. And the more that funding becomes scarce, and the more that public education is under attack, the more pressure there is to compete against each other, or to hunker down and cut money that in the past had supported relationship building.
So we take the opposite approach—and it’s bearing fruit. Even in times like these, we operate from a paradigm of abundance. Schools call us and tell us what they need, and when we call them for something, they trust that if we’re asking for something we have a good reason. Schools are working with each other to share resources. For example, we’re seeing schools invite another to professional development opportunities in their schools. We’re seeing experienced administrators mentor new ones.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
Recently, we’ve learned that it’s not enough to work with single or small groups of teachers, although we can certainly do that with some positive effect. You really have to involve the entire school in instructional reform. Today’s teaching
The same beliefs and values that support consumerism, lead to trashing the planet at an incredibly rapid rate.
environments change quickly—a principal leaves, a lead teacher or new policy or funding cuts prevent teachers from leaving the building. We’ve learned that the principal has to not only be “on board” with SEMIS but involved in co-planning and share the vision of the coalition. Another reason for working in entire schools is that you can’t really put any more on teachers’ plates. They’re already putting 200 percent into their work. So if you are going to work in schools and make real and lasting change, you have to integrate your program seamlessly into existing structures and instructional improvement plans.
What really differentiates this program?
The social and ecological crises that our society faces are interconnected. Consumerism, for example, which is a very strong social force, has some pretty potent social effects—for example, we start to value things over relationships with each other. The same beliefs and values that support consumerism, lead to trashing the planet at an incredibly rapid rate. In a typical “environmental education” program, or in a “social justice” program, social and environmental problems are disconnected from each other, even when they have the same root causes. So this approach—what we call EcoJustice Education—is an interesting and holistic approach to “stewardship.”
There aren’t many programs doing this work, and none in the country, that we are aware of, that couple this approach with sustained and deep professional development for teachers within the context of a regional coalition with diverse schools and community partners. There is a growing movement to support this approach, and I would say that we’re at the cusp of this movement.
What are the keys to success for your program?
At the organizational level, we are a learning organization. The Steering Committee is constantly reflecting on the work we do, looking at data of various sorts, and making adjustments. We know what we’re doing is ambitious, and we’re lucky to have unbelievably knowledgeable, sophisticated, and flexible staff. We are also lucky that SEMIS is run out of Eastern Michigan University. We have brilliant students interested in EcoJustice Education, including students in our recently launched EcoJustice concentration in the Social Foundations of Education MA program. And we are very deliberate in helping these students to use SEMIS as an experiential learning context.
How do you innovate curriculum to use with school-aged children? Where do the ideas come from? How do you know if they are going to work?
Teachers, and especially the teachers we work with, are innovating and creating new curricula all the time. An important change that we’ve seen in many of our teachers is that they are much more comfortable, after being in SEMIS for several years, in letting questions come from the students themselves. The teacher then becomes a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” in helping students to follow their curiosity. In our experience, teachers need guides too. SEMIS coaches do everything from modeling innovative lessons, to helping teachers “plan backwards” from intended curriculum outcomes, to helping teachers apply a more rigorous place-based approach to their teaching.
Another source of innovation is our electronic project portfolio and the reflective process that accompanies it. Throughout their work with students, teachers document and reflect on their teaching and student learning. We then provide them with opportunities to present their reflections and the work of their students. One such opportunity is the annual Place-Based Education conference in Lansing. This conference draws place-based educators from all over the region. Another opportunity is our annual Community Forum. Next year’s will be at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. It is pretty amazing to see what can happen when you get a group of talented teachers together in the same room, generating curriculum with the help of curriculum coaches and community partners. Some incredible things can happen.