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Tools for Teachers


Throughout the yearly professional development days this year, we’ve gathered resources to support your work with place-based education.  Below are examples of resources we’ve featured in the past, and tools developed for teachers based on educator input.  Please help us to grow this list with your suggestions and comments in the Common Room Blog!


SEMIS partners provide a wide range of curriculum content that enable high quality, place-based environmental education.  Please contact SEMIS staff with your interest in the following resources.  Examples of frequently used environmental content include:


Civic engagement is just as important as environmental content in SEMIS, and linking knowledge with effective action and social studies is based in academic service-learning and action civics.  SEMIS core curriculum and philosophy around civic engagement processes comes from long-term partners, such as:


The Coalition brings together content standards, environmental place-based curriculum and civic engagement processes to help young people become ready for college and careers and to achieve learning goals around content standards.  The following tools can help teachers to navigate how Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core are translated to SEMIS place-based education, with the support of SEMIS coaches:


The following resources were developed with the support of SEMIS staff and partners to help with developing partnerships, projects, as well as evaluating and then sharing those stories with the community.

School Profile:  Morgan Lantz at Experiencia Academy

Teacher Team/Teacher Affiliate:  Morgan Lantz

Community Need or Issue Addressed:  Access to clean water and healthy food in local and international communities.

Place-Based Activity Description:

Morgan’s class of 4th and 5th graders began investigating the international water crisis in the second semester of the 2013-2014 school year.  Morgan’s friend, Paul Cebul, from Reach Trade LLC. out of Wooster, Ohio, runs a coffee company with a unique campaign - Water for the Americas.  This campaign included a 15,000 mile drive from Boston to Rio de Janeiro to raise awareness about the water crisis throughout the Americas and to demonstrate the importance of water stewardship.  Paul stopped in Detroit and visited Morgan’s class.  Through his encouragement, students wanted to support his project in Mexico to increase clean water, through sustainable coffee growing, water stewardship education, and advocacy for local groups supporting clean water and organic agriculture.   They came up with a project idea of making caramel apples and selling at the school - to their surprise, this fundraiser was a huge hit and raised $600 for the Water for the Americas project in just a few days!  $100 went to the advocacy campaign, and $500 went to a water nano-purification system for a school in Guadalajara.  This outreach project in Guadalajara will be managed by Reach Trade and Selva Negra, the non-profit organization of the famous, Grammy Award winning, Mexican rock band, Mana

This initial project was so successful, that Morgan decided to continue the project in the 2014-2015 school year with a hydroponics garden.  Morgan started teaching all of the 6th grade subjects, and had many of the same students as the previous year who were excited to start working on the next phase of the project.  At the same time that they were investigating local solutions to water quality, the Detroit water shutoffs were occurring, only further motivating the class to take action locally.  SEMIS staff worked with Experiencia to develop a three pronged curriculum looking at the triple bottom line of hydroponic gardening  - equity, ecology and economy of growing hydroponic plants.  They purchased their “Tower Garden” with funds from a fundraising campaign, which grows vegetables vertically using 20 gallons of reusable water pumped and distributed throughout the system with nutrients and a growing medium.  Students started a blog to talk about the value of their system for growing food with local clean water supplies, as a possible solution to both conserving water and addressing food security in the City of Detroit.

Partners and Resources:

SEMIS Connections:

  • Rebecca Nielsen with Nielsen Education Consulting and the SEMIS Steering Committee worked with Morgan to develop a unique curriculum based around the “Triple Bottom Line” - Equity, Environment and Economy - to teach the benefits of the hydroponics gardening system.

  • In 2015, Morgan will receive funds to support expanding the hydroponics gardening system to donate more food to charity.

Resources from outside sources:

  • Donors Choose, a crowd funding site for teacher’s projects, helped to support the hydroponic gardening tower.

Community Partners:

  • Teach for America made Morgan’s classroom experience possible!

  • Working with Escuela Avencemos to pilot this same program at another Spanish language school in Detroit.

  • Paul Cebul at Reach Trade Company supported the youth’s project with a school in Mexico, and educated the class on international water issues and farming.
  • Morgan partnered with Ethan Lowenstein’s EMU pre-teacher education course to support the project direction.

Outcomes for Students’ Learning:

Students learned a process for engaging virtually and locally in the clean water and healthy food discussion that involved both international understanding and local impact.  The inquiry-based project started with the student’s interest in the international water crisis through the work of Paul Sebull, an expert in both food systems and the importance of clean water for the sustainability of the coffee trade.  Many of the students in Morgan’s class are of Hispanic descent, so the relevancy of their connection to Mexico in particular was the hook that focused their goals for supporting clean water in this country.  Starting with this global perspective, and fine tuning that theme for the relevant local water and food access crisis in Detroit brought home the importance of this lesson in their own backyard.  Learning about and drafting new water rights like those of the United Nations linked the local discussion about water turn-offs and the international discussion about water sanitation in Mexico and South America.  Students also gained public presentation skills at the Place-Based Education Conference in November, giving them a public forum to share the skills and successes of their project.  Students shared their passion for clean water in many different formats, including a  YouTube video and blog the students created.  The relevance of this study working with students in their community and around the world is so powerful, that they have worked to continue their fundraising and hydroponic garden by selling a special coffee through Reach Trade that will support clean water, roasted in Detroit and featuring hand decorated bags by the students.  Such student motivation to continue and grow their work is a clear sign of successful project-based learning.  

Outcomes for Educator’s Learning:

Morgan’s experience with SEMIS has developed with her Teach for America career and her renewed commitment to both Detroit and urban education.  She participated in past professional development days and community forums focused on the environmental  history of southeast Michigan and telling the story of our places.  She also travelled north to Alpena to participate their summer institute, and further learned about the importance of the Great Lakes in the story of global water health.  These experiences, along with the coaching of Nielsen Education Consulting and the support of Ethan Lowenstein in his pre-teacher education courses in development of lesson plans, Morgan is now able to bring this pilot project to other schools this year and spread this important expertise in water and food studies in her career.

Powerful Place-Based Educator Characteristics:

  • Finding and inviting experts and community members into your classroom

  • Collaborating with other schools/teachers in the Coalition

  • Using an inquiry approach

  • Creating lessons and projects that provide for student voice and student driven inquiry  

  • Providing opportunities for students to see the “results” their work in the school and community

  • Visioning the future to discuss and debate, “What should our community be?”

  • Connecting students to the local economy (e.g., garden to market, developing small                 

  • businesses)

  • Putting students in the position of “teacher” (e.g., during Community Forum, PBE conference,                    

  • Summer Institute, presentations to their community)

  • Helping students to see themselves as part of a watershed and the Great Lakes community


Methods and Assessments:

Methods for Data Collection

  • Tracking and researching how plants (tomatoes, eggplant and lettuces) grow in a hydroponic system versus a soil system, and adjusting location of plants in tower to increase growth

  • Collecting water quality information in different geographic regions of the Americas, and researching articles on local algal bloom problems in Toledo.

  • Researching universal declaration of human rights, including water rights

Assessment Measures

  • Students created a blog to post information about their project progress

  • Students looked at three different geographic locations (Sudan, Peru and Detroit) and chose one to research  and develop a context-sensitive solution to water quality issues there.

Interdisciplinary Tie-Ins

  • Morgan teachers across all disciplines for 6th grade classes, so she integrated science lessons (plant biology, water quality) with social studies (international water policy) and English (writing UN Declaration of Human Rights).

Tell Your


Use the new website to help you track your students and your progress as a SEMIS educator!

With the launch of the new SEMIS website, we need your help to keep it current and full of the good work you and your classes are doing.  Contact Ethan if you want to have your project story featured in the Common Room blog, newsletter or Shared Stories section of the website

PD Highlight:  History of the Commons

Our future sustainability - both social and environmental - are linked through our understanding of how the present circumstances are a reflection of our natural, cultural and place-based history.  Without an understanding of history, we are operating out of context and missing the underpinnings of our most pressing issues today.  This was the theme of the October 3rd and January 30th PD with Matt Siegrfried, who presented some of the tools for effectively teaching about our place-based history. 

Matt modeled the historic process, much like we model the scientific process, to engage students in place-based environmental history.  Specific tools include:
  • Analysing competing perspectives on history, and taking a perspective on which history is most accurate.
  • Interviewing elders and understand the history according to different groups.
  • Analyzing primary and secondary sources critically
  • Using historic and current maps to see changes and patterns in land use
  • Take a historic tour with a local history expert, use your senses to understand your surroundings
  • Research at libraries, archives and online ancestry resources
Several SEMIS schools will be working with Matt to dive deeper into their local histories and will share across schools the lessons learned and community education projects that evolve. For instance, Experiencia Academy, the Waldorf School, John Paul II and Neinas Elementary have been working with Matt to understand how their individual school grounds and buildings are a part of the history of the Detroit area.  For instance, on November 1st, teachers took a tour of a Huron Village site in Ypsilanti, exploring Native American landscape and history of the region, from the Pontiac’s Rebellion and Tecumseh in the War of 1812 to early Indian farming and village life, and post-European development.  Following this, the Waldorf School took a tour of the Detroit River all the way to the Huron River, identifying different uses of the waterfront by different Native groups, European settlers and modern industry.  In December, Experiencia students came to Eastern Michigan University and explored the placement and history of buildings and roads, and how they mirrored Native trails, French development and English settlement.

Schools projects are evolving to match the individual needs of schools, including preliminary research investigations of each school’s property to pre-European times.  Some of the findings from this research include discovering school property lines followed old French long-lot development patterns, and a history of slavery in the early settlement period of the region.  Matt will also be guiding each school to do profiles of historically significant teachers who worked there, going all the way back to Neinas in the 1920’s, and Experiencia (once called Jefferson) in the 1800’s - one of the oldest public schools in Detroit.  One action project that is being discussed is an education campaign about an old Native American Village site preservation project in the new bridge proposals being discussed in Detroit.

Using  the built and natural environment as a starting point will help students understand why the streets and lots are where there are, who they are named after and the role of the natural environment - the Detroit River - in linking these pieces together.  Matt has shared some photos and documents from his investigations with teachers as inspiration for you to think about using place as an entry point to history.

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