students from an urban school in Ypsilanti, a working-class
community populated primarily by whites ( 58 percent) and
African Americans ( 33 percent), and 4th grade students
from a private school in Ann Arbor, an affluent university
community with a largely white ( 72 percent) and Asian ( 14
percent) population (U.S. Census, 2016). It is common in
Michigan and other areas of the country for schools with
socioeconomically privileged students to do service projects
for their less fortunate neighbors. One of the intentions of
this project has been to make sure that participants saw one
another as equals rather than givers and receivers.
The SEMIS Coalition and We Are The Forest, a local
nonprofit organization, worked with students from the
two schools to evaluate ecosystem services on their cam-
puses and develop strategies to improve waste water man-
agement, pollution filtration, and carbon sequestration on
their school grounds. Using digital storytelling, students
generated interest and support for reforestation in their
communities. Throughout the project, high school students
were able to support and mentor their younger colleagues.
As one girl from Ann Arbor said in a recent video, “I
thought it would be pretty hard to work with people who
were so much older than me, and I think the most unex-
pected thing that I learned was, as soon as we met, we
worked together really, really well.” 2
Three place-based, curricular scaffolds allowed students to find common ground and develop an affection for
one another and a sense of ethical responsibility for their
1. Students tackled the exact same problem at their two different schools. They saw the ways that weather, water, and
natural patterns intersected with their school buildings.
Students from both schools remarked how their playgrounds and athletic fields flooded after heavy rains,
making them unusable for a few days. This shared problem
became a unifying element throughout the project.
2. Students were learning the same skills and tools. They
were trained to use i Tree design software, a program that
allows students to collect field data and determine the most
beneficial places to introduce new trees and green infrastructure at their school site. Students felt empowered by
their newfound skills, and early successes translated into
increased confidence in their ability to work with nature
and apply local solutions to global problems.
3. Students developed common essential questions. Sup-
porting this project was a set of open-ended questions that
led students and their teachers into a deeper understanding
of the social and ecological context of their lives and work,
as well as seeing that local problems were nested within
n How many schools, students, forests, and parks make
up the Ypsi/Arbor corridor?
n What are the history and stories of this corridor?
n Where are the opportunities for new stories, new
forests, and student-led green infrastructure projects?
n How do the actions that I take in my school and
community affect those in other communities?
When using essential questions in the classroom,
teachers often plan backwards before instruction. But in
place-based education, more than in any other instructional
approach, teachers must keep this plan in tension with
what people in the SEMIS Coalition call planning forwards.
Most of us want to believe that we can make a difference and positively
affect the lives of others, and children and teachers are no different.
PHO TO BY ZENOBIA BARLO W/CENTER FOR ECOLITERACY