Great Lakes Literacy: Telling Our Story

ashleyGuest Post by Ashley Miller Helmholdt, SEMIS Website and Newsletter Content Contributor

The Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS Coalition) started out their school year focused on the history of place and its connection to literature and the larger Great Lakes. One of the major focus areas was working with schools to tell their personal story and the story of their community. In the accounting of project stories through both creative expression and through the discovery of natural and cultural histories unique to their city and watershed, students and educators alike tapped into a critical aspect of place-based education.

Engaging in fictional accounts of local places, researching the history of a river, or discovering a local natural area are some of the complementary methods used by SEMIS Coalition teachers to enrich both right brain and left brain learners in understanding nature and the human relationship to it. Oftentimes, our abstract lessons on environmental science neglect the emotional and creative connection to place that are essential for students’ motivation for environmental action. Data collection and analysis are critical skills for understanding the Great Lakes system, but so is the integration of reflective writing, comparative literature, and the understanding of history’s role in current social and environmental issues. The humanities, while often separated from the physical and ecological sciences, are being utilized more and more by educators to bridge a gap in environmental understanding.

SEMIS_March_2015_025Earth Force and NOAA have helped the SEMIS Coalition in merging Great Lakes science with the arts, by engaging in field experiences, professional development days, and resources that support the historical, creative writing, and literature focus. For instance, the theme of the EcoJustice and Activism Conference at EMU in March was arts and advocacy and included interactive SEMIS Coalition sessions. One session focused on  youth civic participation, with students presenting their ideas and starting a discussion about what youth civic engagement means. Students from the Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody High School and the Experiencia Preparatory Academy adapted the Earth Force Environmental Citizen activity to draw what a civically engaged young person would look like, highlighting their strength, heart, open mind, confidence, and willingness to work with and listen to others. The discussion during this session lead the SEMIS Coalition to the following principles of youth civic engagement:

  • The practice of working collectively in community partnerships with fellow citizens nurtures the civic commitments of students.
  • It is important to address issues of public concern.
  • Young people can be active citizens now.  They don’t have to wait until they can vote or solely tell government representatives what they think should be done, they can also participate by engaging in community action.
  • It is important that the process is student generated and driven at various levels. They can come up with ideas, create plans and put those plans into action.
  • There are multiple entry points for civic engagement. It takes place in the context of the school and community where it is happening, so each example will look different.
  • Youth-adult and peer-to-peer interaction are important.
  • Presenting in public forums helps students to grow and build efficacy.
  • Civic engagement includes engaging with the natural community. Civics includes all species and all living systems.
  • There is a lot of civic and community life that is outside of politics. Civic actions include that which is outside of interacting with governmental bodies, like formal and informal civic groups, environmental groups, social movements, advocacy in media and the arts.
  • Policies, practices and shifts in mindset or mind frame are all action spaces.


One of SEMIS projects that exemplifies these principle with a focus on literature, history and water quality is Morgan Lantz’s 6 grade project at Experiencia Preparatory Academy focused on water rights, global systems that influence water access, and local efforts to improve sustainable farming. The students learned about the algal bloom in Lake Erie, the water shutoffs in Detroit, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the history of water usage in Detroit. From this base, and from a partnership with Water for the Americas, a non-profit advocating for water rights for farmers and specifically coffee growing communities, students put on a fundraiser and raised over $600 for a water purification system for a sister school in Mexico. In Detroit, they set up hydroponic gardening systems in their classroom to help feed local people in need, and learned about sustainable farming practices and the history of farming and water quality in the Great Lakes basin.  Students created a blog to share their story, and read the story “A Long Walk to Water” to understand other contexts for water issues abroad.  Students also presented to an adult audience at the Great Lakes Education Initiative Place-Based Education Conference in November.

A multidisciplinary approach to water quality research working with scientific, historical, and literary content stretches the imaginations and abilities of these students, creating true stewards of the environment who think both globally and locally about the value of the Great Lakes watershed.