Green Thumbs – Learning about Companion Planting

In Green Thumbs, we continued our focus on networks in the garden, specifically companion planting where plants work together as a community. Using a Food Forest card game deck, students began playing various games, matching cards together based on the various inputs and outputs of each plant or aspect of the garden.

Over the course of the year, we will add customized cards based on our location. This is a great way for students to build an understanding of the relationships amongst plants, pollinators, pests and beneficial insects and will inform their planning when we design our garden spaces.

Making Sense of English Spelling

This week, we also began a systematic exploration of the English spelling system. English spelling is often categorized as being random or filled with confusing rules and exceptions. When English spelling is understood as indicating the history, structure, and meaning of the word, the spelling begins to make far more sense.
We looked at the word “sign” and asked where the “g” came from since we clearly don’t hear it. Using a historical lens, we found its Latin root signare. We then began making connections between sign, signal, design, and signature based on their meaning and structure.

The Odyssey . Science and Myth

Part of our work with The Odyssey this week focused on the encounter with Circe where Odysseus’s men found themselves turned into pigs after a lavish feast. Thanks to a gift from Hermes, Odysseus was able to remain unaffected by her treachery, free his men and gain an ally in Circe.

When considering the ways in which myths can be considered true, it’s interesting to note the way stories or fantasy can be woven with fact. The video below shows what some believe to be botanical explanations for both Circe’s power to turn the men into pigs and the source of Odysseus’s protection.

Sharing at the SEMIS Coalition Community Forum

This week we traveled to Eastern Michigan University to present at the SEMIS Coalition Community Forum, an annual celebration where students share their place-based education experiences with attendees across generations.

Our first session focused on our collaboration with We Are The Forest, a local non-profit that focuses on biomimicry and reforestation education. This work included using iTree software to calculate the monetary value of the ecosystem services that trees on our campus provide. Learning to collect and share this data enables students to make the case for the protection and expansion of forests from an economic standpoint. They also shared information about the ecosystems services trees provide and the functions of the various trees in the native tree library they planted on campus.

Our second session focused on the work students have done around the Flint Water Crisis and Dioxane Plume in Ann Arbor, two issues impacting local community members.

When investigating the Flint Water Crisis, students researched the history of the issue using the power of why to deepen their questions, beginning with lead in the water and ending with questions about the effects of automation and globalization on manufacturing communities. The students also collaborated with the Kindergarten class to hold a water drive for a school in Flint. When visiting the school, our class also interviewed the students there, wanting to know their stories from their perspective. Finally, we began discussing possible solutions including decentralized water systems as discussed by Matt Grocoff and U of M’s BlueLAB as well as Nate Ayers and Jesse Tack of Flint Water Solutions. The possibility of mycoremediation was also brought up as fungi have been shown to remediate soils contaminated with lead and bacteria in streams.

Finally, we began discussing possible solutions including decentralized water systems as discussed by Matt Grocoff and U of M’s BlueLAB as well as Nate Ayers and Jesse Tack of Flint Water Solutions. The possibility of mycoremediation was also brought up as fungi have been shown to remediate soils contaminated with lead and bacteria in streams. Students also performed experiments with Lisa Johnson exploring corrosion.

Our investigation of the Dioxane Plume in Ann Arbor began with a similar approach. After gathering the basic facts, we traveled to Danny’s house which is located within the area affected by the plume. There we met Roger Rayle, co-founder and chairman of Scio Residents for Safe Water, a watchdog group that has monitored the spread of the plume and pressured government officials to take action. Roger shared several maps he had made on Google Earth showing the spread of the plume over time and talked about the ways it has and will continue to affect residents that get their water from wells as well as those on city water, as the plume makes its way towards Barton Pond, which provides 85% of the city’s drinking water.

As for solutions, we discussed how a decentralized water system would benefit Ann Arbor and are constructing a rain barrel with the hopes of investigating the potability of rainwater collected onsite. We also tested Carbon filtration with Lisa Johnson and will be experimenting with solar stills in the coming weeks.

Finally, after Clara sent me a report claiming dioxane-contaminated groundwater may be surfacing in West Park, we discussed phytoremediation (using plants to decontaminate pollutants) and a study that showed hybrid poplar trees being used in phytoremediation of dioxane. We will be contacting city officials and sending the information along with the hopes that they will investigate and take action.

Many of the students were nervous about presenting but walked away feeling more confident and empowered by the responses. It was so great to see them engaged with coalition members of all ages and excited to return next year to share their efforts.

What Are Trees Worth?

We have been spending time preparing for the SEMIS Coalition Community Forum at Eastern Michigan University where we will be sharing some of the work we have been doing. Part of this work includes our collaboration with We Are The Forest, a local organization devoted to ecosystem education and reforestation. In addition to planting a native tree library on the campus, the students have been using a website called i-Tree to assess the value of the trees on campus in terms of ecosystem services they provide.

While many of us understand the value of trees and the benefits they provide, that information isn’t usually quantified and framed in terms of savings in energy cost, stormwater management, filtration of pollutants and carbon sequestration. Using the software enabled the students to calculate the value of trees on our campus in terms of the ecosystem services they provide.


Water Quality Monitoring – County Farm Creek

As a continuation of our water studies, we recently journeyed across the street to County Farm Creek to work with Catie Wytychak, an Environmental Specialist for the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office. Our task was to monitor the quality of water measuring turbidity, phosphates, and nitrates. Afterwards, we discussed possible contributors as well as solutions.

Catie visited our class the following week to discuss our results and play a game that helped demonstrate how water travels in our community and the ways in which contaminants can spread.


Genius Hour

The students have chosen individual projects and skills they want to develop and will have dedicated time each week to pursue these. Groups have coalesced around different themes including illustration, architecture, baking, sewing and programming.


Nufonia Must Fall

This week we were fortunate to attend a production of Nufonia Must Fall, a story of a soon to be obsolete, headphone wearing robot who falls in love with a girl in his office. The production was unique in that it was filmed in real-time, with puppets being manipulated on miniature stages and projected for the audience to see. The score was done by the creator, Kid Koala and the Cecilia Quartet, incorporating piano, strings and turntables into the action. Many of the students commented on how much they enjoyed seeing the film from the different perspectives and making connections between the individual scenes and how the artists manipulated objects to create movement.


Visit with Chickens

We were lucky to visit Andrew’s house this week to learn more about caring for chickens. The hands-on experience provided the students with an opportunity to observe and interact with the chickens and their space. We will take what we have learned and draft our presentation for city council next week.

Many thanks to Andrew, Miriam and their parents for welcoming us and sharing their knowledge. I also want to thank Clara for her work as our photographer.






One aspect of understanding systems is understanding the emergent properties that result from the interactions between the parts. This can be summed up by the phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What makes emergent properties so fascinating is that the effect is often undetectable by simply observing the individual components.

Our exploration of this concept began with an episode of Radiolab and a couple of stories of emergence in the insect world including the synchronized flashes of certain populations of fireflies and the sophistication of ant colonies.

We also observed murmurations of starlings and read Mary Oliver’s, Starlings in Winter with an initial focus on the feelings the poem elicited in us. We will return to the poem next week to take note of the way she uses imagery, metaphor and repetition.

Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,

even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable, beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.


SK – 3rd / 4th Grade

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