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Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by 2019 National Geographic Education Fellow Willie Buford.
I am a native and current resident of Flint, Michigan, where lead exposure has impacted most of our community. After-school and summer or Out of School Time (OST) programs can be used to inspire—and empower—students to take action on environmental and other issues affecting their communities. Even now with the movement to distance learning, there is great potential for OST programs to provide enriching and engaging opportunities for young people, and for traditional classroom teachers to learn and try out these strategies in their virtual teaching settings. As site manager for the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce’s YouthQuest afterschool initiative, I can personally speak to the importance of OST programs.
During the summer of 2019, I served as a teacher to eighth graders in the Flint Community Schools Summer Scholars program. These eighth graders used the National Geographic Geo-Inquiry Process to take action on an issue that mattered to them. For the first phase of the Geo-Inquiry process, I showed two documentaries about our city as prompts to guide the students’ development of an organic Geo-Inquiry question. To inspire local thinking and interest, I showed This Is the Last Dance and He Grew Up on the Streets, Now He’s Making Them a Better Place. My students were able to relate to the ongoing closing of Flint Community Schools, the hardship of living in poverty, and dealing with trauma in the city. A week prior to this they had lost a classmate due to gun violence.
After spending time learning and reflecting about Flint, we went outside! We toured a few local parks where the students could conduct a BioBlitz and use the iNaturalist app. I chose to conduct a BioBlitz because it is an interactive way to collect data and introduce students to their local ecosystems. While this activity happened in the classroom before the pandemic, it can easily be adapted for independent exploration from home instead of a group fieldtrip. During our outing, students marveled over the different spiders, birds, and even deer they encountered in their own neighborhoods. While riding around the city, looking out their windows, or poking around a backyard, I asked the students to reflect on two questions:
1. What things stick out to you that you find negative about Flint?
2. What things do you see that make you feel positive about Flint?
After the BioBlitz, we discussed their answers and began generating “ask” ideas. Students used Geo-Inquiry guidebook resources such as the “tubric” and the “flow chart” to perfect their Geo-Inquiry question: “What can we, the citizens of Flint, do to protect our roads and clean our waterways?”
During the next phase of the Geo-Inquiry Process, my students used Google Earth to locate intersections throughout Flint with lots of trash in the street. They then created physical maps that used actual trash from outside to represent the high volume of trash at intersections, mainly around liquor stores. This discovery led to a conversation about the impact of liquor stores in our community, which was where the students’ classmate had recently lost their life.
These conversations inspired my students to feel a call to action and find an answer to their Geo-Inquiry question. To help clean their environment, they posted flyers around the liquor stores that resided in the high-trash areas with the hopes of changing the behaviors of littering and loitering. They also wanted to place 15 trash cans at the intersections.
My students used the communications template from the Geo-Inquiry resource guide to request trash cans from their councilman. When the councilman did not have the funds to purchase the cans, they reached out to local businesses for donations—everyone they reached out to agreed to donate. The students also contacted the liquor store owners to ensure that the trash cans were permitted on the properties and that they would be emptied regularly. My students were so inspired to action that when faced with obstacles, they persevered and continued to work toward making an impact in their community.
By sharing stories about Flint, taking the students outdoors, and leading conversations about community behaviors, my students learned about social, economic, and environmental factors in their own community. And when they learned about an environmental factor they didn’t like, they did something about it. What will your students learn about themselves and the world when you turn your community into a space for exploration, authentic learning, and further expand the boundaries of your classroom?
Willie Buford is a 2019 National Geographic Education Fellow and a site manager for the Flint & Genesee (Michigan) Chamber of Commerce YouthQuest after-school initiative.