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Building a groundswell of support for fresh water

Students from two districts team up for project

Students in Sandy Brunett’s kindergarten class in Grandville and Patty Tolly’s sixth-grade class in Forest Hills aren’t letting a six-year age difference get in the way of a unique educational experience.

As part of a collaborative project for Groundswell, a community of partners creating opportunities for hands-on environmental learning in West Michigan, students in the two classes met at Grandville’s Central Elementary to explore local water systems.

“Living in Michigan surrounded by the Great Lakes makes learning about them vitally important to their continued good health,” said Tolly, a teacher at Central Woodlands 5/6 School. “We are so connected to the water system and many students have no idea how important it is in their own lives.”

Ally Johnson (left) reads with her penpal from Central Elementary in Grandville

Friends in Learning

Jade Petke, a Grandville kindergartner in Brunett’s class, was excited to meet her penpal from Forest Hills, Ally Johnson, in person.

“We talk about a lot of different things in our letters that are super fun,” Jade said. “Having the other class come here is fun because I finally get to meet my friend.”

Ally was happy to experience a different school for a day.

“It’s exciting going to other schools and meeting new people,” she said.

Exploring the local environment

Starting the year off as penpals, Grandville and Forest Hills students officially met in person on Oct. 11 to take a tour of the school, led by the kindergartners. They also read to each other, ate lunch and then explored Great Lakes Literacy Principles together at Buck Creek.

“Great Lakes literacy is understanding the influence of the Great Lakes on you and vice versa,” Tolly said. “Our future will depend on us having clean fresh water, and we need to develop students that are going to make sure that it is here for generations to come.”

Patty Tolly, left, and Sandy Brunett started a partnership between Forest Hills and Grandville students to observe local water systems

While at Buck Creek, students took photos of representations of local water systems such as animals, plants and other natural elements.

“We will be creating maps to track where water flows in hopes of putting in a rain garden,” Tolly said. “The end purpose of this is to collaborate on a project for Groundswell.”

Though Tolly has been working with Groundswell for years, this is Brunett’s first year with the program as the only teacher from Grandville and the sole kindergarten teacher involved.

“This is such a fun program for our students,” Brunett said. “I am excited to see where we can go with this throughout the year and onward.”

For both classes, the Buck Creek water system project touches on the environmental requirements of their curriculum as well as the importance of being sustainable.

Groundswell provides substitute reimbursement for teachers who attend professional development sessions as well as up to $1,000 of funding based on submitted project proposals for busing and other needs.

“They really do a great job,” Tolly said. “It’s such a fun thing to be a part of for both the teachers and the students.”

Dylan Buchanan listens to his Grandville partner read during a visit to Central Elementary

Learning from each other

Both Brunett and Tolly agree that the age gap between their students is an important educational tool.

“The older students will learn to be good role models for the younger students,” Brunett said. “Building the relationships between the two classes is positive for both age groups.”

For the sixth-graders, Tolly hopes that her students were able to share what they have learned in class with the kindergartners.

“It is important to work with them, because they not only get to feel in charge, and important, but it was a way for them to practice their reading skills for both age groups.

“I try to teach my students to be stewards of the environment, and this is a great way to share that.”

Tolly hopes that the lessons learned while collaborating with Grandville students will carry on to classroom activities.

“One of my many goals was for my students to become more aware of the environment,” she said. “To take the time to sit or walk around, to look at our school grounds and describe the details that they saw.”

Students from Grandville and Forest Hills work outside to sketch the layout of the local water systems

Leadership and Caring

Tolly’s passion for engaging students outside of the classroom stems from her own educational experience.

“I was not good at memorizing things, but if I could do it, or see it, I could remember it,” she said. “I have been teaching this way since before it was the ‘in’ thing to do.”

Keira Digennaro finds a comfortable spot to read with her Grandville penpal

Allowing students to experience curriculum first-hand is a priority for both teachers.

“Students got to get outside of the classroom and were able to express some of their other talents that they don’t always get to in class,” Tolly said. “For some, that was leadership that the class normally doesn’t see. For others, it was just caring about someone they don’t know.”

Both teachers hope that the skills learned during classroom activities can be applied to future student interests.

“My students work well when they are interacting with the materials we are learning,” Brunett said. “This is a great chance for an enriched experience and can be incorporated into a future career or at least a passion.”

Looking Ahead

Tolly and Brunett have several other activities planned for their penpals throughout the school year.

“Sandy and I are friends, so we’re really lucky to have this partnership for our students,” Tolly said. “I look forward to offering some more hands-on experiences as a team.”

In November, both classes will go to the Wittenbach Wege Agriscience Center in Lowell to learn more about native plants and how to prepare and grow seeds during the winter. The classes will take the information back to work on designing their own native garden.

Dylan Buchanan reads his partner’s favorite book
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Hannah Lentz
Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit.


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