Better together: high schoolers and second-graders tackle Plaster Creek

Second-grader Alexa Montano will be working with 11th-graders Kaniya Raby, left, and Sharolyn Rodriguez over the next two months to learn more about Plaster Creek

On a sunny, spring-like day, Kara Jones rounded up her second-grade students from Godfrey-Lee’s Early Childhood Center and walked with them across the district’s athletic fields adjacent to Plaster Creek. Their destination? The neighboring East Lee Campus, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools’ alternative high school program.

Once inside the building, Jones’ students scattered to classrooms and got acquainted with East Lee students, who read the younger pupils books that they had written about the creek outside.

Some of the second-graders were timid; others talkative. One girl had a case of the giggles. The meeting was the first of several weekly meetups that will happen between the two groups from now until the end of May as part of a “Community Legacy” unit at the high school, which uses a problem-based learning model.

Sharolyn Rodriguez and Kaniya Raby, 11th-graders, were all smiles as they got to know second-grader Alexa Montano. Kaniya said that creating the book was a little stressful and a lot of fun.

“Reading it to her just makes it all the more worth it,” said Kaniya, pointing to Alexa.

Second-grader Alfredo DeLeon said he liked the book that East Lee students Logan Barton and Joel Garcia wrote to teach him about Plaster Creek.

“We made it fun — added a time machine — and didn’t try to use big words,” said Joel. “I tried to make it as simple as possible.”

Troubled Water

While keeping it as simple as possible will be necessary in order to share what they’re learning with the second-graders, East Lee students have chosen a complex issue to tackle for this unit.

“As a school we’re trying to do something that makes an impact on the bigger community around us,” said English teacher Sarah Byrne, who is team-teaching the unit with social studies teacher Justin Noordhoek. “The students have chosen to focus on cleaning up Plaster Creek, which is the most polluted waterway in West Michigan, we’ve learned.”

The unit began with students researching the waterway, which runs alongside East Lee Campus and the Early Childhood Center, and taking a bus tour of the Plaster Creek watershed and Wyoming area led by David Britten, former superintendent and current historian for the district. The bus tour gave the students a chance to photograph the current landscape and understand the historical factors that contributed to pollution in the creek.

While they’re still gathering data and learning about Plaster Creek, East Lee students are moving into the action phase of their study. The students will look to Plaster Creek Stewards, a project led by faculty, staff, and students from Calvin College, for guidance. The group will lead the Godfrey-Lee students in activities at Shadyside Park in Dutton to help them recognize creek-related problems in agricultural areas, then will advise them on ways they can help to restore the watershed. This may include hands-on restoration efforts such as planting trees and installing rain gardens.

Partnering with with Jones’ class to pass on what they are learning seemed like a good fit for the East Lee students.

Noordhoek said that in the past, he’s noticed the students really thrive when working with younger students.

“I really think a lot of them have so much talent with little kids and they don’t sometimes see that in themselves,” said Noordhoek.

Leaving a Legacy Together

Jones, who has created and taught thematic units in her second-grade classroom on legacy concepts, was a natural partner for East Lee. The high school students will soon create lesson plans about Plaster Creek and teach them to Jones’ class. The two classes will also journal, take field trips, and plant trees together.

Jones said that teachers don’t often get the chance to bring different age levels together to work on a shared project. She said she hopes the collaboration will push her students to learn and will make the older students mindful of how they interact with younger ones, challenging everyone involved.

“I hope that they understand their environmental impact and that they make a new friend in the process,” said Jones.

Noordhoek said that he hopes this project shows students that they don’t need to wait for someone else to come and make a difference, and that they will feel empowered to do something when they recognize a problem: “They can be their own agents of change.”

Added Byrne, “Always our goal, no matter what projects we do, is that students are aware that they have the power to make the world a better place. If we can improve their literacy and critical thinking skills, and knowledge of history while doing this — that’s perfect.”

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio.

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