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Environmental educator on a quest to make learning more meaningful — and fun

Rockstar teacher: Patty Tolly

Forest Hills —  Every quest has similar elements: a reason to leave something you know, challenges and obstacles encountered, helpful companions, and realizations along the journey. 

Central Woodlands teacher Patty Tolly has taught sixth grade for the last 14 of her 28 years in Forest Hills. She has always been an enthusiastic teacher with great passion for teaching and learning, but after more than a decade in the classroom she had a sense that she could do things differently. Her quest? To learn how to provide more authentic, real-life experiences to make learning more meaningful and fun for students. 

From left, sixth-graders Ben Hoffman, Kilian Erhardt and Grant McFarland explore one of the classroom stations that foster curiosity and collaboration

A turning point in her journey involved a garden. With the help of Groundswell Stewardship Initiative — a community coalition for hands-on environmental learning — she learned to teach math not primarily by reading and solving written problems, but by asking students to literally get their hands dirty by using their geometry and measurement skills to plan and plant a garden. 

After she became a Groundswell member in 2010, “it changed everything,” said the Western Michigan University graduate. 

More community partners came alongside to help on this and other projects, including West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW), the John Ball Zoo and Ada Township Park. All have been invaluable, says Tolly: “It is great to have community partners who help to make learning authentic and real.” 

Groundswell feels likewise about Tolly, who received the organization’s annual “Swell” Teacher Award for 2023. 

‘We can speak up. It’s a safe environment.’

— sixth-grader Aven Bell

Groundswell Manager Jessica Vander Ark praised Tolly’s commitment to environmental stewardship and her students, and for her leadership within the organization’s educational community. 

She points out the eight Groundswell topics that Tolly has taught — including everything from composting to controlled burning — and notes her “example and commitment to exemplary place-based stewardship education in West Michigan.” 

“Patty is an incredible example of the range of exciting possibilities that can exist within the course of a school day,” Vander Ark said

Eileen Boekestein, environmental education coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy agreed that Tolly is swell.

“I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working alongside Patty and her students for several years as a community partner and then getting to have my own daughter go through her class,” Boekestein said. “She is far and away one of the best teachers I’ve ever met. I’m so happy she received this award from Groundswell Stewardship Initiative.”

Students get out and about on snowshoes at Central Woodlands

Allies on the Quest  

Tolly had other helpers along the way, too. Experiences that made the “light bulb go off,” as she put it, included learning the ins and outs of design thinking through professional development with the Educational Technology Department at Kent ISD, being part of the Buck Institute for Education and attending Ottawa ISD’s futurePREP’d program. 

Through these and other alliances, her community of project-based educators grew, as did meaningful learning — for herself as well as for her students.

‘It is great to have community partners who help to make learning authentic and real.’

— Patty Tolly, sixth-grade teacher, on the importance of others on a learning journey

Tolly’s students are with her all day for all subjects, an unusual arrangement for sixth grade and something both she and the students appreciate. The class sometimes holds “family meetings” when “things get wonky,” she says.  

Student Caitlyn Colin noted that they “are always with each other, like family.” Added classmate Aven Bell, “We can speak up. It’s a safe environment.” Said Mia Todd, “Everyone’s nice. Mrs. Tolly makes things fun.” 

Tolly learns a lot too from her students, sometimes when she isn’t even looking for it. Just getting to know students helped her find ways to incorporate their interests into things they do at school. 

Student voice is important in her classroom, where Tolly provides lots of freedom within a structure. After posing a question like how to solve water pollution in the Great Lakes, she explains, “Students have to decide how they want to solve it. Students are able to choose (from several projects) what they are interested in and yet still answer the question.”

Puzzling it Out, Together 

She never guessed that something as simple as setting out a jigsaw puzzle would resonate with students as much as it did. 

Students spend much of their “choice time” working together on these puzzles, and enjoy solving the problem that a puzzle presents. Tolly speculates the cooperative nature of the activity and having a common goal may fuel their enjoyment.

An advocate of project-based learning, she applied successfully for a MiSTEM grant on behalf of the school. Through that award every sixth-grade student at Central Woodlands was able to travel to Suttons Bay earlier this year to participate in the Great Lakes Watershed Field Course for a full day. 

‘Everyone’s nice. Mrs. Tolly makes things fun.’

— sixth-grader Mia Todd

The Inland Seas Education Association offers this place-based opportunity to “act as a scientist” through collecting aquatic life, examining water samples and even helping raise the sails and steer the ship. The opportunity not only exposed students to the Great Lakes ecosystem, but also gave Tolly and her grade-level colleagues hands-on experience in what project-based learning looks like in action. 

Her dream is that every student in the school will experience project-based education like this. Part of the MiSTEM grant was used to support teacher education.

Tolly’s students learn about invasive species outside Central Woodlands school and record the results in journals

Groundswell’s Vander Ark pointed out in awarding Tolly that the journey toward new ways of teaching and learning can be challenging: “We know it is not always easy, but your perseverance makes you a clear choice for this award.” 

Tolly set out on a quest 13 years ago. She found Groundswell and through that collaboration learned new ways to fuel her own passion for teaching. Others came alongside and helped, and students affirmed that the path she was on was meaningful, helpful, and fun for their own learning journeys. 

Collaborating with others, working toward common goals, and finding new joy in learning are the puzzle pieces she is putting together —  an apt metaphor for the real-life quest that Tolly herself began years ago, and continues to pursue.

Grand Valley Math and Science Center coordinator Kathy Agee (left) and Groundswell Manager Jessica Vander Ark (right) present this year’s ‘Swell’ teacher award to Patty Tolly
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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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