A New Wave of Urban Education

By Linda Hass | Published April 27, 2016

The ideal classroom for Ethan Lowenstein, Eastern Michigan University professor of curriculum and instruction, isn’t a room at all, but a natural environment that engages students in real-world, hands-on learning activities that connects students to their local waterways, schools, families and communities.

That ideal environment is unfolding for more students in Southeast Michigan than ever before, thanks to Lowenstein’s award of the 2015-2016 John W. Porter Distinguished Chair in Urban Education at EMU last May. The chair came with a $50,000 award that Lowenstein and his colleagues are using towards a project titled Supporting Urban Education Through Place-Based Education: The Work of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship (SEMIS) Coalition.

For the project, EMU faculty and staff began working with SEMIS staff last September to expand place-based educational options through curriculum coaching, modeling and other opportunities. Award funds also were used to host events for the EMU community, such as an Ecojustice and Activism pre-conference Traveling Dialogue; and to launch storytelling activities such as radio interviews and professional videos about SEMIS and the College of Education Efforts.

Potent Starting Points

“Our on-going goal is to use local urban communities and the environment—especially local waterways—as starting points to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum, emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences,” says Lowenstein.

Project contributors include seven EMU faculty and staff from teacher education, special education, history and philosophy, and the Office of Academic-Service Learning; four doctoral students in the education studies program, and three SEMIS staff.

Beneficiaries since 2008 have included 32 K-12 schools and 35 community partner organizations for a total of 11,723 students from partner schools in Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, as well as schools throughout southeast Michigan, he adds. (1)

Stronger Ties

“Place-based education connects students with nature in their own environment as a way to develop stronger ties to their community and enhance students’ appreciation for the natural world. It also creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens,” Lowenstein says.

Many projects involve learning opportunities on local waterways that connect to the Great Lakes. In urban areas such as southwest Detroit and Cody Rouge, that could mean anything from reclaiming a small corner of wildlife habitat near a river shore, to identifying the locations of dumped tires and working with existing services and organizations to recycle the tires into mud mats.

“Ethan is extremely dedicated to making a real difference in the lives of students and communities,” says Michael Sayler, dean of EMU’s College of Education. “I’m excited to see where this project will lead.”

Ripple Effects

Lowenstein says the project has been extremely rewarding so far, including its ripple effect on the broader college community. Master’s students in ecojustice education and doctoral students in urban education are often consulted in the decision-making process, he says.

The most rewarding aspect, however, has been the opportunity to contribute to the formation of a caring and transformational community, he adds. “What can be better than working together to build a common vision for a better world—then acting on it?”

That vision of transformation is consistent with the COE’s mission. “Throughout the 20th century, the College of Education has been a leader in community based, urban education,” says Lowenstein. “This project is one of many that contributes to that vision, and builds on the tremendous strength of what the SEMIS Coalition has accomplished,” he adds.

John W. Porter Distinguished Chair in Urban Education

The John W. Porter Distinguished Chair in Urban Education, created in 1991, was named after the late John W. Porter, a former EMU President who served with distinction from 1979-89. It is the first endowed chair in the College of Education.

It was largely funded by the C.S. Mott foundation and the McGregor Foundation. The purpose of these generous contributions is to appoint a renowned scholar(s) in urban education and to provide innovative leadership for EMU in this field. The chair is designed to actively expand the University’s role in urban school districts in Michigan, with an emphasis on school-community partnerships.

Lowenstein’s ability to accomplish that—and other goals—has been recognized by several groups and organizations over the years. He was recently was selected as a recipient of Michigan Campus Contact’s 2016 Champion of Engagement Award, and will be recognized at an awards gala at the Kellogg Center, Michigan State University, on April 7. Lowenstein and the SEMIS Coalition also received the 2014 Dale Rice Award for Academic Innovation in AS-L and Community Engagement, among honors.

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