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a river

runs through it

December 2019–January 2020  |  Vol. 97  |  Issue 2  |


Let’s Bring Cheer in 2020 This is the time of year to reflect back and look ahead, so let’s take stock. We started 2019 discussing a study released in January by Michigan State University showing our state to be last in the nation in education funding increases over the last 25 years. Michigan’s educators have been forced to attempt to meet sharply increasing academic standards with inadequate funding from the state, according to the authors of “Michigan School Finance at the Crossroads: a Quarter Century of State Control.” Total revenue for Michigan schools has declined by 30 percent since 2002 when adjusted for inflation, the report showed. Meanwhile, Michigan also ranks at the bottom for growth in math and reading proficiency. “Michigan has tried to improve schools on the cheap, focusing on more accountability and school choice,” said David Arsen, MSU education policy professor and the study’s lead author. “We have been kidding ourselves to think we can move forward while cutting funding for schools.”

Paula J. Herbart President

The MSU report confirmed the findings of earlier school funding studies, including the most comprehensive research to date on what it costs to educate a child, by the School Finance Research Collaborative (SFRC), a diverse group of business and education leaders.

It’s clear the politicians who control both chambers in Lansing weren’t listening. They instead sent Whitmer an inadequate budget a couple of days before the Oct. 1 deadline. She issued line-item vetoes to bring all parties back to the table. At press time, we remained at a standstill.

The start of 2019 also brought us a new governor committed to rebuilding public education, plus five MEA members newly elected to the state Legislature, along with a slew of other MEA-supported candidates who took office after winning in the 2018 general election.

Voters spoke loudly in November 2018 with the highest election turnout in 60 years. They narrowed the Republican majority in both the state House and Senate; elected Whitmer on her schools and roads agenda; and gave Democrats 6-2 control of the state Board of Education.

Within weeks, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a historic increase in education funding and additional “weighted funding” for schools with high-need populations. But she was stymied by Republican leaders who refused to negotiate and left for the summer without passing a budget.

So enjoy some holiday cheer. Then join us in a New Year’s resolution to send an even bigger message in 2020 by electing more pro-public education candidates up and down the ballot.

That’s when educators descended on the Capitol to speak out at two June #RedForEd rallies. Their voices thundered off the stone walls: “Fund our schools! Fund our schools!”

Chandra A. Madafferi Vice President

As the final moments of 2019 tick away, make a promise to do your part in the coming year: donate to MEA-PAC (, knock doors for a campaign, phone bank with union colleagues. We stand on the cusp of real change in this state. Let’s work together to make it happen.

Brett R. Smith Secretary-Treasurer


4 Editor’s Notebook Tell your story 6 News & Notes Census info 17 My View Reading retention 22 Election 2020 Voting absentee On the cover: Alpena teacher Bob Thomson, part of the new Innovative Educator Corps, uses place‑based education to engage students, connect them to community, and plant a seed of environmental stewardship.

Executive Director����������������������Michael Shoudy Director of Public Affairs������������������� Doug Pratt Editor������������������������������������������������ Brenda Ortega Staff Photographer�������������������������Miriam Garcia Publications Specialist��������������� Shantell Crispin The MEA Voice ISSN 1077-4564 is an official publication of the Michigan Education Association, 1216 Kendale Blvd., East Lansing, MI 48823. Opinions stated in the MEA Voice do not necessarily reflect the official position of the MEA unless so identified. Published by Michigan Education Association, Box 2573, East Lansing, MI 48826-2573. Periodicals postage paid at East Lansing and additional mailing offices. Payment of the active membership fee entitles a member to receive the MEA Voice. Of each annual fee whether for active or affiliate membership, $12.93 is for a year’s subscription. Frequency of issue is October, December, February, April and August. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to the MEA Voice, Box 2573, East Lansing, MI 48826-2573 or via email at Allow at least three weeks for change of address to take effect. MEA Voice telephone: 517-332-6551 or 800-292-1934. Circulation this issue: 113,330

8—MEMBER VOICES: a local leader shares a story of activism that needs your voice.

10—STRENGTH IN UNION: Two member-organizers talk about why they enjoy the work.

18—ISSUES & ADVOCACY: Educators took part in several Educator Workforce Solutions Summits in recent weeks to offer ways to turn around educator shortages in Michigan.

21—STRENGTH IN UNION: MEA‑Retired members actively fight for public education.

26—MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: A Greenville teacher discusses the aftermath of a viral post. MEA VOICE  3


Editor’s Notebook In recent weeks, MEA has been part of an effort to gather ideas for solving educator workforce shortages in Michigan. Together with AFT Michigan, Middle Cities Education Association, and Public Policy Associates, we brought educators together for conversation and brainstorming. The results from the focus groups are still being tabulated for a final report. However, I can say the participants covered problems surrounding educator recruitment and retention from numerous angles. Get a peek at the breadth of recommendations on pages 18-19. Participants worked in small groups and reported out, often mixing frustrations over low pay, crumbling benefits, and professional disrespect with passion for the work. Here is one example by Hayley Gaines, a sixth-grade teacher in Lansing and 11-year classroom veteran: “It’s such a stressful job that I find myself sometimes slipping into complaining about the stress of the job and the feeling we have as teachers that we’re being attacked on all sides. But the truth is I love teaching.

“I love my students, and it’s such an incredible job and it’s so rewarding that I wish other people respected it as much as I do. And I wish it was viable for everyone because there are days when it’s so difficult to make ends meet in terms of the amount of money I’m making and the amount of money I’m putting into my classroom. All the talk of self-care—I’m like, where’s the time? Where’s the money? I splurged on a $7 bottle of nail polish the other day and felt bad about it. “I want to be able to teach. I want it to be a viable option for me and for other people, because I’m so passionate and love it so much. I want to be able to say to aspiring educators, yes, it is fun and amazing and rewarding and challenging; and you should do it, because you can make a living.” Let’s keep telling our story and continue working hard to make change in Lansing, because folks are listening and agree: public education is worth fighting for.

4  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

Decrease in states’ spending on higher education in the last decade, adjusted for inflation, even as many state leaders aspire to increase rates of college attendance and completion, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. Meanwhile, most Americans believe higher education spending has increased or held steady.


“It’s the most fun I think I could ever have— and challenging! If you like a challenge, if you don’t want a boring job, whoo! Be a teacher, because every single day is different and new and exciting and you don’t know what will happen, and the breakthrough moments are incredible.


—Brenda Ortega, editor

“We want to increase the number of teachers of color, and men in particular, so students can see us and see it as a field they can go into.” William Wright, Kalamazoo Public Schools alum and president of Future Teachers of Color, a new student organization at Western Michigan University. About 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are white, while half of the U.S. student population is non-white.


ICYMI—Save with Staples Six members who signed up for MEA’s new Staples discount program this summer were randomly drawn to win a “classroom refresh” featuring $250 in 3M products: ◼ Betsy Spray-Comstock, teacher, Atherton ◼ Amanda Feyen, teacher, Manistee ◼ Erin Michalak, teacher, Clawson ◼ Heather Skulan, teacher, Wakefield-Marenisco ◼ Katherine Sibalwa, teacher, Byron Center ◼ April Switzenberg, paraeducator, Mason Winner Amanda Feyen (pictured) says she has used her Staples discount to purchase materials for programs she runs in Manistee: elementary music, high school choir, and theater. “The discount on Avery products alone saves my program a bundle—over half the price I would have paid on Amazon,” she said. “The Staples delivery also delivers your order right to your door or room! It was such a good experience!” Have you signed up yet to take advantage of members-only prices? Either online or in person at Staples locations, you can receive an average discount of 30 percent on purchases. Learn more and register by logging into the MEA Members-Only area at


“Retaining kids based solely on a test score isn’t innovation—it’s regression.” Above and Beyond Three MEA members who launched an innovative “Incubator” class last year at Novi High School achieved their “moon shot” this week—they paid it forward by donating $5,000 in profits from product sales to help start a similar class at Dearborn’s Fordson High School. Macy’s matched their gift. Novi’s incubator class is all about students taking opportunities and running with them, according to teacher Jodi Forster. “This class provides students with a chance to be altruistic, to think bigger than themselves, to collaborate with people that we wouldn’t normally get a chance to work with,” Forster said. “It feels amazing to see students create their own individual projects, and to see it come to fruition over the course of the year is wonderful.” Read more at novi-pays-forward.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), an MEA memberturned-legislator who recently introduced a bill to eliminate the retention mandate from the state’s third-grade reading law. Read a teacher’s-eye view of the retention mandate taking effect next fall on page 17.



UPCOMING EVENTS FEBRUARY 6-7 MEA Winter Conference Marriott Renaissance Center, Detroit Register now for MEA’s biggest conference of the year, featuring training in bargaining, organizing, member advocacy, political action, communications, and professional issues. Go to winterconference.

MARCH 2 Read Across America Nationwide Educators across the country will be “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers.” Visit readacross to to access reading and teaching resources.

MARCH 13-14 ESP Conference MEA Headquarters, East Lansing Education support professionals will gather to network and train on topics such as legal issues, ESP certification, privatization, school violence, and member engagement.

MARCH 21 AEM Conference MEA Headquarters, East Lansing For the first time this year, early career educators are invited to join Aspiring Educators of Michigan for professional development sessions that cover legal, professional and personal issues affecting newer education and school employees.

6  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

Calling Artist-Members MEA members in good standing can submit artwork beginning in February for an annual art exhibition and sale that results in some pieces being purchased for display at MEA headquarters or regional offices. For more information and an entry form, go to Entries can be hand-delivered to MEA Headquarters for the 56th Annual MEA/MAEA Art Acquisitions Purchase Exhibition between Feb. 24-March 6 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekdays and on Saturday, March 7 from 10 a.m.-noon. Paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics, jewelry, metal work, enamels, mosaics, wood, fibers, stained glass, photographs, experimental media and sculptures are all eligible. All artwork submitted must be original work. Artwork deemed not original by the juror will not be accepted. Each artist may submit up to two works. Works not for sale will not be accepted.

2020 Census resources available from MEA Everything from federal funding for critical children’s resources to Michigan’s representation in Congress depends on an accurate count of Michigan residents in the once-a-decade federal Census coming up in 2020. That’s why MEA is committed to ensuring a “Complete Count” for our state. “As educators, we have a unique role in the Census, both to participate as individuals but also to share with students and their families how important this process is for our state and our communities,” said MEA Secretary-Treasurer Brett Smith, who is MEA’s representative to the Michigan Complete Count Committee. At, you can find classroom resources to help turn the 2020 Census into a fascinating teachable moment for students of all grade levels. Stay tuned in to that site for updates between now and Census Day on April 1 for more resources and information.

Keeping kids safe from vaping The dangers of vaping have been highlighted in recent months, with more than 2,100 cases of lung injury across the country being linked to the use of e-cigarettes. While investigators are closing on the cause, there is one undisputed fact—vaping is not healthy for young people.

Compounding those health concerns, many e-cigarettes contain volatile organic compounds, ultrafine particles, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Teen use of e-cigarettes is on the rise. More than 3.6 million teens reported vaping, according to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey—1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle schoolers.

Many popular vaping devices are designed to be hard to spot, mimicking everyday objects such as pens, USB drives, breath fresheners and lipstick tubes. They’ve even been built into fashion accessories and clothing. The removable face of a smartwatch doubles as a vaping device. a hoodie hides a vaping device on one end of its drawstring and the mouthpiece on the other end, with both ends tucking discretely into pockets on the front.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that vaping among youth steadily rose from 2017 to 2019. Among 12th, 10th and 8th grade students who were asked if they had vaped in the past 30 days, researchers found: ◼ 25% of 12th graders responded yes in 2019, up from 11%. ◼ 20% of 10th graders responded yes in 2019, up from 8%. ◼ 9% of 8th graders responded yes in 2019, up from 3.5%. The amount of nicotine contained in one vaping device is equivalent to 20 cigarettes, causing great concern among health experts. It has long been known that nicotine harms brain development in people under age 25, impacting learning, memory and attention span. Additionally, nicotine is highly addictive and can become a difficult habit to kick.

Cracking down on devices

Moreover, vaping doesn’t have the same telltale signs as cigarette smoking—a strong odor and visible puffs of smoke. The vapor that is emitted after a toke dissipates quickly and is often odorless. Some vaping liquids are formulated to produce very little vapor as they are exhaled, so there is no telltale cloud. Remaining alert and vigilant, and knowing how to spot a device, can help protect our kids’ health. To help, MESSA is offering a free poster with illustrations of common vaping devices. To order a poster for your building, fill out the form found at

Free classroom posters on vaping MESSA has produced a new poster with illustrations of common vaping devices. The 11-by-17 posters are free for MEA members—we’ll cover the shipping, too. To order posters for your building, fill out the form at



From Discouraged to Empowered: My Story of Union Advocacy

By Amy Urbanowski-Nowak Birch Run Education Association President

We have a big problem in Michigan schools, folks, and it has nothing to do with test scores or differentiated instruction. It has everything to do with treating teachers like professionals and human beings. Most recently, this came to the forefront for me as a union president assisting an employee who had requested additional time to express milk at work for her child. She was denied the time. Yes, you read correctly... denied. Now, you’re probably wondering what year we’re living in, right? Yes, it’s still 2019. And, yes, an employee was refused time at work to feed her child! It seems ludicrous, but I assure you it happened. What’s even more aggravating is the fact that the law is not totally on her side. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act amended the 8  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

Fair Labor Standards Act to require employers to provide reasonable break time for HOURLY workers to express milk as needed in the workplace, but it only encourages employers to follow it for salaried employees... and guess what? Teachers are salaried. This means the hourly paraprofessional or custodian is guaranteed time to express breast milk at work, but teachers are not. This means the principal or administrator, who is salaried, can easily step away from her office to express milk, but the teacher down the hall cannot, because she is in charge of multiple students and the district might not send someone down to relieve her. Do some districts actually help breast-feeding mothers? Sure. Some principals will even cover the classes

of mothers who need to express milk. I heard this from a principal himself. Or, they might rearrange a teacher’s schedule to work it out. However, the sad truth is that school administrators don’t have to accommodate breast-feeding mothers unless associations negotiate this requirement. In my district, a mother was ordered to adhere to her schedule. She was denied 15 extra minutes to express milk. Her coworkers were denied the opportunity to cover her class. She was denied using personal and sick time. Her doctors note was denied. DENIED. Of course, we are doing everything we can to help her within the law and contractually, but, remember, the law is not on the side of teachers regarding this.

“Our voice does matter. It matters now more than ever.”

As a local president, I was of course flabbergasted by the fact this young mother was treated unfairly, and I was equally dismayed with the law’s lack of protections. But, at this time, it made me realize the importance of our union. Our voice does matter. It matters now more than ever. After scouring the internet, I realized that this was a much larger issue than just in my district. There are online forums where breast-feeding teachers go to air their trials and tribulations with the lack of support they receive in their districts. Stories of women being shoved in closets to express milk or even being disturbed time and time again were plastered all over the internet. Stories of quitting breast-feeding or losing milk supply also permeated women’s accounts. Some were even afraid to ask their male superiors for time to express milk. What’s sad is that I not only saw these stories via the web—I heard them firsthand from my colleagues and people in other districts once I inquired. These anecdotes left me not only dismayed but empowered. It was time this changed… not in three years or five… NOW. Once I began researching breast­ feeding laws in Michigan, I encoun-

tered an article that mentioned then-Sen. Rebekah Warren, who sponsored the Breastfeeding Anti-Discrimination Act in 2014, which enshrines the right of mothers to breast-feed their children in public places. I thought it was a longshot, but I emailed Warren, who is now a state representative. She responded and wowed me with her response. After learning of the situation in my district, she began working with the Legislative Service Bureau on a bill— similar to one in Louisiana—that extends protections to teachers for expressing breastmilk at work.

Now, we can anxiously await and take action to make sure Rep. Warren’s work comes to fruition. So, brothers and sisters, our union does make an impact. It’s time more than ever that we raise our voices—whether it’s to help a young mother who is facing discrimination due to milk expression or letting our elected officials know we’ve had enough with the piles upon piles of paperwork or burdensome testing of our students. Sing it. Say it. Sign it. Do what you must, but let others know: our union is strong and we make a difference for our students and our profession.




Name: Tierra Jackson School job: third grade teacher Local union: Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA) Years in education: 8 in Ann Arbor, 16 total Organizing title: MEA Ambassador Organizing mission: Build union membership and engagement through meetings, social events, and one-on-one conversations Other union roles: AAEA Minority and New Teacher Affairs, co-chair; building representative

If you are interested in learning more about memberorganizing opportunities, contact Associate Executive Director Marcy Kamienecki at 10  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

Why I wanted to participate: My mother was a bus driver. My aunt’s a teacher. My grandmother’s a bus driver. They were all part of unions, so I’m from a union family. I believe in the strength in numbers, and I believe in advocacy. When I was a first-year teacher, I had some issues where the Minority Affairs Committee came in and helped me by observing me and giving me advice. That’s something my union did for me, and I wanted to pay it forward when I was able to. What I saw: Being an MEA ambassador gave me an opportunity to go “behind the scenes” of MEA. So often as members—and even non-members—we see the end product of all the bargaining, conversations, and organizing but never realize what went into making it successful. Becoming an MEA ambassador helped me to pull back the curtain and see the “magic” behind the show. I had no idea how far and wide the structuring of our union went.

What I learned: Being an MEA ambassador, I learned how important it was to connect with my fellow AAEA members on a positive note. I didn’t wait until there was an issue to speak with members. I learned to make myself present and readily available whether it was for a hurdle that needed to be crossed, some socializing and apps at Applebees, or just a “hello, how’s it going” on the playground. What I thought bridging members to the union was before being an ambassador is vastly different than what I have learned it actually is. Successes: I was very successful connecting with people and just listening to their needs. I would go to orientations for new staff and talk about how to be part of the union— not just joining but what does your union do for you? And what can you do for your union? So often members don’t connect with the union until there is a fire to put out. By being an organizer, I am helping the union become a proactive body instead of one that is reactive.

Make A Difference

Why I wanted to participate: I was raised to believe in unions and fighting for the common good. You need somebody to stand up for your rights. I worked for one year in North Carolina—in a right-to-work state— in ’96. Came back and eventually saw the change in Michigan. Every year since 2010 I’ve increased my involvement in the union because it’s not getting better here. What I saw: The number-one roadblock with newer, younger teachers who haven’t joined the union was financial. They have college debts and this payment and that payment. I followed up to expand their knowledge base about the union, and let them know this is a contract year for us and we need you. As a former football coach I’m always using team analogies to explain the union. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. You only get out of it what you put into it. What I learned: It starts with opening the door, letting them talk, and listening. After listening, we did a whole lot of planning. We did

a training at the beginning of the year for new hires about their retirement plan options, because they had to pick what plan they’re opting into. And the very next one in November was about student loan forgiveness. The other thing we did was not just for new hires but to focus on the biggest workplace issue not related to salary—which is student behavior, discipline, school violence. So we started a committee to come up with a game plan of how we could get some wins in that arena. Like a think tank. Giving people a safe place to talk and share ideas. Sometimes those people who don’t ever speak up have great ideas. Successes: We held two events for new hires and we got 100 percent of them to join. That’s our claim to fame… I was asked to describe my thoughts in one word, and I said “pride,” because I didn’t give up on people, and I learned and grew as an individual from the experience. And the success we’ve had is going to make a tremendous impact in our local for a long time to come.

Name: Patrick Connell School job: math teacher Local union: Port Huron Education Association (PHEA) Years in education: 17 in Michigan, 18 overall Organizing title: MEA Summer Fellow Organizing mission: Build union membership and engagement through meetings, social events, and one-on-one conversations Other union roles: PHEA executive board; Representative Assembly delegate; Political Action Committee chair; MESSA ambassador; wellness committee




Place-Based Education One Chapter at a Time

By Brenda Ortega MEA Voice Editor

changing ecology, brown trout have been disappearing. Thomson’s students raised trout from eggs in the classroom and released their fry onto a restored reef habitat in Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay. They used a student-built underwater robot equipped with a student-engineered device that dropped the vulnerable baby fish at the lake’s bottom to reduce predation.

When MEA member Bob Thomson goes to a conference to present data from his “placebased” teaching approach in Alpena Community Schools, educators in attendance tend to doubt they could follow in his footsteps. “If all I do is share the size of this, what it looks like and all the partners involved, people say ‘There’s no way I can do that.’ But they don’t realize this project didn’t just get born. It was a slow development over time.” Instead, Thomson likes to talk about the Thunder Bay River Watershed Project (TBRWP) that he and his fifth-grade students launched in 2008 like it’s a novel he’s been writing for the past 20 years. The story has progressed step by step and chapter by chapter. That original group of fifth graders has graduated, but their legacy today encompasses a range of Alpena 12  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

students from elementary school to seniors in high school contributing to research on the health of the local watershed and ways to protect it. Students pursue their curiosity by conducting experiments, collecting and comparing data, proposing solutions to problems they encounter, communicating findings, and posing additional questions that arise from their work. “The idea behind teaching science based on place is to help kids build a love of their community and an understanding of our watershed, and give them a sense of ownership and stewardship,” Thomson said. For example, last year his students were interested in learning more about brown trout, the spotted fish celebrated in a 10-day festival in Alpena every summer for the last 45 years. Because of Lake Huron’s

“It gets them thinking—so there’s a big river that runs through our county. What’s in that river? How do the Great Lakes affect us? How do the fisheries affect us? Because that is a huge economic pull for our community, and by understanding brown trout we can connect it all together.”

Prologue Once upon a time, Thomson grew up in Alpena in a family he describes as “economically disadvantaged.” He was a C student who perceived few opportunities and was not prepared for post-secondary education, he says. An interest in robotics drew him to join the U.S. Navy after graduation. “I was always curious and loved to tinker,” he said. “I loved to build things and figure out how things worked, and the Navy offered that opportunity.” Thomson served for eight years, traveled the world, learned lots of different jobs and got to focus on electronics and robotics while working on a large weapon system.

After leaving the Navy, he had offers to continue working in robotics but turned them down. He’d found while volunteer-tutoring as a sailor in various ports of call that he enjoyed working with kids. He earned an Associate degree from Alpena Community College, a Bachelor’s and K-8 certification from Saginaw Valley State University, and a Master’s from Marygrove College. He began his teaching career in 1999.

Chapter One Shipwreck Alley’s Lure This story begins with the designation of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The 4,300-square-mile area in northwestern Lake Huron lies next to a treacherous stretch of water known as “Shipwreck Alley,” where more than 200 vessels succumbed to gales, fog banks, and rocky shoals throughout maritime history. Within the sanctuary’s boundaries, nearly 100 shipwrecks have been preserved by the cold fresh water of Lake Huron and now protected by its designation as a marine sanctuary, jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The sanctuary designation came in 2000, along with a NOAA visitor center which houses a huge dive tank and other educational resources. “Once that started going up, I started kind of poking around and trying to find ways I could get my classroom involved with them,” Thomson said. He became one of the first teacher-partners affiliated with NOAA and the sanctuary. He partnered to build a makerspace at the facility, and his students began competing in annual Great Lakes Regional ROV competitions to build underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs).

Over the years, Thomson’s students have advanced to the World Championships developed by the MATE Center (Marine Advanced Technology in Education) ROV competition. And the robotics program has grown to include an afterschool program for middle and high schoolers. In addition to building robots for competition, the older students can be called on to help tackle more sophisticated challenges than the elementary kids can solve. Over time they have become like an “engineering design firm” supplying a reliable commercial-grade ROV, along with custom products as needed. In that way, ROVs have become a foundational element of Thomson’s ongoing Thunder Bay River Watershed Project.

Chapter Two The Robots Have Mussels It was the pursuit of grant money for robotics equipment that first brought Thomson into contact with the many partnering organizations that have allowed him to expand and sustain his place-based education efforts across more than a dozen years and counting. Around the same time that he was getting involved with NOAA and ROVs, the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative was being formed to include several regional hubs across Michigan. Its goal: fostering placebased education through grant-making and partnering. When he learned about it, Thomson joined the leadership team for the northeast hub, “and you know how a network grows. One thing leads to another, and the network gets bigger, and I just grew right along with it.” With the help of his partners, he and his students began the Thunder Bay River Watershed Project a dozen years ago to focus on understanding the health of the watershed and determine how invasive species disrupt the natural balance of an ecosystem.

Since then students have learned how to collect, test, and record water samples from specific sites along the river to observe changes over time. From all of that information, they develop questions to study in more depth. Soon after the watershed project began, the youngsters wanted to learn how invasive zebra and quagga mussels had changed the ecology of the Thunder Bay River and the Great Lakes. The students’ first self-driven project involved wading into the river to turn over rocks in search of zebra mussels with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Another group of students extended that work the next year by launching a student-built ROV from the NOAA research vessel Storm to pull creatures from a shipwreck at a depth of 30 feet. Eventually their work involved outreach and education to the community. “There’s so much we can talk about, because just about every year there’s a new chapter that’s written depending on how the kids shift their thinking,” Thomson said. Grant money allowed Thomson to involve other teachers in his students’ watershed initiative through fall and spring water sampling at specific sites. The information allows students to see changes over time along the Thunder Bay River that feeds into Lake Huron. “You just keep collecting the same data from the same sites and you watch,” he said. “See what happens. And from the data, you pull questions and come up with stuff to research.”



Involvement by other educators has waxed and waned as money to pay for everyone’s transportation costs has alternately flowed and then dried up, Thomson said. At its height, about 25 teachers from four counties had students helping to collect data for the watershed project. MEA member Jennifer McInerney has been working with Thomson for four years. Once she saw kids’ eyes light up learning science through hands-on activities, she was hooked, she says. “I go to all the conferences, the summer workshops; Bob and I are partners in crime,” McInerney said as her students collected water samples during a fall visit to their assigned monitoring site at Alpena’s Sytek Park. She watched as a volunteer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped the students sort invertebrates from the river water into plastic ice cube trays for counting. “What I’ve learned is that there are a lot of community partners out there who want to help and be involved in the kids’ education, but you have to go to them. That’s what Bob does.” It’s hard to describe all of Thomson’s multi-faceted work, but his approach in general is to turn the local community into a classroom, said Meag Schwartz, network coordinator with the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. Schwartz was helping students from McInerney’s class check river samples for dissolved oxygen and pH balance, among other water quality tests. “He is creative and really good at using local resources and tying that into the curriculum and aligning it with standards,” she said.

Chapter Three Researching the Raiders For examples of student-initiated research efforts, two different projects from different years have explored “raiders” of the river. 14  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

The “Rusty Raiders” project several years back was a finalist in Disney’s Planet Challenge—a project-based environmental science competition for fourth through sixth graders—after students learned about the destructive spread of rusty crayfish to waterways in Michigan and other states. With the help of various partnering agencies, students gathered rusty crayfish from the river for a population survey; studied how they reduce aquatic plants, invertebrates and some fish populations; and developed solutions to the problem. The students’ three-year plan involved public information campaigns to encourage local residents to practice catch and release protocol when fishing for small mouth bass and eventually reintroducing native crayfish. Students developed a Lake Huron’s “Most Wanted” profile for the rusty crayfish to be added to Michigan Sea Grant’s invasive species poster collection. “I got my whole writing curriculum off of those crayfish that year,” Thomson said. More recently, students became interested in the proliferation of plastics, microplastics and plastic fibers polluting water. After a speaker talked with the class about the issue, the students were collecting water and a boy asked, “How do we know if there’s plastic in the water?” And the River Raiders project was born. Again with the help of partners in the network, over two years students researched and prototyped devices to test for plastics. They learned about protocols that NOAA MEA VOICE  15


was using to test for microplastics in sand where it tends to collect. The high school robotics team designed an arm that could attach to the ROV to scoop sand from the bottom of the river. The younger students created a device using dish soap and a coffee filter that allowed them to count the plastics that appear as tiny wisps in the tubes of filtered water. A state DNR mathematician taught them the formula for estimating the amount of plastic coming from the river mouth based on the sampling, “and we estimated the equivalent of about 26,000 water bottles a year is washing out the end of Thunder Bay River,” Thomson said. “Mostly it’s fibers from clothes. It’s in everything.”

Epilogue Thomson gives credit for his success to his wife, Katie, an “incredible” elementary educator in Alpena who taught him how to engage kids. His children have also gotten into the act. Youngest daughter Lydia is a sixth grader who enjoys tinkering around with science and robots. Years ago, his oldest daughter Elizabeth was responsible for evolving the ROV program upward when she moved on to middle school and didn’t want to give up robotics. She started an afterschool club through MSU Extension 4H and kept it going through high school. Now a sophomore at MSU, Elizabeth is starting a university-level ROV

New State Program Offers Funding A new state grant program has opened new doors for Bob Thomson, his students, and other educators in and around Alpena. For his place-based education program, Thomson was selected to be part of the Michigan Department of Education’s Innovative Educator Corps. The designation includes a $5,000 grant for program improvements and a $5,000 stipend to spread his ideas to other educators—both renewable for up to two more years. “Finding a sustainable source of funding is always a breath of fresh air,” Thomson said. “In the non-profit world, every year you wonder where the money’s going to come from. What’s the next grant going to be?” Thomson used the opportunity to move up to the middle school from the elementary level where he has spent the past 20 years. Teaching a new seventh-grade “Innovators” class, he hopes to guide his students in choosing and creating in-depth personal research projects to pursue related to the Thunder Bay River Watershed Project that he and his students began in 2008. He plans to use the state money along with an existing network of partners to build his new middle school program while bringing more elementary educators on board who want to get involved in the hands-on learning project that engages students in their community. As his new classroom gets going, Thomson hopes to have students build a website to host data and other information from the watershed project. “My goal in 10 years, when I’m close to retiring, is that we can have that sustainable so it can go on without me.”

16  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

team, and she recently changed her major from engineering to education to follow in her parents’ footsteps. Thomson didn’t set out to build a network or create the watershed project spanning years. It formed as he asked questions, met people, and took advantage of opportunities. “I’m not the smartest person in the room; I’m the best resourcer in the room, which is an art in itself,” he said. He advises other educators interested in place-based teaching and learning to start small and follow where student interest leads. “Pick one project and go. That will lead to the next thing and the next thing. Once you get kids curious, you never run out of questions.”

Three—‘Read or Flunk’ Rules Inspire Fear by Nicole Droscha Third-grade teacher, Mason Public Schools

“I know my child struggles in reading, but will she pass third grade?” These gut-wrenching words were tearfully repeated many times to me during parent teacher conferences this October. I tried to encourage parents to focus on inspiring a love of reading in their child. I tried to share where benchmark scores, classroom observations, and assignments indicated their child was struggling. I tried to explain ways to support their child in strengthening literacy skills. But the fear that their child will qualify for retention weighed heavy on their hearts and minds. “It’s unfair for one test to determine if my child passes third grade. I don’t want my child to see his friends move on while he stays behind, but I don’t want him to struggle in fourth grade.” These are complex and emotionally charged issues for everyone involved. My district has put together a thoughtful plan for our students knowing this law would go into effect for the 2019-2020 school year. K-3 teachers have been creating and filling out Individual Reading Improvement Plans (IRIPs) for the past two years, communicating

these plans to parents, sending home progress reports, monitoring students’ interventions, and making changes when necessary. We’ve hired Literacy Coaches and Library Media Specialists, and we’ve implemented a new reading curriculum. We’ve shared activities and strategies to help families support their child’s reading skills at home. We’ve even hosted Curriculum Nights and Literacy Nights to encourage more students and families to read. Will it be enough to prevent all of my students from being retained? I wonder if lawmakers understand what an eight-year-old would feel like to be left behind his peers to repeat a year of school? How unfair would it be to repeat the same curriculum in all subject areas, even if reading is their only area of struggle? Will this create more behavior problems in these kids? Where will districts find funding to meet the needs of children who qualify for retention? Will third-grade class sizes grow even more? With ballooning class sizes, how much time can one teacher spend fostering each student’s literacy skills?

It is crucial for struggling readers to have time to practice reading every day with individual coaching and feedback. It is imperative for stakeholders to understand that one teacher working in a classroom alone requires more help to meet all the different needs of the children in their class. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t have the support necessary to help their neediest and lowest performing students. Additional adult support, smaller class sizes, high-quality training, and literacy resources (such as books) all cost school districts more money. Policy makers have raised the stakes for schools and their students, but they have not provided the funding necessary for educators to improve literacy instruction and ignite positive changes for student growth. I hope educators, parents, and policy makers will continue to push for a better plan and more funding to support our children’s literacy development. Literacy is crucial to our children’s and nation’s success. Our time and money are well spent investing in our children’s future.



How Do We Solve Educator Shortages? If you put a bunch of educators in a room and ask them to solve what ails public education these days, you might expect they would produce a pretty darn amazing set of recommendations. Expectation confirmed. Over several weeks this fall, MEA, AFT Michigan, and the Middle Cities Education Association partnered with Public Policy Associates to convene several Educator Workforce Solutions Summits to bring school employees’ voices into the conversation about how to recruit and retain educators.

Five in-person focus groups of educators and administrators around the state, plus one online panel, discussed ways to address shortages among teachers, paraeducators, bus drivers, and other educators as a blueprint for policymakers. Adequate and equitable funding. Improved pay and benefits. Student loan debt relief. Teacher evaluation system improvements. More support staff. More mental health services. Better pre-service training and ongoing quality professional development. Their ideas ran the gamut. Less standardized testing, more creativity. Time in the day to col-

laborate. Paid teacher mentoring. Apprenticeships for student teachers. Minority recruitment and “grow your own” teacher development pipelines. Less hoop jumping. More autonomy. The focus groups grew out of a statewide survey of 17,000 Michigan educators conducted in early 2019 for Launch Michigan, a coalition of leaders in business, education and philanthropy developing policy recommendations for the Legislature. MEA President Paula Herbart is a co-chair of the group. Stay tuned—a full report from the Educator Workforce Solutions Summit is expected in early 2020.

Retired Ann Arbor teacher Susan Schmidt (L) and Lansing grades 7-8 teacher Erika Bushey (R) report out on their group’s recommendations for recruiting and retaining educators.

18  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

Jennifer Dooley, Pontiac sixth‑grade ELA teacher “When you understand that there’s a child that just got to school late because he had to put his two siblings on the bus and then get to school because Mom had to go to work already—you wouldn’t say ‘Go get a pass!’ You would say ‘Come on in, baby; I’m happy to see you.’ Until we truly see each one of these kids— whether red, blue, green, black, brown or purple—as our own and we educate them as our own, we’re going to miss it.”

John Duffy, Center Line middle school teacher “We need educator input on working conditions—discipline policies, curriculum, evaluation, testing. All the current prohibited bargaining topics. That’s not going to raise taxes and anyway—all the reports are out, and we haven’t been throwing money at education. We’ve been dead last in funding increases across the entire United States for quite a while now.”

Danielle Cover, Ferndale first‑grade teacher “We must increase funding for public education at both the state and federal level. We must stop funding public education as if it is a luxury, as if our lives don’t depend on it, because they do. One priority is to hire more staff. Yes, it costs money. People cost money. This is a job. More teachers, more paras, more social workers, more psychologists; more staff means more adults to build more relationships. And we reduce caseload, reduce class sizes, reduce workload and paperwork. Reduce stress and burn out.”

Heather Gauck, Grand Rapids special education teacher “As a special education teacher, I’m not highly effective in my evaluation if my student over here isn’t good at taking tests. I’m National Board Certified, and I haven’t yet scored ‘highly effective.’ Add to that policies like third-grade retention, and all of these things affect our morale. We need educator involvement in writing these policies somehow.”

Robyne Muray, Lansing high school English teacher “The teacher prep programs at the universities are going to have to do a better job of giving new teachers classroom experience in a variety of urban, suburban and rural settings, and to help new teachers develop classroom management skills. The best lesson plan in the world won’t work if you don’t understand your student population and if you don’t have classroom management.”

Cammie Jones, DeWitt fourth-grade teacher “We could improve the evaluation system by expanding the tools we can use to show our students’ actual growth. We have art teachers being evaluated on math M-STEP scores, and they’re being told ‘You’re part of the team! You can help students’ scores too!’ Not really. That’s a lie. We just don’t have an art test. So give us a chance to show student learning in more realistic ways beyond M-STEP.”



Union Bargains Improvements in Flint Five years after accepting dramatic concessions to help pull Flint Community Schools out of deficit spending, the district’s teachers have overwhelmingly approved a contract that raises pay, lowers class sizes, and restores MESSA health care benefits, among other improvements. In addition, added provisions aim to create a new educator pipeline through a tuition reimbursement plan for long-term substitute teachers who are college students completing education programs and who agree to work in Flint after becoming certified. The one-year pact increases the starting salary by $3,000 to $35,000; raises overall salaries by an average of 2 percent; and adds a new system of annual longevity bonuses starting at the end of an educator’s fifth year of service and increasing every five years through 20 years. “We’ve been in a 10-year pay freeze, and in 2014 we gave up 19 percent from our contract,” said United Teachers of Flint President Karen Christian. “We still have debt, but we’re out of deficit. It was time for change.”

20  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

The contract was signed this fall as second-year Superintendent Derrick Lopez looked elsewhere for ways to eliminate $5 million in debt—namely by asking the school board to close four buildings and adopt a 16-year debt-reduction plan.

A new neurodevelopmental center housed in Flint is providing free screenings for children affected by lead poisoning after the state switched the city’s water supply and failed to properly treat the water to prevent lead contamination.

“For too long, the teacher shortage across Michigan was exacerbated in Flint because we did not have a collective bargaining agreement in place and we had the lowest starting wage in Genesee County,” Lopez said in a written statement after teachers ratified the contract.

The center is run by whistleblower Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha as the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

“In partnership with the United Teachers of Flint and Michigan Education Association, we have completely rewritten the collective bargaining agreement to create real incentives for teachers to work at Flint Community Schools,” Lopez concluded. Class sizes were reduced from 36 to a maximum of 25 in kindergarten, 27 in grades 1-3, 28 in 4-6, 29 in 7-8, and 30 in 9-12, with extra pay for teachers whose classes exceed the limits. The changes were especially important because of increasing student needs in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis. The school district has seen a 56 percent increase in the number of students eligible for special education services compared to the year before the water scandal in 2014.

This school year the district shifted to a balanced calendar with a shorter summer recess and more small breaks throughout the year to provide year-round supports to struggling students. Teachers agreed to the calendar change in exchange for a return to MESSA health insurance, Christian said. Several years ago, the state imposed a lesser-quality plan on the district’s teachers which required many to change their doctors and pay more out-of-pocket for medications. The district has experienced an exodus of teachers in recent years, including the loss of 60 educators with a combined 833 years of experience from January to September this year. The work of improving conditions for educators and students alike is not over, Christian said. “I’ve made it clear, as long as I’m president, we’re not going backwards anymore,” she added.

There’s No Stopping Retirees Retired Livonia kindergarten teacher Karen Zyczynski learned the importance of political action from her parents who were union organizers in the 1930s and 40s. “I’m a firm believer that you can’t just sit on your hands and bemoan the fact that things aren’t going the way they should,” Zyczynski said. “You need to get out there and do some things that will educate people on the issues and eventually have a positive impact.” Among other roles, Zyczynski is president of the Wayne County chapter of MEA-Retired and she chairs the statewide Legislative/ Political Involvement Committee. As the all-important 2020 election fast approaches, she urges everyone she can to join up and get involved. “I like to work on campaigns because I want to elect people who support public education and teachers.” Her fellow Livonia retiree, Jack Schneider, also is active in MEA and NEA-Retired because he wants a better world for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “Besides,” he says, “I’m a young guy. I’m not even 90 yet, and I’ve got a lot to add!” The 88-year-old former English teacher draws inspiration from a mentor, Ethel Schwartz, an orga-

nizer and civil rights campaigner who picketed into her 90s before her death in 2012. “I’m real big on the word ‘solidarity.’ You participate so you can say to yourself maybe my life has made a difference for my union brothers and sisters or for kids or teachers or retirees.” The same motivations have driven former Traverse City paraeducator Connie Boylan to stay involved in union work since her retirement in 2016. “I think it’s everybody’s duty to make sure we remain active if we value public education, our students, and our school employees.” An MEA ESP Hall of Fame honoree, Boylan helped education support professionals for years as chair of MEA’s Anti-Privatization committee and ESP caucus leader. She remains active in MEA and NEA-Retired. When a serious car accident left her unable to knock doors in the 2018 election, Boylan made phone calls from home. “There are many ways to get involved—do postcard writing; go to a rally; volunteer to stuff envelopes. Unions are about strength in numbers—Just show up!”

Want to make a difference for public education? Join MEA‑Retired! Be a part of the fight for our future while enjoying the MEA/ NEA savings and benefits you’ve come to love. Nearly 40,000 retired Michigan school employees belong to MEA‑Retired to stay informed and to protect public education and retirement rights and benefits. MEA-Retired members regularly join in lobbying at the Capitol, and chapters meet locally to advocate on issues. Membership also offers discounts on products and services, access to NEA insurance plans, and publications such as MEA Voice and the Michigan Retirement Report. You may already be a member if you paid into the All-Inclusive membership Program (AIM) during active teaching years. Contact Lisa Fox at for information.


APPLY NOW using the absent voter ballot application on the next page. Submit your application to your local clerk—find their address at and click on “Your Clerk.”

Apply now to vote from home for March 10 Presidential Primary Take advantage of convenient new no-reason absentee voter rules. Add your name to the permanent absent voter application list—just check the designated box on your form. Going forward, you’ll receive an application for an absent voter ballot for every election automatically.

It’s the end of a long Tuesday at work. Your family is waiting at home. Dinner beckons. The weather is lousy. And now there’s a long line at your polling place. You know voting is important. You want to do your civic duty and make your voice heard, but it has to be easier than this! Thanks to voters passing Proposal 3 last fall, you never have to face this situation again. All Michigan voters can now request an absentee voter

ballot for no reason, allowing you the convenience of voting by mail before Election Day. In many municipal elections last month, thousands of new absentee voters took advantage of the new law—which also allows for sameday voter registration, straight party voting, and other changes to make Michigan elections more secure and easier for voters to participate. The first statewide election for no-reason absentee voting is the March 10 Michigan Presidential Primary.

You can request your ballot now by filling out the form on the next page and submitting it to your local clerk. To find your clerk’s address (or to download a fillable and printable electronic application), go to Absentee voter ballots will start being mailed to voters in late January 2020 and must be returned to your local clerk by March 10 at 8 p.m.

Learn more at Get ready for the March 10 Michigan presidential primary by learning more about the candidates. Videos of candidates answering members’ questions about education, a comparison tool featuring all the candidates, and information about how you can get involved in 2020 are all available at

22  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

MESSA gives thanks to Michigan school employees This holiday season, we at MESSA want to say how thankful we are for everything you as school employees do for our kids and communities. As a nonprofit organization created and led by education employees, MESSA provides quality health benefits to MEA members and their families because it helps fulfill our mission of making a positive difference in your lives. We know your jobs are extremely stressful and high-stakes. After all, whether you work in a classroom, bus garage or lunchroom, we trust you to care for our most precious resources: our kids. We believe you deserve exceptional health coverage, peace of mind and unmatched personal service that helps you navigate the complex world of health care. Simply put, you have earned it. This appreciation for educators is deeply ingrained throughout our organization, from the executive director’s office to the mailroom and everywhere in between. We come to work every day with the goal of doing the right thing for our state’s educators and support staff. It’s a good feeling—one we’d probably never get at some for-profit insurance company.

By Ross Wilson MESSA Executive Director

So on behalf of everyone at MESSA, thank you for everything you do to care for our kids and our schools.

Classifieds TOURS



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On Oahu, beautiful Oceanside 1 bedroom 1.5 bath furnished condo for rent by retired teachers (1 month minimum). Magnificent views, pool, grill, beach. Available June through December 2020. Email:

Our ad policy, rates and schedule can be found online at The classifieds deadline for the February 2020 issue is Jan. 17. 24  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020


Amber Guerreiro felt exhausted one Friday night, so the Greenville Middle School teacher wrote her thoughts down, titled “A Day in the Life of a Teacher,” and put it on Facebook. She thought a few teacher friends might relate. Her post went viral with more than 108,000 shares. What was it that resonated with so many people? I think for teachers to see what their workday looked like in a list almost justified the extreme mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that teachers face on a daily basis. It makes you realize, “Gosh, I am doing a lot.” Non-educators commented also. It was encouraging to hear from people who are not in the field but are relatives of an educator, or have a child in school, or even remember a wonderful teacher, and hear them say, “I had no idea what a teacher’s day looked like until I saw this list.” Did you read all of the comments? It felt overwhelming, so I could not read all of the comments. I would love to do that someday. But I received 40 or 50 personal messages through Facebook Messenger, and responded personally. The majority said, “I needed to read this today. Thank you.” And some of them were so positive and inspiring. It was sweet for people to take the time to send a note of encouragement to a stranger. Many commenters thanked you for speaking the truth. I think there’s a collective fear with educators to talk openly about the expectations and demands of their job. Many people shared potential repercussions they feared if they were to speak up. That being said, there were administrators and superintendents who messaged to say, “This is our reality, and just know we are all on the same team.” And I do know that. Everybody is trying their hardest to find a balance between meeting what our state is saying is a requirement but also providing the best education possible for our students. I just think somewhere it was forgotten that teachers are only human. 26  DEC 2019 – JAN 2020

If you could change one thing about the state of public education, what would it be? I wish that we were not such a standardized-test-driven nation. I wish that the data weren’t the only reflection of our school systems that the public saw. I wish instead people understood the true heart of their children’s teachers and how we are attempting to meet the needs of all of our students because we care about them and want them to learn. It just feels like the standardized tests have become what education is centered around instead of the child. Why do you keep teaching? What feeds you? It’s the connection with my students—100 percent. It is not only getting to know my students as people but helping them realize their teachers are regular people too and that we truly want what is best for them. I think every student that comes into Greenville Public Schools knows that. What has been the reaction in your community? People have been very receptive. I was surprised at the number of parents that contacted me with a note or face to face to give words of praise and affirmation. I was also excited to hear from other teachers that parents of their students had made an effort to say how much they appreciate them. That made my heart happy. Is it tiring to have this attention on you? Yes. I feel like as teachers we are under the microscope, and with this the zoom was turned on,

Read Amber’s story at mea-members-viral-post. Photo by Kelly Braman Photography.

but I’m willing to be put out of my comfort zone if it makes a difference. Has anyone read it that you really wanted to see it? Hmm. I was hoping that maybe Ms. DeVos would give me a call and ask to meet for coffee. But she has not reached out yet! Does all of this reaction make you feel hopeful? It does. I feel excited because teachers are incredible problem solvers, so when we are feeling united in this journey to truly provide the best education possible for our students, it gives us a little burst of energy to look at ways to do things differently that are within our power. I also read quite a few comments about setting priorities and boundaries, and I’m trying to be more proactive in that. It’s difficult, but I’m trying.

Profile for MEAVoiceMag

MEA Voice Magazine - December 2019 Issue  

The MEA Voice Magazine is an official publication of the Michigan Education Association.

MEA Voice Magazine - December 2019 Issue  

The MEA Voice Magazine is an official publication of the Michigan Education Association.


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