Field Work at Detroit Prep

The past three months Kindergarten and First Graders at Detroit Prep have explored the world of garbage and recycling.  Students discovered that garbage is a problem in their local community.  They explored what happens to garbage after it’s thrown away through nonfiction literature, movie clips, photographs, and field work!  

In November students visited Green Living Science in Detroit and walked around Detroit’s incinerator.  At Green Living Science, students experienced separating recycled materials and sorting them into the right bins.  Next they worked with a partner to create a garbage machine using recycled materials.  Each pair shared what they created and explained to their peers how it worked.  At the incinerator students were able to walk around the outside and use what they’ve learned to explain what was happening inside.  Students watched numerous garbage trucks drive in and out.  Once students were back on the bus, they used a see, think, wonder graphic organizer to draw pictures and write about what they saw, thought, and wondered during their field work.

After learning more about recycling, students visited Arts and Scraps located on Harper in Detroit.  Students began at their warehouse.  They used recycled (never been used and clean!) sock pieces to create anything they wanted.  Students used their curiosity and creativity to create glasses, necklaces, keychains, and more!  We hopped back onto the bus to head over to their store.  Students created “Friends of the Earth” using recycled materials.  Soon students will work with Ms. Beth in art to create something new with their leftover materials!  Last they were able to “shop” in their store.  Each student got a small bag to fill.   

Field work is an important part of the learning process.  In both field work experiences students were able to experience what they have been learning about in school.  As we move forward with our garbage and recycling expedition, students have even more personal experiences to reflect on and learn from.  

Exploring Human Rights in 1st Grade

This February we had a two week break our Celebration of Learning and starting our next expedition. I took that extra time to explore human rights, and specifically, children's rights, with my first grade crew. This project lived within our opinion reading and writing unit, so we incorporated literacy standards to create these final products. Read below to learn more about the process.

To build background knowledge, we spent a month reading about civil rights leaders and social justice. With each read aloud, students practiced reading skills and standards while they made connections between the concepts and content of the books. Here are some of the books we read:

Peace is an Offering by Annette LeBox
Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson
Malala Yousafazi: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya
Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester
Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

Finally, we read I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres. While we read this text, an illustrated version of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, kids made connections between the rights in the book and rights that were violated in other stories we’d read. Then they decided which right was most important to them and thought about why. They chose colors to illustrate the way this right makes them feel and created their silhouette to add their images into the product. Watching my students take ownership of their learning, rights, and artistic ability was a powerful way to spend January and February.


What is crew? What does a strong crew look like?

In an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school, there are not classrooms or teachers; there are crews and crew leaders. “What does that really mean though?” is a question you might ponder (and one I certainly did at the beginning of the year as a new EL teacher). EL Education explains the concept of crew often with the turn of phrase “We are Crew, Not Passengers.” By calling groups of students crews rather than classes, we imply that the only way to go forward and to progress is together. We value collective and individual social and academic progress. We find joy and value in operating as a team.

At Detroit Prep, crew is more than what we call our team. Crew is also a dedicated and structured time at the beginning and end of each day. We circle up, greet one another, engage in purposeful games and readings connected to our Habits of Character and reflect on our progress toward individual and collective goals. Time in crew is not a nice add-on to learning but rather a necessary precursor; students of any age need to first feel accepted and safe before they are willing to engage in deep, rigorous learning and take academic risks.

Though crew is off to a strong start at DP, we still have room to grow. After a recent visit to Polaris Charter Academy (DP’s mentor EL school in Chicago) my mind is brimming with ideas. As we move toward the coming year, I am actively contemplating how to improve our sense of crew. How can structures be set up to facilitate group goal setting and celebrate group progress toward goals? If these structures were in place, could students have more ownership of our school community and be more responsible for keeping one another academically on track? How can crew time be strategically utilized to teach about culturally-relevant figures who exemplified strong character? If we grounded crew in a historical understanding of our current identities, might we be better poised to equitably interact and fulfill our school’s mission/vision? Luckily I, like the students, am not alone to grapple with these big questions and with the large task of building our crew. We are a DP crew, and we will work together to build an even stronger community and sense of crew for our second year.

Ready, Set…. Explore

Our second expedition was kicked off with our BBK (building background knowledge) mystery boxes!  Students were split into small groups to explore the mystery boxes and try to make connections between them.  During mystery box exploration, students used post it notes to write down predictions and stick them to our classroom anchor chart: I can guess our new expedition topic. Students were so excited to play and predict.

So what was in the mystery boxes?  Great question! Mystery box number one contained a horizon soil diagram.  The diagram was unlabeled so students were left to question; what could this be?  Students enjoyed being detectives.  There were many guesses: inside of the Earth, planting, and roots just to name a few.

Mystery box number two was one of the crew’s favorites… Dirt! Students played in the dirt using their five senses (minus taste!) to figure out why a mystery box would contain dirt.  Post-it notes began to fill the anchor as crew members moved from box to box.

What could be better than a box full of dirt…WORMS!  There were a lot of feelings at mystery box number three.  “I’m scared!” “They poop a lot and they stink!” “They are soooo cute… Hi little fella!”   Students watched the worms as they moved through the soil.  Soon students will learn that worms help compost the soil.  Worms are not just gross, stinky and cute but they are helpful to our Earth.

The fourth mystery box contained a tray full of different seeds.  This mystery box helped students make connections between all of the boxes.  Our expedition isn’t just about dirt or worms or plants.  Our expedition is a combination of all of these things.  More and more post-its began to fill the anchor!

After we rotated through all of the mystery boxes, we reflected on our learning target for the day: I can guess our new expedition topic.  We read through our predictions from the anchor.  Then students were left in suspense to ponder what our expedition topic was.  The next day the topic was revealed: Farms and Gardens!  We jumped right in by learning all about dirt!

Fieldwork to Arts and Scraps

The kindergarten and first grade students at DP have been hard at work learning about GARBAGE! In December we got to push our thinking on a fieldwork trip, one of my favorite parts of EL expeditions. Our fieldwork, as opposed to a typical field trip, is grounded in our expedition content and grade level standards, includes teaching from experts, and almost always has a service learning component. These are some of the most memorable experiences for both the students and teachers.

We traveled to Arts and Scraps, a non-profit on Detroit’s east side that “reimagines recycled materials to help people of all ages think, create, and learn.” First we visited their warehouse space, where we learned that many of their materials are leftover from various production facilities. We helped sort materials so that the next group of visitors could use them easily. Kids got creative while they made headbands, bow-ties, superhero masks, and necklaces out of old sock loops.

After our work in the warehouse everyone practiced making their own recycled art creation. The kids had a blast working together to make their recycled art creatures (come see them on display in the hallway!). Finally, everyone got to go shopping in the materials room - kids picked out recycled materials to take with them. We’ll be using these things to create 3D sculptures with our amazing art teacher, Beth. Come to our Celebration of Learning in February to hear more and see some of these recycled art products!

Pizza Kits = Enrichment for our Students

In our very first year at Detroit Prep, we are working hard to create a community that serves the whole child--which includes access to high-quality enrichment activities built into the school day and a rigorous, hands-on learning environment. We're excited about our progress so far, and need your help to continue to serve our brilliant and curious students. 

We are selling Little Caesar's Pizza Kits to raise money for DP, so our students have awesome things like:

  • Musical instruments to allow students to build on their vocal music skills from the fall term and incorporate instruments,
  • Field work excursions that are connected to our spring expedition on farms and gardens to give students hands-on, place-based learning experience, 
  • Foreign Language instruction for the 2017-18 school year, and 
  • Other school-wide needs!

The best part is that not only will you be giving our students a holistic and well-rounded education, you'll also get the most delicious pizza (or cheesy bread...or cookie dough...) to make at home.

Want to eat yummy pizza and support DP?

  1. Create an account at
  2. Enter our fundraising ID 327961
  3. Order your pizza!
    • You can choose to have it delivered to Detroit Prep for pick-up, or
    • Have it shipped right to your house!

Want to support our amazing kids in lots of other ways?

A Growing Kindergarten

A Growing Kindergarten

Who knew a garden could blossom in the middle of Fall? Our Kindergarten crew is growing more and more each day (both physically and academically)! It is amazing to watch the process unfold before me.

We started with a simple alphabet chant, added a sprinkling of word segmenting and sound blending, and now these Kinders have grown into readers and writers.

The root of this stems from a 20-minute Phonics block. During this time, students are being exposed to letters, sounds, words, and sentences. We use whiteboards, magnetic letters, phonics phones, and extra-large finger pointers too!

In just 11 short weeks, students grew from practicing letters and sounds on whiteboards to writing words. Students are able to transfer these skills into our Writers Workshop, where they not only write words, they’re creating sentences too! Students approach writing time with excitement!

Writing is a time where students can use illustrations and now WORDS to tell their audience stories or teach them something about a topic.

That’s not all our Kinders can do! We are also able to use our phonics skills to READ stories. We started the year by noticing illustrations and finding as much detail as possible.

Next, students started to recognize letters and sounds. Now students are recognizing high frequency words and even blending sounds to identify unknown words. We are well on our way to becoming fluent readers!

There is no doubt in my mind our kindergarten will continue to grow this year. By the end of June, these Kinders will blossom into eager first graders.

Solitude and Reflection

At the conclusion of October, the teachers of Detroit Prep had the opportunity to attend the Expeditionary Learning National Conference. The conference which brought together approximately 1,000 practitioners and friends of Expeditionary Learning (EL) was held over the course of three days at the Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit. Attendees had the opportunity to participate in both master classes focused on particular topics and communities of practice - conversation groups centered on complex problems of practice.

As a new EL teacher, I learned a tremendous amount from the conference: from the classes I attended and the interactions I had with more experienced EL educators. In this post, I want to talk about what I learned from one master class on solitude and reflection.

"Solitude and reflection" is one of the core design principles of EL. The organization defines the principle as: "Students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need to exchange their reflections with other students and with adults." Prior to attending the master class, I understood this design principle as meaning that students should have some quiet times during the day and that students should regularly reflect on their learning.

The master class shifted my thinking around solitude and reflection. While part of solitude and reflection is certainly making room in the school day for quiet reflection, the principle is also connected with being alone and silent in the natural world. At some EL schools, students have "sit spots" outside their schools; students visit these spots each day and sit quietly or meditate. At other schools, teachers take solo hikes prior to the school year to ground themselves and become more mindful of their teaching practice. It was striking to me that at many schools "solos" (quiet, alone times for students and teachers) were only loosely structured. Solo participants were given loose guidelines for their time alone - perhaps a task or two - and then sent out. Solo participants were typically not tasked with reflecting on their academic goals. Even though the structure was loose for these moments of solitude and reflection, students and teachers found their self-directed time invaluable and often yearned for more.

After learning how many EL schools incorporate the principle of solitude and reflection into their students and teachers daily lives via time outdoors and via loosely structured solo time, I have started to think about how I can make this principle a more robust part of the day for my Detroit Prep crew. I am eager to take my crew outside for mindfulness time and to facilitate activities that will draw our attention to our natural surroundings. I am also excited to trust my Kindergarten crew with less structured solo/reflection time and to see how their capacity to self-manage and reflect might grow.

If you notice things in Ms. Shelly's crew are a little quieter in the coming months, don't doubt we are still learning and growing! In the words of Pablo Picasso, "Without great solitude no serious work is possible."

Getting to Know DP // Annie Markey, 1st Grade

Hi Detroit Prep friends and families! I am so thrilled to be working and learning with you this year. I've been teaching first grade for the past two years at Detroit Prep's sister school, DAA. I love planning and teaching expeditions, and I can't wait to get started with my new crew this year.

Before I started teaching at DAA I was in school at Michigan; my Masters is in Elementary Education and ESL. While I was in school I student taught in a kindergarten classroom, spent a summer teaching second grade math and reading intervention in Ecuador, and taught fifth grade ESL intervention. During all my classroom teaching experiences, my favorite thing to teach has been reading. I love introducing kids to new read aloud books, watching their eyes widen during the scary parts and hearing their laughter when something funny happens. I love helping kids get to a point where they're excited about reading and confident in their ability to decode, understand, and enjoy a story. I'm excited to continue building these skills with first graders this year.  

One of my favorite things about teaching project based learning is the experiences that kids have while they learn. Last year the first graders engaged in pieces of a human centered design process to fix up the park near our building. Watching tiny six year olds interview, discover, and distill information was an empowering experience for all of us. Seeing them work together to plan, give feedback, and reiterate designs set the tone for a whole year of working together, being open to new ideas, and persevering through challenges. (Playing on our fun new rainbow swing set was an added bonus!) I can't wait to see how Detroit Prep's first group of first graders engages with projects this year, and I know that soon I'll be filling blog posts with all the creative and inquisitive things they do.

5 Ways We'll Integrate Expeditionary Learning All Day Long!


At Detroit Prep, we are a proud EL Education school. Our expeditions will provide the foundation for deeper learning, high levels of student ownership, and exceptionally high-quality student work. What sets this kind of learning apart from other types of project-based learning is that our expedition content lives across reading, writing, and math. Here are five ways we integrate expedition throughout the day:

1)   We tie expedition content into our writing lessons. In order to be experts on a topic, students synthesize their learning in authentic writing opportunities. For example, to wrap up an expedition, students might write persuasive letters to a local government official or members of the community about why they should care about our expedition topic.

2)   We use expedition books as anchor texts for reading lessons. Teaching a lesson about non-fiction text features? What better way to integrate content than to use a book about your expedition topic as one of the anchor texts for you unit. Not only will students have a more authentic experience with their reading lesson, they will also have more exposure to expedition content to become true experts!

3)   We bring math skills into expedition activities. Students are often graphing and analyzing data related to expedition, including people's opinions about the topic. Students also use measurement in expeditions, for example, they may measure plants in an expedition on farms and gardens! Students see the real-world importance of math.

4)   We use rubrics that span content areas. A big part of EL Education is producing a meaningful, high-quality product to be proud of that also provide evidence of student learning. Many of these rubrics include strands about reading, writing, listening, and speaking so that students are working toward the same standards-based skills in expedition as they are in other content areas.

5)   We are crew! A HUGE component of EL Education is the idea that, “we are crew, not passengers.” This mindset lives in every activity over the course of the school day as our students (and staff) work together to collaborate, give one another feedback, and support each other.