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Grand River Prep Teacher's Pandemic Silver Lining Benefits Students Beyond His Classroom

Meet Jordan Dischinger-Smedes, science teacher at Grand River Preparatory High School. He’s in his seventh year with the school and teaches Human Anatomy and AP Environmental Science (APES), and he’s changing the way students see the environment.

Jordan Dischinger-Smedes with students

He believes that APES exposes students to nearly every aspect of science and how it explains the natural and human world – that’s a lot of content for students to learn.

Instead of letting the COVID-19 pandemic hinder his students’ abilities to grasp the information, he made use of his non-teaching time when his students weren’t in school last spring and created a silver lining – one with 1.44K subscribers. He started making high-quality lesson videos and posted them on YouTube. Check them out here.

“While I considered the possibility of other AP Environmental Science students and teachers finding them and watching them, I never anticipated anything like the number of views they’re receiving now,” said Mr. Smedes. “When I saw how many students tuned in for the review videos I uploaded a few days before the exam last spring, I decided to start producing the notes videos more intentionally and really trying to cover everything students would need to know for the exam so that if students wanted to self-study, or if they were in a district that wasn’t really equipped to provide high-quality instruction during distance learning this fall, they’d have access to all the content they need to do well on the exam at the end of the year.”

Jordan Dischinger-Smedes' classroom

His class has two mantras: “Write Like A Scholar” and “Think Like a Mountain”. The first is a reminder to his students to strive for a higher level of vocabulary and specificity, whether they’re answering questions verbally or in discussion groups.

He started using “Think Like A Mountain” because he wasn’t able to infuse more environmentalism into the course in his first few years teaching it due to the amount of content that he needed to cover, leaving little room for specific lessons on environmental activism or environmental ethics.

“That’s where ‘Think Like A Mountain’ comes in,” said Mr. Smedes. “Borrowed from the title of an Aldo Leopold essay in his famous conservation work, A Sand County Almanac, thinking like a mountain refers to considering the long-term effects of human actions on ecosystems.”

For the past three years, he’s started out the very first day of class by reading Aldo Leopold’s Thinking Like A Mountain essay to the students and prompting a discussion about what it means to think like a mountain.

“It then serves as our mantra throughout the year, reminding students whenever they’re stuck to take a step out of their very short, sometimes myopic human timeline of thinking only to the next week or year, and to consider the decades-long impacts of changes to ecosystems,” said Mr. Smedes. “It’s nice because it builds the thought processes they need in order to do well on the AP exam, while also reminding them to always consider how they might reduce the environmental consequences of their actions. It makes it so much easier to quickly bring up questions of environmental ethics and sustainability organically throughout the course of the year, without explicitly planning new lessons or activities.”

Grand River Prep garden

Sustainability is an important element in his life, which he is able to model for his students through is actions and the choices he makes every day.

“What’s so neat about AP Environmental Science is that students gain a much deeper understanding of what sustainability really means,” said Mr. Smedes. “Rather than just the low-impact, pop culture notions of sustainability like recycling paper and having a metal straw, we really explore what sustainability means in terms of energy sources, food production, and land use.”

To model a sustainable lifestyle for his students, he pushes himself to bring plant-based meals to potlucks, ride his bike to school, and take the same public bus that some of his students take. A yearly tradition in his class is to use the Global Footprint Network’s Footprint Calculator to assess individual carbon and ecological footprints.

During the exercise, he tries to have the lowest carbon footprint in the class, and he even adopts new sustainable habits like not buying new clothes to lower his footprint. However, each year he finds that there are still students with lower carbon footprints than his, and he crowns them the carbon footprint champs.

“Mr. Smedes is an exemplar in so many ways!” said Koree Woodward, Director of School Quality. “He excels at collaborating and problem solving with immense professionalism, diplomacy, and desire to continually improve. His passion for his subject area of science is the kind that finds its way into the hearts of his students. And last, but not least, his belief that all students can find success when provided the right supports, encouragement, and tools is second to none! We are so very lucky to have him on our team!”

Keep up the great work, Mr. Smedes!