As I drive to Laurel School’s Butler Campus, the rolling hills, fresh egg stands, and rocking chairs on porches conjure a sense of calm, quiet, and peace. But what is happening at The Fairmount House is loud, revolutionary, and anything but peaceful, for this is the space where Laurel’s Environmental Justice Semester is based. This is the house where students “have a shared sense of purpose and agency. Teachers are coaches in this work,” shares Josh Johnston, EJ teacher. 

Laurel School’s Environmental Justice Semester launched in September 2023 with eleven students. The program enrolls current Laurel students and students from other schools — public, independent, and faith-based — in northeastern Ohio. 

To earn professional development credits, an EJ student must participate in learning experiences or activities outside the school that are relevant to their growth as an Environmental Justice changemaker. The work of environmental justice is intersectional, so students might learn directly about Environmental Justice issues through their apprenticeships with Cleveland organizations, or they might learn about work related to anti-racism, feminism, dis/ability inclusion, class consciousness, LGBTQ+ rights, or another topic that’s important to them. 

Time Moves Differently Here

Parking my car and seeing chairs in a circle around the firepit, I already know that Restorative Practices and Circles are a central component of the EJ Program. Restorative Practice creates community, allows for trust and vulnerability, and is central to Laurel School’s mission and values. 

Per instructions from my colleagues, I have slippers with me to move through the house that is the classroom. And when I enter, I see rows of shoes neatly placed by the front door. The students are deep in conversation, debriefing about the Fridays for Future protest they orchestrated and led last week.  

The former living room of the house has been transformed into a warm, welcoming classroom filled with colorful floor cushions, 1960s mismatched furniture, and whiteboards. In this living room, each morning begins with a Circle and tea; the roots for Restorative Practice and Circle come from Indigenous communities. The students share what is on their minds, moving deeper into connecting with one another. A talking piece gives everyone a voice and time. 

In the EJ House, time feels fluid and intentional. In traditional high school, the students move from class to class with a finite amount of time devoted daily to each subject. In the EJ House, time is on a continuum. If a student wants to talk more about how the Stanford Prison Experiment connects to The Overstory or why Seaweed Farming is on the rise, they can. They are asked what they need; there is time to reflect, and an answer is then given. There is no pressure to respond right away or worry that the teacher will move on to the next topic. 

After opening Circle and taking time to journal and reflect, English class commences, but it is nothing like you might imagine. We head upstairs to their classroom, a former bedroom, now outfitted with desks and chairs. 

Students receive a choice of EJ books to read, form their own literature groups, and then lead them. They determine how much they will read and what questions will be asked. Meanwhile, the teacher has a computer set up to film them for feedback. “We want the students to be independent and in charge of their learning. We step back,” Josh Johnston shares. 

Nature Is Listening 

Students in the Environmental Justice Seminar at Laurel School in the fall of 2023. Photos courtesy of Laurel School.

I sit in on a group that was reading The Overstory. Looking out the window and seeing the many different trees, I can’t help but feel that this is exactly where a discussion about this novel should take place. Nature is listening and hoping we are learning. I had read the book, so I know how exceptional these conversations and insights from fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds are. Here are a few pearls:

·      “It’s the arbitrary nature of how people and things are assigned that really made me think.” 

·      “This book inspired me to think about larger social issues. Social factors are so insignificant in the larger context of the world.” 

·      “It shows how people deny science for their own beliefs about what is happening at the time.” 

·      “We need to infer our own meaning from text. What if we saw nature as a religion and gave it social currency like we give other issues?” 

As I listen to the students, tears form in my eyes; this authentic, meaningful, raw learning is student-generated, student-led, and just what was imagined for Laurel’s EJ Semester. 

Individuality Expressed

Heading down to the house’s former basement to the converted science lab, I note the walls are filled with ways the students can make changes: Partners, Activism, and Community. The titles on the shelves are as individual as the humans who are part of this first cohort of EJ students: Atlas of the Heart (Brené Brown), The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin), The Life of Birds (David Attenborough), and Untamed (Glennon Doyle), to name a few. 

The EJ Semester is not about students working together in isolation but working together and with the larger Cleveland community. Their independent research is as varied as their identities and interests: forest protection, clean cookstoves, electrifying everything, urban mobility, greenwashing, and even family planning. While the topics may be different, they look at them through the lenses of EJ and Intersectionality. 

The students are thoughtful and introspective. They are coming to understand how systemic racism impacts every topic they research. They are learning that they are the voices and the generation of change. They are passionate, committed, and invested. They are the changemakers. 

At the end of the day, as I walk down the gravel driveway and take in the EJ House, I realize this is a dream made manifest. It is Laurel School’s mission and values brought to life, in real time. If you listen very carefully, you can hear change happening.