Lead Town Hall

Author: Freda/Frankie Anderson


The U School

Year: 2019

Seminar: Environmental Humanities from the Tidal Schuylkill River

Grade Level: 9-12

Keywords: activism, environment, Health, social studies, STEM

School Subject(s): Activism, Science, Environmental Science, Health, Social Studies

This unit is for highschool students. Students test lead in school. Students synthesize findings into user friendly zines explaining the scope of the lead problem within the school, the work students have done on the project, preventative tips, and actions which can be taken against this poison. They plan and promote the town hall by canvassing the neighborhood. Students create a presentation showing how the school’s lead problem relates to the larger problem in the neighborhood. Students give a call-to-action speech declaring access to safe neighborhoods a human right. Students break into 7 stations which guests can visit.


  1. teaches water safety tips and explains how to access and use lead testing kits for their homes.
  2. explains the health effects of lead.
  3. sparks a discussion with guests about the history of activists fighting for the right to clean water.
  4. collects ideas from guests for further direct actions.
  5. engages participants in a creative outlet for their frustrations and ideas.
  6. helps guests contribute to a video which will be shared publicly.
  7. collects contact of guests for future actions.

Media from this event and the planning process is shared on social media and maintained by students.

Download Unit: Anderson-F.-19.02.08.pdf

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Full Unit Text
Content Objectives

Problem Statement and Introductions:

The U School High School sits in the 19122 area code. There is a very real threat of lead in the drinking water in Philadelphia’s 19122 area code. Before the 1950s, many houses were built using lead pipes. According to the Philadelphia Health Department, between 56 and 74 percent of houses in the 19122 were built before the 1950s. The high school I work in was built in the 1920s. In September 2017, a Philadelphia public school student developed serious brain damage from eating lead paint chips which fell from the ceiling of his classroom. Later in the school year, the School District decided it was finally going to do some of the toxicity tests teachers and parents had been begging them to do for decades. The results have not been good, and the actions taken based on the toxicity results have been unacceptable. At our school, a letter was sent out by the district stating that lead levels of 8.4ppb were found in the main kitchen sink which is used to cook all of our student’s food. The letter also stated that it would be doing nothing to combat this issue, as its action level was capped at 10ppb lead concentration or higher.

There is not a lot that staff and students of The U School can do about changing the lead levels which exist in the school; just as there isn’t a lot the students and residents of the neighborhood can do about changing the lead pipes in their own homes. Replacing residential lead pipes has an estimated cost of $3,000 – $8,000 while the students and surrounding neighborhood live almost entirely below the poverty line and can not afford this replacement. As defeating as this information may be, one power that The U School does have at its disposal is the ability to educate itself and others. At The U School, students must demonstrate mastery in certain competencies for each class in order to earn credit and graduate. In the Organize Lab Class (a community activism class taught by the author), some of the core competencies are “How Well Can I Plan, Promote, and Host a Successful Community Event?” “How Well Can I Motivate My Community to Take Action?” and “How Well Can I Design and Facilitate Workshops to Educate Others About Important Community Issues?”

The unit created in the Teachers Institute of Philadelphia for Organize Lab will be a Community Education Lead Safety Town Hall and Workshop. The Organize Lab students will collaborate with 9th grade Physical Science students to test lead within the school. The Organize Lab students will help the Science students synthesize their findings into a user friendly zine which explains to participants at the neighborhood town hall the scope and sequence of the lead problem within the school, the work that the students have done on the project, helpful preventative tips, and direct actions which can be taken against this poison. They will plan and promote the community town hall by canvassing in the neighborhood. The U School students will put together a compelling presentation about the ways in which the school’s individual lead problem relates to the larger lead problem which affects the entire neighborhood. Organize Lab
students will give a short call-to-action speech declaring access to safe schools and neighborhoods as a basic human right. After this, students will break out into multiple different workshop stations which guests can cycle through at their leisure. One station will teach neighbors lead water safety tips like running the tap for longer and avoiding hot water as well as explaining how to access and utilize lead testing kits for their own homes. Another station will be explaining to guests what the true health effects of lead can mean for their families. Another station will be engaging in a discussion with guests about some the rich history of activists fighting for the right to clean and accessible water around the world. Another station will be collecting ideas from guests for further direct actions that can be taken. Another station will be engaging participants in a creative outlet for their frustrations, ideas, and concerns. (This creative outlet can be determined by students, whether they are more inclined to facilitating poetry prompts, sketches, short videos, etc.). Another station will be helping guests contribute to a video about the issue which will be shared with media outlets and distributed throughout the city. A final station will be collecting contact information of guests who wish to participate in future action around the topic. Photographs, videos, and media from this event and the process leading up to it will be shared on an Instagram page created and maintained by students about the project.

There are many ways in which the work from Environmental Humanities from the Tidal Schuylkill River and Bethany Wiggin’s teachings and resources will inform this unit. The zine which students will create and distribute is inspired by a resource provided by Bethany Wiggin entitled Ecotopian Toolkit. There is a grant attached to the Ecotopian Toolkit, that if won, could be used to expand the zine portion of the project which could make it into something participants at the town hall contribute to and be a part in creating. Drawing on concepts from the Marisol de la Cadena reading as well as past readings of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder, students will spend time at either the Schuylkill, the Delaware, Tacony Creek, etc., simply taking in the water as an entity and making observations about how the water interacts and exists unto itself, with nonhuman wildlife, and with the human population of the City of Philadelphia. This experience will help them garner a feeling of belonging when it comes to the water that surrounds this city  and therefore instill a feeling of duty to keep the water safe for others and demand water safety as a basic right for themselves.

Content Objectives

The Essential Questions for this unit are:

1. What factors have allowed inhumane living conditions to be seen as “normal” for some communities, but seen as “unacceptable” for others?

2. How can we identify and fight against inhumane living conditions.

I do not think it is possible to teach a unit about environmental injustice and not address the imbedded racism, classism, and sexism that comes with it. This is the reasoning for the first
essential question. The second question is about giving my students a way to fight back against that imbedded racism, classism, and sexism. In my class, it is difficult to strike a balance between teaching students about the injustices which affect their everyday lives, and making sure they know that there is still hope, and they do possess some agency in the situation. To expose children to environmental racism with no other action for them to take part in is, in my opinion, cruel. These two essential questions are about sitting with the weight of the injustice for a second, mourning the hurt around the injustice, and then getting up to try and eradicate the injustice.  In order for students to be able to really understand and interpret the clean water access problem in order to synthesize it and be able to teach it to others or demand action around it, a lot of background knowledge has to be done first. I will lay out here how I plan to build the acquisition of knowledge in individual lesson steps. The lessons start more broadly, dealing with the essential questions, and become more focused as the days go on.

Area of Learning: Discovering the Problem:

Day 1: What is an inhumane living condition?

Day 2:  In school water experience investigation. What is water at school? What is our  relationship to it?

Day 3: Out of school water experience. What is water in (a river, a creek, a lake,  wherever we can get to)? What is our relationship to it?

Day 4: What is intersectionality?

Day 5: What is environmental racism? Environmental classism?

Day 6: Article and podcast response to Philadelphia’s lead water risk.

Day 7: Philadelphia blood lead levels map to poverty level map to racial map comparison  and analysis.

Area of Learning: Defining the Problem:

Day 8: Interview with science students preparation: how do I conduct a strong interview?

Day 9: Write strong interview questions, receive feedback, revise and finalize questions.

Day 10: Conduct interview with science students about their lead findings and research.

Day 11: Share interview experience. Discuss interview process. Debrief.

Day 12: Analyze and interpret information collected. Evaluate findings. Draw  conclusions.

Area of Learning: Designing a Solution:

Day 13: Pamphlet Information Breakdown 1, Why is lead bad?

Day 14: Pamphlet Information Breakdown 2, How can you prevent poisoning?

Day 15: Pamphlet Information Breakdown 3, Why does this project matter to The U  School and Organize Lab and you?

Day 16: Pamphlet Information Breakdown 4, Explain this project. What are the science  kids doing? What are you doing?

Day 17: Pamphlet Information Breakdown 5, Call to action. What do you want people to  do about it? Why/how are we fighting for clean water?

Area of Learning: Develop a Solution:

Day 18: Choose your group for the town hall.

Day 19-21: Work with your group.

Day 22: Class flyering day.

Day 23-24: Water activist investigations.

Day 25: Pamphlet Information Breakdown 6, Explanation of your clean water activist(s).  Explain what other water activists are doing around the world to fight for this  issue.

Day 26: What makes an aesthetically pleasing pamphlet?

Day 27: Organize all Pamphlet Information Breakdown sections into a single pamphlet.

Day 28: Get feedback on pamphlet.

Day 29: Finalize and turn in pamphlet.

Day 30: Last minute group work. Area of Learning: Deliver a Solution:

Day 31: Town hall. Carry out your group’s job at the town hall.

Day 32: Reflect on town hall and overall project. Celebrate success. Analyze growth  areas.

There are a few main places where I can see the content from TIP coming into play. Firstly, in the beginning when we’re spending time with water, we will read some of the poetry from Flow by Beth Kephart. We will use some of the passages as inspiration as we write our experiences in the presence of water, both when we visit at school and outdoors.

Secondly, a lot of the water activists can be explored in the activist investigation section of project, which will take place from Day 21-Day 23. Some of the activist groups which were shown to me in seminar and which I will include for my students are:

  • Eastwick Residents  -Schuylkill River and Urban Waters Research Corps
  • Friends of Heinz Wildlife Refuge

Additionally I will add some water activist groups of my own into the mix:

  • Flint water activists
  • Standing Rock Water Protectors
  • Chris Long’s The Water Boys
  • Inter-Institutional Platform of Celendin
  • Community Water Center
  • Water and Power Law Group
  • Wind River Indian Reservation Activists
  • Klamath Riverkeepers/Yurok Tribe Water Activists
  • Vishwanath Srikantaiah
  • Charlene Ren/MyH2O’s Water Mapping Network
  • SEED Australian Aboriginal Water Activists
  • Ikal Angelei/Friends of Lake Turkana
  • Right2Water Ireland
  • Basra Water Protesters
    Thirdly, if possible my students will be able to amp up the pamphlet quality with resources from the Ecotopian Toolkit organized by the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. They have used their resources in the past to create zines documenting environmentalism projects that have gone on around and in relation to the river. If the program is interested in assisting us, we will be able to elevate our pamphlets to artistic zine status. This will make the information more accessible and user friendly. However, if we are not approved for assistance by the program, I can use the Ecotopian Toolkit zine as an example to my students so that they can see what they’re could possibly reach for in terms of their pamphlet design.


Teaching Strategies

I teach a class called Organize Lab at The U School. Organize Lab is essentially a community activism course. We spend a little bit of time learning about activist struggles and triumphs throughout history and presently. We spend the bulk of our time however, actually taking actions around various social issues which impact the students’ lives and the world around them. Our class is project based, and every culminating performance task in Organize Lab is a major action oriented project. Although the content and specifics of our coursework changes unit to unit and year to year, the performance tasks which the students must demonstrate mastery in consist roughly of the same four things. These repeated four performance tasks are:

  1. Canvassing, interviewing, polling, and surveying.
  2. Creating campaigns – whether online, on paper, with art, outside, or in school.
  3. Creating flyers, pamphlets, blog-posts, videos and other informational and distributable media.
  4. Planning, promoting, and hosting community events.

In order to help students build to these larger and more overwhelming final projects, components of the projects are broken down into manageable parts, so that students can complete a bit at a time, and in the end, they can simple string all of the components together to create the final project. This process of breaking a large project into more bite sized pieces is often referred to as “chunking” in project based learning circles. For individual projects, like most of the campaign projects and the informational media projects, chunking happens by creating each assignment so that it fits like a piece in the final project.

For example: in this project, as students work to create their pamphlets to distribute to guests at the town hall, they are completing individual sections of the pamphlet one at a time, in the form of assignments.

  • For the first assignment building towards the pamphlet, they will write about the dangers of lead to the mind and the body.
  • For the second assignment, they will write tips that people can use to prevent lead poisoning.
  • For the third assignment, they will tell people how to check to see if their water pipes are made of lead or not.
  • For the fourth assignment, they will explain why the problem of clean water access matters to them, and why it matters to the U School.
  • For the fifth assignment, they will explain what the Freshman are doing in their Physical Science classes to test for lead around the school.
  • For the sixth assignment, they will write a call to action, demanding that the city fix the lead pipe problem.
  • For the seventh assignment, they will pick a clean water activist group to research and provide information about their struggle for the right to safe water.

In the end, the students can simply take all of the work that they did in the assignments, compile it in an attractive looking pamphlet template from Canva.com, add a few pictures, and turn it in. This prevents students from feeling overwhelmed and stressed out by the material. In addition to helping students, it gives the teacher more time to spend modeling and practicing each section with the students, and identifying problem areas for the class which can be focused on.