Lowell Author Pens Book Highlighting Flint Water Crisis

For most of us, the Flint water crisis is something we’ve only read about. But for Annie McMahon Whitlock, it was something she experienced firsthand.

The Lowell native was working at the University of Michigan-Flint when lead-tainted water began flowing through city pipes. While she lived in the suburbs, she was drinking the water on campus before anyone realized the health threat it posed.

Whitlock has since returned to Lowell, and she’s penned a book about placed-based education, using the Flint water crisis as a poignant example. “Place-Based Social Studies Education: Learning From Flint, Michigan” is an academic book written in a journalistic style, weaving Whitlock’s personal experiences into a text that is designed to help educators implement place-based learning into their classrooms.

Working in Flint During Water Crisis

A member of the Lowell High School Class of ’99, Whitlock studied elementary education at Central Michigan University and then taught middle school social studies in Holland. However, she eventually went back to school herself and earned a Master of Education from Grand Valley State University and a Ph.D. in curriculum, instruction and teacher education at Michigan State University.

“I just wanted to keep learning,” she explains.

Once she completed her studies at MSU, Whitlock transitioned to teaching at the postsecondary level, and she headed to UM-Flint in 2013. The following year, a manager for the city made the cost-cutting decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River.

The composition of the river water corroded pipes and leached lead and other chemicals into the water supply. The result was more than half of Flint households reporting the physical health of at least one of its members worsening because of the water crisis and nearly two-thirds of adults reporting an increase in behavioral health issues. There is also evidence that the change in city’s water source may have led to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease.

“I was pregnant at that time and drank lead-contaminated water,” Whitlock says. However, she also notes that since she did not live in the city, her experience was different than that of others in the community who could not go home at night to a safe water supply.

Eventually, the water source for Flint was switched, but the damage was done to the pipes. The only solution was for the city to replace its water service lines. Since then, the State of Michigan has required all cities to take an inventory of their pipes and replace any lead service lines, as well as pipes connected to lead service lines.

Book Based on Flint Experience

Whitlock spent nine years in Flint and is now an associate professor of history and social studies at Grand Valley State University. She has worked for the last several years on an academic book that incorporates her experience in the city.

Published by Teachers College Press, “Place-Based Social Studies Education: Learning From Flint, Michigan” highlights an educational approach that recognizes the role of local communities in how students learn. Whitlock notes that it is often used in environmental education. In those classes, students might learn about local ecosystem and their importance to a community’s development.

“Connecting things locally makes (lessons) more engaging to students,” Whitlock says.

With her book, she hopes to bring that same engaging approach to social studies. She writes about the background of the Flint water crisis before delving into how schools responded and then discussing the ways that place-based education may work in Flint. The book also explores how teachers can be prepared to take a place-based approach to education.

Although the book is based on Flint, it is written so all teachers can take away ideas for their classroom. “At the end of each chapter, there are key points for recommendations for K-12 teachers,” Whitlock says.

Educators are the target audience for the book, but Whitlock has written it in a narrative style that makes accessible to even non-academic readers. It incorporates numerous interviews of Flint residents and educators as well as Whitlock’s personal experiences.

As an academic book, “Place-Based Social Studies Education: Learning From Flint, Michigan” isn’t available at the library, but it can be purchased on Amazon or bought directly from the publisher.

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