Our All-School Service Learning Day

One of my favorite days of the school year is our all-school service learning day. For the past four years, our school has gone back to the same section of a park in Seattle (Seward Park) as stewards and spent the day pulling weeds, planting trees, learning about nature, and having fun.

Let me begin by saying: being in the cold unrelenting rain for four hours is not my idea of fun (some kids, though, had a blast!). Our service learning day is one of my favorite days because all the students work together with faculty, staff, and parents to make a small positive impact in our community. It requires hard work and team work. You only have to watch a second grade student trying to dig a hole with an adult-sized shovel to know whether or not effort was involved. Service learning is about connecting the learning that occurs in the classroom with real-world issues in the community.

My students define a community as a place where people live, work, play, and solve problems. In my class, we’ve explored a neighborhood community, colonial communities, scientific communities, and currently we’re looking at ancient Egyptian communities. Regardless of the structure or time period, that simple definition of a community holds true and what a great way to participate both as a school community and as members of our wonderful city.

There are a works of children’s fiction that are great for this day. The Lorax by Dr. Suess is an obvious one. Miss. Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is another. My favorite, though, and the one I chose today is called The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Inspired by those who advocated for the High Line in Manhattan to be reused as a park instead of demolition, the story tells of a little boy whose curiosity leads him to a little patch of garden on an elevated railroad track. He carefully tends to his garden realizing that his efforts inspire others to join him.

It’s always hard to know what kinds of learning spark passions in certain kids. If this school-wide project helps to ignite only one student to become a leader and make a positive impact on their community later in life, what’s a little cold rain? We live in Seattle after all.

Stumped by Sustainability

It’s so nice to have a break, and I will try my hardest to read fiction. I can’t promise that I won’t make a connection to education with the other things I read. Like this weekend, when this article: How Green is Your Real (or Fake) Christmas Tree? appeared in the New York Times. It reminded me how complicated the topic of sustainability really is. And then Thomas Friedman’s piece yesterday: The U.S.S. Prius.

When we return to school in January, our school ‘officially’ starts off with their theme on sustainability. Firstly, I think any all-school-theme should be year-long and organically integrate with the curriculum that is already there. The connections to the theme seem more authentic that way, and with a theme like sustainability, isn’t it more a way of thinking critically about our world and resources that we want our children to be engaged in?

Despite being a difficult topic for adults to understand, kids can understand that we consume resources and the earth has a limited supply of some kinds, where other kinds, are renewable (or more renewable than others if we are responsible about the way we use them).

But even take the current trend in producing electric cars: They aren’t cheap, and I don’t believe their batteries that they run on are all that green?

My approach has been to ignore the January to March idea and make it a year long theme anyway, from using recycled materials to build my back to school bulletin board, to teaching the kids where and how items get disposed of when they go into our garbage, recycling, or compost containers. We’ve also used recycled materials for art projects ourselves and hopefully, we can promote the idea of walking over driving when we explore our neighborhood a little further. I work in what will most likely be a LEED certified building and there are many areas of the building that can be used as teaching tools too. The solar panels on the roof and their corresponding meters are a good way to see how much energy we are actually generating ourselves vs. the electricity we use up. In Seattle, where hydro power is cheap (for now) and the sun is a rare sight this time of year, it will be interesting to see those differences. I also want to take the approach we have with our upper grades at our school about bullying. That is – to not be bystanders. If they see me or another student being less responsible (for example putting paper in the garbage instead of the recycle bin), they should say something.

Finally, the actual calculations regarding the topic of sustainability are complex. The best thing I think I can do for my students is to try and make sure they are aware, think critically, act responsibly if they know how and why, act if they choose, and continue to share the optimism that this planet will be here, a much better place, for their great grandchildren too.

Values

Today I had a chance to tour our new school building. Last time I did that, only the framing was up. With two months to go to completion, the progress and transformation has been quite incredible. It is an incredibly green building and I am excited about the opportunities to increase the integration of sustainability into the curriculum and the ethos of the school.

Being green can be complicated and difficult, and in my recent reading, I came across the complexity in knowing if buying something local was really the most efficient in terms of carbon footprint or cost. Here are a couple of columns that point this out: Food that Travels Well (nytimes); How the Myth of Food Miles Hurt the Planet (Guardian)

Unfortunately, carbon footprint or cost are just a couple of values. What about the value of supporting local growers who are passionate about what they grow? The value of community? The value of resourcefulness in learning how to grow your own vegetable garden? The value of stewardship?

I think we have to continually keep learning about where food (or anything) comes from and evaluate on multiple value systems. Not easy, but definitely worth the effort.

Having recently watched the film, Food Inc., I was actually shocked at all the hidden costs to produce food ‘efficiently.’ I highly recommend this movie. Unlike the Michael Moore films that may be dismissed as “lefty claptrap”, Food Inc. (imho) is great eye opening journalism. You can view the trailer below.

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

In a few months I will be teaching in a LEED certified building. I’m excited about using the building to learn and teach kids about sustainability, how to be greener, and ways to be more thoughtful about what we consume. From food, to paper, to water, and so forth, the opportunities seem limitless. Yet, the more I start to read about ‘being green’ the more skeptical I become about what it really ‘means’ to be green, rather than how it ‘feels’ to be green. There are some easy places to start in a classroom. Reuse paper before recycling, for example.

Use a cloth towel instead of paper towels is another way, right? Well, not so fast. Like the misunderstanding and confusion of the science behind the energy used when it comes to ‘buying local’, most people’s assumptions are not always correct. The cloth is way better than the paper towels, but the moment you put it into the washing machine, the paper doesn’t seem so bad.

Here’s a short video of a great, funny, and data driven TED talk highlighting how difficult it truly is to calculate whether a certain behavior is greener.

I couldn’t resist. Here’s Kermit.