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.


What Can One Little Person Do?

A couple of days before our spring break, our whole school went to Seward Park (a large Seattle park) as we had done for the past three years to steward a portion that we had committed to. Many teachers and I agree that it is one of our favorite days (even though this year it was very cold, muddy, and wet), as it brings the school together as a community to take responsibility in our civic duties. In the past, we had been charged of a few duties including the removal of invasive species, but this year there were no more to remove. I would definitely call that measurable progress. Our sole job was to plant and mulch trees for the future of the park. The kids enjoyed nature walks, outdoor games, and of course tree planting. Although, my favorite part of that day comes at the end, when the entire school forms a bucket brigade to deliver mulch from the main park road to the region of the park where trucks simply can’t get to. If you want a scene of a whole school working together with a common goal – the image of kindergarteners to fifth graders continuously handing each other buckets of mulch with teachers, administrators, and parents interspersed throughout that chain, is a very good example of one.

What I love about service learning is the ability for kids to see that one little person can indeed make an impact in the world (we had a coin drive for solar cookers in Chad earlier in the year – an idea from our fifth graders), or even in their own city. We also go to a local organization to help package food for those in need, not to mention the various ways kids help around their classroom and campus.

The planting of trees struck a chord with me as our Kinder and 2nd grade classes attended the Seattle Children’s Theatre’s production of The Man Who Planted Trees today. It’s a great story (albeit fabricated) about how one person can make a positive impact in the world. The Seattle Times was enchanted in their review. So was a parent in her parent review from Seattle’s Child magazine.

When we got back to class today, some children asked if were a true story, I read them the afterword to the book, which admits that its protagonist was in fact a work of fiction. I’m sure Oprah would have fun with this story. I also mentioned, however, that there are still plenty of examples of people who make a difference with the small but powerfully positive things they do. Jane Goodall, is one living example. Harriet Tubman another example from history. Then I then tried to link the play they attended to their own experience of planting trees a few weeks ago in the park as well as the recent planting they did in their school garden plot. I could physically see the bodies of many of the kids change taking pride in what they had done a few weeks ago.

Sometimes these coincidences just happen. This field trip was booked almost a year ago, with no idea what date we would get, whether the show would be any good, or how well it would tie in with our school’s theme of sustainability. While the story is magnificent, the book is a little dry for second graders. The Puppet State Theatre Company from Edinburgh that brought this production to Seattle, had the children hanging on every word. Aside being a wonderful piece of theater, being able to connect this story with the work the kids did a just before break was a really nice serendipitous teaching moment..

There’s a nice  service learning article  that appeared in the connected principals blog a couple of weeks ago that echo some of what I’ve said here.

Kids can have such a positive impact with the little things they do, I feel very lucky to be part of a school that gives them many opportunities to do so.

Looking at Biomimicry and Nature to Become More Sustainable

Anyone looking at today’s headlines may think the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Yet, one of the main reasons I teach is the optimism kids have about their future, the potential kids see in creating a more just world, and the endless possibilities of things they believe they can accomplish.

Over the past few years, our school has run an annual coin drive to benefit a particular global organization. This year, our fifth graders chose World Concern as the organization, but more specifically, that the money collected would go to purchase solar cookers for families in Chad. With the recent population boom in eastern Chad mostly coming from war-torn Sudan, many children are sent miles, through often dangerous terrain, to fetch wood so their families can cook their meals. Aside from protecting children, it also protects the deforestation that has happened in that region. For an area that is often hot and receives a lot of sun, these inexpensive and innovative cookers make a lot of sense.

How innovative can we be with our own sustainable practices? I watched the TED talk below last week and was awed by what people are thinking about and coming up with. Not only that, I also realize how much I have to learn in order to actually teach it. I don’t want the idea sustainable practices to feel like lip service in order to gain whatever points one needs to have a building LEED certified or some other sustainable stamp of approval. I simply want the process to be genuine. One of my frustrations this year has been trying to learn about sustainability because the topic is so complex, full of paradoxes, and for me, something new. I don’t know what starting small means. I’m also not sure how to bring it down to a level that makes sense for second graders (besides reusing, recycling, and composting materials). Our school’s symbol is the sun. Having children understand that it gives us energy that we can harness and store, and that it’s a renewable source is something I can work with and so can my students. Unfortunately, in Seattle, with hydro power being inexpensive, and sunlight being scarce in the winter, I’m curious how long it takes for a solar panel to pay for itself, if at all.

Anyway, take a listen to this amazing talk and you’ll see what I mean by how complex sustainability can be. My favorite line from the video, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products, and all of those have benefitted from a 3.8 billion-year research and development period.” Let’s inspire our kids to develop the tools needed to think this way and “set their souls ablaze” with optimism and hope.

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.

Multiple Perspectives 2

Teaching most kinds of historical events, it’s important to ask the kids the following:

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. Why did they write it?
  3. Who was the audience?

There’s a great picture book (yes, it’s a picture book)  on the revolutionary war titled George Vs. George and it attempts to describe the events from two perspectives: that of the British, and that of the Colonists.

Last Friday, after the children read two different accounts of the event and viewed a 4 minute online video, they were asked to examine Paul Revere’s illustration below.

During our discussion the following questions were asked: Who looks innocent in this picture? One of the men killed, Crispus Attucks, was an African American, yet he is not portrayed here – why do you think that is? The British soldiers are all standing in a straight line with their weapons all aimed the same way. Did the illustration match the descriptions you read? Why or why not?

With todays image rich world, it’s important for kids (yes, even 2nd graders) to be able to analyze, think critically, and discern for themselves what’s going on beyond the story. The children looked up the words ‘massacre’ and ‘riot’ and they had to decide for themselves if one word fit the situation better based on the multiple sources they were exposed to.

Another project the kids did with their first grade buddies this week was to look at a Picasso work from the exhibit here at the Seattle Art Museum which we will visit in January. The Picasso piece was this one here:

Before giving the children the title of the piece, we asked them what they thought they saw. Some mentioned color. Other’s mentioned shape (we threw in some math terms where we could). A few mentioned texture. I told them that this hangs on a wall and we may see it on our visit. We then discussed whether they thought this was a painting or a sculpture – or both.

We then told them the title of the piece was Violin and asked them if they saw any elements of a violin. We then showed them an image of our new school and asked them to deconstruct it and build shapes that reminded them of our school building.

This is what they came up with:

When we first thought of taking a field trip to the exhibit, we thought it would be an excellent opportunity, but didn’t really see how it fit into the curriculum or our schoolwide theme of sustainability.  Nonetheless, we discovered that using recycled magazines and using the school as the subject, we fulfilled two of the three subtopics of that theme: sense of place, and reduction of paper. Our objectives also included collaboration and the sharing of ideas. If you look closely, you might see elements of a solar panel, native plants, a green roof, and a sundial.

Whether it be a history lesson, or an art lesson, seeing things from multiple perspectives often leads to new insights both for the kids and the teachers.

Do Your Homework

The title of this post comes from idea number 48 in the book The Third Teacher. It’s in the chapter called Sustainable Schools.

In order to teach and promote sustainability, it’s important to learn a little bit about the topic – and as I’ve mentioned before (here), it’s not so easy being green. What is easy for me though, is to eat and today I walked to a new eatery for lunch called Homegrown. Here’s the sandwich shop’s ‘theory’:

Our goal at Homegrown is not only to create sandwiches out of sustainable ingredients but also to make sandwich creation sustainable itself.

This goes beyond using fresh, sustainable ingredients in our gourmet sandwiches, salads and soups. Homegrown strives for sustainability as a local business through the green materials we print and serve on, to our rejection of bottled water, to our 100% compostable and recyclable product.

We consider our environmental impact for every ingredient choice, often between two competing theories: eating organic and eating local.

We take the best from both worlds to create our sustainable sandwiches. We like to call this sandwich environmentalism. Enjoy.

Well, the pictures below are the sandwich I had for lunch and the menu board of Homegrown. I think I’m going to like this trend of local and sustainable. I also have to say that this was probably one of the best sandwiches I’ve had. It’s located in the new Melrose Market just minutes from Downtown Seattle in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The space also includes a local butcher, cheese monger, and an organic flower and produce shop. All of these focusing on local and sustainable products. Even the building it is housed in (formerly 2 auto shops built in 1919 and 1925) were preserved.

After heading downtown, I decided to try the fairly new South Lake Union Streetcar. It’s a 1.3 mile streetcar line connecting downtown Seattle to the SouthLake Union area and would get me about half way home. What could be more sustainable than supporting local transit? I thought.

Well when I got to the station, the sign reported that the streetcar would arrive in 12 minutes. I decided to walk. Well, I actually arrived on foot at the same time the streetcar did at its terminus. At a cost of over $50 million, and almost no one riding it, I wonder how sustainable the streetcar really is. Nonetheless, Seattle has agreed to add another streetcar line by 2013. I still don’t see how smaller, more energy efficient/electric buses with fewer stops that ran more frequently wouldn’t be cheaper, scalable, and more sustainable. Oh well, still a lot of homework to do.


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.