5 tips for a greener school year
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
On Sept. 20, around 4 million people took to the streets worldwide as part of the largest youth-led climate strike to date. Whether you were there or at work, here are five practical tips to help ride the momentum of this historic event to create a greener classroom, school building or entire district.
Begin with little steps.
“If you’re not sure where to start, look at what other schools are doing,” says Robert Whiteman, field studies teacher at Costa Verde International School in Sayulita, Mexico. “There are a lot of inspiring ideas, people and resources out there to learn from.”
Whiteman, a teacher in the New York City Public schools for 13 years, is now in charge of helping pre-K through ninth grade teachers and with the school community at large make an increasingly greater positive environmental impact.
Making systemwide changes takes time, he admits.
Focus on what your school can realistically accomplish now, however small. This may be reducing the amount of paper used in the office, encouraging students to reuse last year’s notebooks or discouraging lunch packed in single-use plastics.
Uniting and following through with one small feat helps build confidence among key players — the administration, students, parents and teachers. People tend to be more willing to tackle something complicated after succeeding with something simpler. As your team’s resources and know-how increases, buy-in on larger projects will be easier.
Build sustainability into your planning
“Don’t leave the green stuff for the end,” advises Whiteman. “Instead, integrate it into every step of the decision-making and planning process.”
Expect to invest more time for big-picture infrastructure improvements and schoolwide initiatives —such as promoting greener transportation options, incorporating solar energy or spearheading a recycling program.
In terms of teaching green issues, Whiteman understands firsthand how time-pressed most teachers are and recommends exploring ways to make these topics part of what’s already being covered.
It’s worth the extra investment of time. Incorporating hands-on, environmentally focused material into the curriculum not only increases the probability that they’ll get covered, it greatly enriches students experience and learning.
Two Costa Verde students march on Sept. 20. Image: Robert Whiteman
“Have the youngest students out getting their hands dirty,” encourages Whiteman, who got his (somewhat older) New York students out of the classroom and doing fieldwork in the forest at Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
Many little ones already feel affection for life on Earth, so often the teacher’s main role is to support and validate them in their exploration. The common activity of planting and caring for a plant in preschool not only promotes responsibility and pride, but respect for the environment in general.
Even at a young age, they can begin scientific observation such as how plants clean and cool the air.
“As they get older, you add more science to it,” says Robert Whiteman. “But keep getting them out of the classroom to explore.”
Keep it positive, doable and flexible
There’s an understandable tendency to be alarmist about global environmental issues. However, Whiteman has noticed that approaching these topics with a calm demeanor has proven much more effective.
He presents students with age-appropriate scientific evidence while emphasizing concrete action that they can take to make a positive shift. For example, this school year he launched an initiative of daily activities upper-primary and secondary students can do for the planet with a point system.
Since some activities — such as carpooling to school or using a water-saving toilet — aren’t doable for some children, the initiative includes a special clause that allows students to earn the same points by researching and reporting the benefits of a given activity to their class.
Create alliances in the community
“Schools aren’t islands,” concludes Whiteman. “Get involved in the local community by partnering with area initiatives or starting them.”
Tree planting and beach, river or park clean-ups with other schools or community organizations are some doable options to get started.
Connecting with like-minded educators on the global level is another thing Whiteman highly recommends. Last year, his secondary students traveled to international Ocean Heroes conferences in California and Vancouver, where they met other young people who are doing environment work around the world.
As an educator treading somewhat new territory, he feels these events go a long way in refueling his efforts.
There’s a long way to go, admits Whiteman, but seeing students empowered and taking action is a good start.
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