A Million Ways of Learning, A Million Ways of Taking Action

An interview with Carolyn Elwood
Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES

Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES represents 18 local school districts.  Their Education for Sustainability initiative represents a far reaching attempt to teach students to live within the means of nature, to be connected with their communities and to catalyze far reaching change starting with their schools.  An interview with Carolyn Elwood, who has been participating in this initiative provides insight into the many ways schools can foster the principles of Education for Sustainability in their curriculum.

Last summer I joined Jaimie Cloud and a group of Westchester Middle School teachers to write curriculum for Education for Sustainability.   We were looking for ways to bring sustainability into the curriculum. That work inspired a group of teachers and co-facilitators at our school to promote a Sustainability Day.

Our school and district are trying to do all that we can to make sustainability a part of everyday in our classrooms.  It's an important initiative district wide.  I was excited to be a part of the work because I care very much about sustainability and I believe that I can make a difference through the choices I make.  Integrating sustainability into the curriculum seemed like a great way to help the district and help the region.

We decided to culminate the year by having a school-wide Sustainability Day, as a way for our entire school community to celebrate sustainability.  Our PTA and administration came up with an idea to provide each student with a souvenir to commemorate the day.  They wanted to pool money together and buy every student and teacher a Klean Kanteen.  The hope was that the students would take them home and talk with their families about sustainability and their everyday choices.  I am the co-chair of our student government.  When the PTA President presented the idea to our student government for approval, the students really challenged our thinking as adults. Going into the meeting, I assumed the kids would immediately approve the idea, but the kids started to ask some very hard questions.  They had some real doubts about spending that kind of money on “another water bottle”, something most of them already had at home.  Then they started to think about why we would spend our money on buying new stuff when the whole mantra is: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”  It just seemed counterintuitive to them. The student government voted it down.  They were successful in making us rethink some of the assumptions that we were making about sustainability.  

As a district, we have invested a lot of thought into educating our students for sustainability.  There are millions of teachable moments all year long and I often wondered about the impact we are making on the students.  I wondered if what we teach them affects the choices they make now and in the future. Sometimes it feels like they won't get it for awhile and that there is going to be a time lapse between getting all of the experience and actually putting it into practice.  This project has taught me that the kids are ready and willing to make a difference already.  The kids were the ones who questioned the assumptions that we were all making (in spite of our good intentions).  It was the kids, who really made the sustainable choice to make a donation to a non-profit organization.  The student’s questions and concerns shifted the thinking towards a new idea, which resulted in a far reaching global effort to make a more sustainable planet for all people.

I strive to be the kind of teacher that is able to listen to kids and hear their voices coming through.  I question and look to see what our kids are up to… what they're getting at.   We need to stop and listen to what's being said and really take it to heart.  I ended up becoming a listener in the process.  After hearing the kids voice their concerns, I happened to go back for a follow-up day with Jaimie Cloud and our curriculum work.  I was chatting with Jaimie over lunch and I told her the story.  I asked her what she might do if she had a pool of money to spend on celebrating sustainability.  She could think of a million ways to spend the money but the water bottles sparked the idea of looking at the Charity:Water as a possibility.

The PTA and administration were initially surprised that the kids had voted the Klean Kanteen idea down because they were really excited about it.  However, when they heard about the possibility of making a global impact they were even more excited.  The kids knew they wanted to do something different and better with the funds, they just didn't have a strong idea of what the other “something” would be.  I went to the kids and said, “This is not something you need to do, but if you're looking for another option there are organizations that might be worth checking out.”  Then they set out to do research on the Charity:Water organization, among others.  They looked at the Charity:Water website and watched the video. Afterward, they felt unanimously confident that this would be a great way to celebrate sustainability.  They discovered that for $5000 (just a little more than buying the Klean Kanteens) they could donate a well to a village in central Africa.   The well would provide two hundred and fifty people with clean drinking water for the next twenty years.  It would be a powerful statement of creating a more sustainable future for the whole planet.

We ended up making the donation to Charity: Water.  In return, they gave us a bracelet for every member of our school community, to thank us for making the donation.  So, on the morning of Sustainability Day we had all the kids and teachers in the building watch the video from Charity: Water and everyone got a bracelet (a souvenir after all!).  It was a really big deal.  It clearly affected our entire school community, but it also affected an entire village of people on the other side of the globe.

The rest of Sustainability day was broken up into half-hour classes in which every teacher found ways of weaving sustainability into their lesson for the day.  I'm an art teacher, so I had all the kids bring in old T-shirts that they were ready to get rid of.  We cut them up, tied the bottoms, and decorated them to make reusable bags that they could use for school, or shopping, or a beach bag.  Every teacher in the building focused their lessons or activities on sustainability.  Then in the afternoon, we had speakers come to do assemblies and had an activities fair outside.  Kids could go around to different tables which were set up with different sorts of sustainable activities.  The entire day was devoted completely to the cause.

This experience has helped me to learn that we need to check our assumptions, as individuals and as communities.  We need to think beyond just a “cool idea” where everybody gets something to remind them of sustainability.  If we really step back and think about making a more sustainable future for the whole planet, maybe there are a million other ways for taking action.  We were able to do this by listening to our kids, who were able to question those assumptions.  That would be my advice in engaging an entire community in an initiative like this, listen to our kids, and really try to question our assumptions as adults.

Our students are growing up in a very different time than when we went to school and we really need to educate for sustainability.   We need to educate our students to understand that sustainability is a way of thinking, not just a series of activities.  This process has taught me that the work that we're doing in our school is paying off, almost immediately.  This is a fairly new initiative in our school and our district.  What is so powerful is that our kids are already responding.  Our kids are immediately taking on a different way of thinking and a different way of life in a very short amount of time.

As a community, we needed to go through the initial struggle to figure out where we wanted to go. That was part of our learning.  Now that we've had this common experience, the teachers and students are on board.  I see Sustainability Day being something our school celebrates year after year.  It gives me great hope to see our kids reach out to other communities.  Our kids are powerful instruments of the future, but we can’t forget that they are also powerful instruments of the present.