Thinking Different About Our Lives

As told by Johanna Mustacchi
Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle School

Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle School is a community of active, self-reliant, and lifelong learners.  It is a center of meaningful inquiry, research, understanding, and communication. Our school offers integrated instruction in the arts, technology, sciences, and humanities and promotes an environment that fosters self-esteem, responsibility, and respect. Our faculty is composed of outstanding teachers who are committed to providing their students with the best education possible.

We believe that respect and responsibility are essential components of a learning community.  We support the belief that student growth should be assessed in terms of consistent standards and individual expectations. We advocate the development of intellectual curiosity and affirm that independence is essential to academic success and lifelong learning.

Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle School (PVC) is structured to recognize the developmental needs of students at different grade levels: Fifth grade students have one teacher for all of their academic classes; six grade academic classes are taught by two teachers – one teacher for math and science and one teacher for humanities; seventh and eighth grade students are taught by a team consisting of teachers specializing in math, science, English, social studies, and special education.

In addition to the usual academic courses, PVC students have the opportunity to take Chinese, Spanish and French beginning in fifth grade.  All students participate in art, general music, physical education, home and career skills, media and communications, and health.  In addition, students are offered chorus, band and strings classes, as well as a wide variety of extracurricular activities through sports teams and school clubs.

Because the school is small, teachers and students know each other and the result is a caring, supportive family atmosphere.  Parents and community members are integral to the school’s success.  Parents are encouraged to take an active role in their child’s education.

In the summer of 2008, I was one of 100 Westchester teachers to attend a week-long curriculum writing project under the able guidance of the Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES Curriculum Center and Jaimie Cloud.  The project’s goal was, “to create a multidisciplinary web-based curriculum that combines engaging and relevant content with the highest quality pedagogy” was epitomized daily with the coming together of teachers in various permutations: by grade level, by discipline, and by school. 

I found this aspect of the experience to be a successful model in ensuring the multidisciplinary aspect of the work.  It was easy to monitor cross-over, repetition and thoroughness this way.  The leaders from the Curriculum Center were constantly checking on the teachers’ work, drawing ever more detail, coverage and accountability.  My personal experience was unique in that I was working alone for much of the week, being the only Media Literacy teacher in the group.  However, this did not prevent my feeling completely supported by Jaimie and the BOCES staff who all offered me advice and guidance throughout the process.

Follow up meetings in October and May during the pilot school year proved useful in fine-tuning the curriculum, touching base with the BOCES team and Jaimie, and sharing our experiences and successes from the pilot.  It was particularly fulfilling to see so many of our ideas come to fruition through the students’ work.  It is no exaggeration to say that this curriculum writing project had an enormous impact on me not only as a teacher with regard to what and how I teach, but also on me as a member of society intent on sustainable practices in living on, and loving, our Earth.

I am the media literacy teacher at Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle School in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.  My principal asked me if I would be interested in this new curriculum writing project that would pilot sustainability education. The principal clearly had some sort of intuition that sustainability would lend itself to my program, which in seventh grade focuses on the broadcast media.  She knew that I did a big advertising unit.  And she was right, it did lend itself very well. I have become more and more interested in the subject of sustainability.  I have worked hard to make changes in my own personal life to be more earth conscious and kind.  It is important for me to bring that into the school and to impart that to the children. I have been able to bring a lot of my personal experiences into my teaching.  This work was just an extension of that. 

I think the thing that I am very excited about with what I am teaching the students is that we produce a product.  In that product our goal is to reach into the community, outside the school walls.  I feel this gives the students something really tangible and realistic to hold onto because they understand that it is going to have an impact on people of all ages, and not just the teachers, their peers or their parents.  It creates a greater accountability and I think that is one of the hardest things to do in education these days: to really impart that notion of accountability.  Once students understand that their message is going out to a greater audience they really do start to focus more consciously on it.  That is what is most exciting about my project.

For this project I put together an entire media literacy curriculum. I was the only media literacy teacher in the entire group of one hundred teachers.  Really what I wanted to concentrate on was the power of the media message and different ways that it can be conveyed.  So, I really spent a lot of time analyzing advertising and putting it into the curriculum.  I put the whole curriculum together and piloted it all on my own.

First I looked at the existing curriculum, I already had a large advertising unit.  I had kids analyze commercial advertising, specifically television commercial advertising, and then had the children create their own commercial advertising.  I started to focus on researching public service announcements and the different varieties and organizations that produced them and the way public service announcements are conveyed is very often similar to commercial advertising.  And so I really translated the whole thrust of that unit into the concept of conveying sustainability through public service announcements or broadcasting on television.   Once I had come up with that, I really just had to put together what the series of lessons would be that would bring two things together: the general concept of analyzing “what is the message, how do you convey it visually, with language, and with music”, and the message of sustainability: what do we mean by sustainability?  Those I brought in right from Jaimie's training.  Then the second part of the whole unit was the whole video production part.  I'm still working through conveying the message and staying focused on the message of sustainability.

I actually have all 150 seventh grade students at some point in the year: I have two classes at a time of twenty-five students each.  So, in the first trimester from September to December, I piloted the unit that I had written. I simply embedded it in my broader media literacy curriculum.  It was actually my first unit; we did the analysis of commercial advertising and public service announcements.  We infused sustainability lessons in there.  I would end lessons with assignments like: “Okay so this is your ticket to leave, you need to write something that you are going to do to help save the earth”, or something like that.  And then I would create graphs of all the things that they had said, and there was a lot of repetition.  It gave me a lot of things that they were passionate about.  The music became a critical part of conveying the message.  When I told them they couldn't use any commercial music and that they would have to compose their own on Garage Band, it just took off.  They started to understand how important music is and how music can really change the mood.

So after that first round in the first trimester, we had a broadcasting party for the students and their parents.  I can tell you those parents sat there with their mouths open when they watched the videos.  And they came up to me afterwards and just could not get over the difficulty of and were really just amazed by the technical stuff.  Which is okay, you can do that for any subject matter.   But they were really excited and focused on the message as well.  They did not realize that their children were thinking so much about these messages.  That was great.  In the same week or so I also showed it to our faculty at the faculty meeting, and I had the same kinds of feedback.  We got it on our local cable TV station as well, and I did get some feedback from people in the community, because I do live in the same town: people would say they had seen it on TV and they were very impressed with it.  The goal had been to get it out into the greater community, and when it did get out there that was a gigantic turning point.

It certainly gave me more confidence.  I think it made me think about what I want to do next year, which is to get it out there on the internet.  I really want to get those kids more exposure: I mean once it is on the internet the sky is the limit. Actually one of my goals for next year is to figure out how to not just put it on YouTube, but to do something a little more rigorous than that.  It has made me think about its more global reach.

Most of my support came from the program that Jaimie led in BOCES.  We continued to get support from the BOCES curriculum council throughout the year.  There were people there who were very supportive of me for which I was extremely grateful.  I was very well supported within my district by my building principal and my colleagues in the seventh grade; the science and social studies teacher met with me periodically to make sure we were not repeating each other's work.

Here is one of the things that is really important to know.  Not every child is going to buy into this.  When I encountered that I was shocked.  I thought, “You are thirteen, how can you be so jaded?”   I actually had children who would say to me, “It is your generation who created global warming, you should fix it”.  So I think it is important for anybody in Sustainability Education not to assume that everybody is going to go along for the ride with you.  And the other part of my project that is important for people to know about is that every time you do video production everything takes two times, three times, four times the amount of time you ever expect it to.  You do need to set aside a lot of time. But on the flip side, some kids’ lives were very changed by this year of exposure.  They joined our green team. They started to really think differently about their lives. I think in one way or another probably every child in our seventh grade was affected because they went through science, social studies, and my media literacy class, and got exposed to Sustainability Education in all three.

The things that really stood out were when the science, the social studies teacher, and I would all relay to each other incidents where children had brought to our class something that they had learned in the other classes.  Things were gelling – that is what was so great.  We were seeing how by getting it from three different angles, scientific, social, and media, things were really gelling for the children.  The very last public service announcement on the DVD was about diminishing resources that in the end shows the Polar bear and says “How would you feel if everything in your world kept disappearing?” That actually was from the first trimester, and it is still my favorite one of all.  It was a direct result of those children having been in the Social Studies class where the teacher had them play the diminishing resources game that we played with Jaimie.  That is how it translated for them, and I thought it was pretty amazing.  They went to the library and they said, “We are just going to take everything away”.  When they pitched the concept to me I was just in shock, I thought, “wow this is what we call synthesis.”  That is where the impact was really big.  As I said before, some of the kids joined the green team in our school, we took them to Pace and they loved it.  The thing that was really positive about the design that Jaimie and the curriculum put together was interdisciplinary work.  I think that has the impact that you want it to have.  You cannot just have it in one class.  You want to have it thread so that kids can make connections.  I think the greatest impact of Education for Sustainability has been in its interdisciplinary methods.

What this project tells me is that we need to make sustainability a standard; it should be.  I think you can make it very concrete.  That is what stays with them.  I think that is where you want to go with  Sustainability Education. 

My next step is really to continue what I did this past year in the school, but getting it out there to the larger community is my next goal.  I think that when the students think about the messages that they have conveyed to an audience out there, those messages have an impact on them too. It might take a lot, but eventually it starts to sink in and they start to practice what they preach.  I am really just very grateful, and I feel very lucky to be a part of this project.  It really had a huge impact on my life.