There is a lot of responsibility that comes with being a teacher. You spend 6-7 hours a day, five days a week with 20-120 students (depending on what grade you teach). You are in charge of teaching them to read, write, communicate effectively, and preparing them for their lives outside of your classroom. A big question in the world of education is: What specifically should we be preparing them for? Environmental sustainability is a very hot topic at the moment, with big corporations like Starbucks encouraging their customers to give up single-use plastic straws, and Disney by using zero net direct greenhouse gas emission policies within all of their facilities. Even with all of this large influence to “go green,” there is a very crucial missing link in our nation’s journey towards environmental sustainability: environmental education. What is the best way to teach it? How do we get it to go from being considered “supplementary education” to being scene as a necessary part of education? What are the benefits of environmental education, and what issues could arise?
A common issue some people tend to have with the discussion of environmental education is the “doomsday” narrative some activists tend to use when speaking on environmental issues. Research has shown that “positive, informative strategies” are far more effective at encouraging behavior change than “negatives strategies which employ messages of fear, guilt or regret” (Strife, 2010). When teaching about sustainability, especially with young children, it is very important to focus on the positive benefits to being environmentally friendly rather than the harsh consequences that may come if they don’t live sustainably.
Something fun many schools have been doing to promote sustainability is planting school or class gardens that are maintained almost entirely by the students. This can be fun and modified for any student age group, and is a great addition to schools, both aesthetically and academically. All a school would need to get a school garden up and running is an empty area big enough for a garden, (a huge area is not necessary,) and funds to get started. Because gardens are increasingly accepted as valuable additions to schools, many organizations provide funding for such projects, so any educator looking to get a garden set up could look into that for their school (Backrich, 2011). A student-run garden can provide hands-on experiences for students of actually seeing their food transform from a little seed in the dirt to an actual fruit or vegetable, which is something I’m sure many students have never seen before. It would also be important to try to include as many parents, faculty and staff as possible to increase the sense of community at the school. Depending on the size of the school, it could be a whole school project, or maybe just one grade for a rather large school. All the teachers of for example 5th grade could have their classes participate, possibly switching off every week or every month to take responsibility for the garden. Responsibilities could include things like setup, harvesting, planting, weeding, general upkeep, etc. Some parents may have their own green thumbs and have the ability to donate seeds, soil, or even their time to the garden. To include more grades a gardening club could be formed for extra help after school hours.
Kids these days are spending less and less time outside, so starting a school garden could also be beneficial in getting students outside and connected with nature. In one 2018 study, it was found that a group of 575 children aged 2-5 spent on average about 3 hours outside a week, which is about 25 minutes a day (Hinkley, 2018). Having a school garden can increase students time spent outside, which has been drastically declining in recent years with the rise of technology as children’s main source of entertainment. Children can receive the benefits of spending time outdoors, while also learning valuable lessons on teamwork and responsibility and of course, food science. Children are like sponges, and teaching them to have a green thumb early in their lives can increase their chances of living sustainably as adults.
The Lorax is a classic Dr. Seuss book that is very heavily themed around sustainability. The story is about a man called the “Once-ler” whose greed got the best of him and caused him to destroy a whole ecosystem, as well as what he learned from that. (Plankis, Ramsey, Ociepka, & Martin, 2016). Dr. Seuss is a very well-known and loved author, and his books are fantastic to use with elementary age kids as they usually have a lesson in them, like The Lorax does. Here is a brief example of a 3th grade lesson plan I found on The Lorax:
The lesson would begin with a brief introduction by the teacher to the class of the book. The teacher would read the title of the book and show the class the front and back covers. The story would then be read as a play, with students being assigned roles i.e. the narrator, the Once-ler, and The Lorax. The students would be told to make sure if they’re reading to try to convey the emotions the character is reading the best they can. They should exaggerate as much as possible and make it fun.
Students would then get into groups of 3-5 to discuss some questions about the book. For example: What examples of technology were used in The Lorax? What technology did the Once-ler invent to increase the production of Thneeds? What type of people design and build things? Certain animals depended on Truffula trees. Name the animals. Explain why these animals needed Truffula trees. After about 10 minutes would then discuss as a class the answers the students came up with. After some discussion, the students will hopefully come to the conclusion that the environment was damaged due to the Once-ler’s actions and could have been saved had he not been so greedy. This discussion will lead into the main activity of having the students redesign the Once-ler’s business to make it more environmentally friendly and sustainable. They will stay in their groups of 3-5, and each group will receive a large sheet of paper to draw their factory/business/etc. They will have a few questions to answer about their idea as well, like what product will they be making, what are the Truffula trees going to be used for, and most importantly: how will you ensure you do not use up all the Truffula trees in the area? The teacher should be going around at this point to make sure all of the students are staying on task as well as help guide them towards ideas to answer each question. Once all of the groups have answered their questions and finished their designs, they will give a brief presentation about their ideas to the rest of the class. (Plankis, Ramsey, Ociepka, & Martin, 2016)
This activity I feel is a great introduction to sustainable practices for young kids that isn’t presented in a negative way, but rather focuses on the positive of “how can we correct this and make it better?” Young children are much more responsive to positive teaching and thinking, and I think this activity does a great job in focusing on that, as does the school garden.