Greening their worlds: Teachers promote a more natural approach to education
SHE’LL TELL YOU flat out: Nancy Hussong hates to throw anything away. The special education teacher had a vision in the 1980s to start a recycling program in which her students, ages 15-21, would learn job skills by keeping valuable resources out of the waste stream.
Within a decade, Hussong’s project to recycle phones and printer cartridges had grown into a full-blown industrial program at the Edison Tech campus in Rochester, N.Y.
Meeting ever higher standards for quality and safety, the students recycled X-ray film for Eastman Kodak, built up their paper recycling in earnest, and began sorting metal, wires, foams and plastic, working hand in glove with local businesses to make treasure out of trash.
Each day, Hussong leads a group of students wearing embroidered work jackets through the school on their recycling run. Each room is a stop for anything that can be reused or recycled.
One of the school’s business partners, Sunnking, buys dismantled cardboard, metal and plastic, crediting Hussong with stressing not only recycling but proper recycling. Empire Plastics has the students disassemble items such as foil liners from plastic jar lids, so they can be reprocessed. It hires students at minimum wage to sort bottles, cartridges and phones. Other partners include a farm and two animal hospitals.
Some materials find a place right at school, from art to engineering classes. “We discuss going green and the importance of eliminating waste,” says technology teacher Kristina Carlevatti. “In every single project we work on, we are able to use materials from Nancy’s well-sorted supplies.”
Hussong laughs. “The art teacher just asked me for 1,000 manila file folders to cut up for a project,” she says. “I have more than 10,000.”
“We have fabulous, fabulous kids,” Hussong brags. “They work very hard at recycling, and they really make me proud—let me tell you. They love what they’re doing.”
Hussong credits her union, the Rochester Teachers Association and New York State United Teachers, with publicizing the skills program. As its coordinator, Hussong has been nominated for statewide environmental awards, and her program won $5,000 from the city and another business partner, Waste Management. District officials credit Hussong with keeping up on environmental science by attending seminars, reading journals and combing the Internet for new partners and ways to recycle.
Recycling is not the only green work going on at Edison. An energy conservation program run by the head custodian saved $12,000 last year, half of which the school got to keep. And teacher Mieke Smythe runs a greenhouse, gardening and composting operation where students sell seedlings at huge events.
AFT members across the country are building green schools, too—also from the ground up and also linked to the curriculum.
At Berea High School in Ohio, science teachers Mary Draves and Christa Myers have created a program of outdoor education. Their students ride bikes to four outdoor classrooms in a wildlife refuge they built at Coe Lake, where every year, the older children teach science to more than 1,000 third- and fifth-graders, and students with multiple disabilities.
Along with other members of the Berea Federation of Teachers, Draves and Myers have led the way in developing the wildlife area. Besides outdoor classrooms, projects there include a walking trail with student-designed learning stations, bird-feeding areas, a native prairie that’s a test site for synthetic soil, and a footbridge for wheelchair access.
“We’re nature nuts,” says Myers.
“Christa and I feel strongly that there’s a disconnect between kids and nature,” adds Draves. “This gives them the opportunity to get out in nature and increase their environmental literacy.”
Mentoring from a former teacher who became mayor of Berea helped the two teachers learn how to raise money and volunteers. Now, under the umbrella of a nonprofit community development corporation, Draves and Myers have marshalled the school district, foundations and business community to keep enhancing the site.
For instance, students and staff built an osprey nesting platform. No birds have moved in yet, but the great blue heron like it, and Draves says, “The kids love it. They built it!”
Reprinted from American Teacher, January/February 2013.