Why students think civic engagement belongs in a Strategic ELA classroom: A Hands on Approach to Establishing a Recycling Program at Castlemont High School by Michelle Espino

Students sat at their desk on the first day of class and were welcomed to the course named at the top of their syllabus: SUDA Strategic English- Developing Literacy Skills for Navigating & Changing our World.

For many, there were already mixed feelings about  having to be in a Strategic Literacy course in the first place, but then to realize that they had just been enlisted into an academy and would be expected to take on a community action project and in fact would be responsible for developing a recycling program on campus…let’s just say a few voices of derision & concern were raised.

Thankfully I did not have to do all the convincing on my own.  As a member of SUDA (Sustainable Urban Design Academy) my student’s & I are in partnership with a community organization: Earth Team. Rae Johnson, our Earth Team rep, beyond being an amazing resource & wealth of information, steps into the work with students holding a true sense of what it means to be in collaboration with young people & a keen sense of what it means to let students take the lead in driving class projects forward.

Want a 9th grader to by into to anything you are doing?  Make a 12th grader the teacher for the day!

Last year Rae & I spent close to a month developing class assignments & taking students through an audit of the school’s waste in an attempt to foster student buy-in for the project as a whole and it worked! However, this year due to late enrollment in the course we did not have time to waste on waste and wanted to get kids right into the work. We wanted students to be a part of an action that went beyond just conceptually buying into a need for a recycling program on campus & wanted to foster a more rigorous understanding of the issues that reached further than “what color duct tape to use when decorating bins?”

Rae, is also the advisor of the SUDA Enviroknights, a club of 12th graders who have implemented a full food scraps & waste sorting program in the cafeteria every day at lunch.  This year, instead of Rae and I leading the charge, the Enviroknights ran workshops for students that involved initial framing of the “why” behind the work, showed 9th grade students not only how to conduct a waste audit, but how to collect data & use that data for action planning. My 9th graders immediately recognized the seniors from the lunch room and threw themselves into the work.  Instead of having to convince 9th graders why digging through 50 lbs of school trash was “cool” and would lead to “useful” information, they jumped at the chance to spend a day with senior Knights gathering evidence, analyzing and recording waste data and making inferences that would lead toward the justification of a full recycling campaign on campus.

Analyzing the Issue: Waste Audit

Through the leadership of Castlemont Enviorknights, SUDA 9th graders not only willingly sorted 50lb of classroom waste, but finally had that ah-hah moment “When it’s in a garbage-can it just looks like a little bit & you’re like ‘so what?’, but then when you see it all together you’re like wow! This is all going into a landfill”!

…..(results of audit)

All Castle 9th graders take a sustainable urban energy class.  This course takes students through analyzing issues that affect the environment and has them draft & develop plans for building healthier & more sustainable community.  Already used to doing this kind of problem solving, students in my class took their data from the audit and workshops on waste & it’s environmental impact and came to the conclusion that we should have a recycling program at school.

“If we do this we are giving other students a chance to do something good for the school.”

“This is something for our community, that no one has to tell us to do, we can see that it needs to be done.  This will make the environment more healthy & that makes it healthier for us.”

Taking Action: A Force of Change

Last year’s 9th graders did an amazing job of decorating & distributing bins.  They even managed to hold a loose collection schedule and would even go before or after school and collect & empty bins of teachers who asked.  However, this year students wanted to make a more established campus wide impact.

“We need to make sure teachers know how to use bins so they can teach students.  I didn’t know how to use [the recycle bin] correctly until the seniors taught me.  Now I know what to do and now I actually recycle.”

Students divided themselves into teams of 3-4 and took responsibility for teacher’s rooms & offices on campus.  They practiced and then gave short tutorials to each teacher when distributing bins for the first time. 9th graders felt that it was important to ask each teacher to commit to using bins appropriately themselves and requiring that their students do the same.  It was fascinating to watch students specifically ask adults on campus not only to help them in the work by informing them on what actions to take, but also to hold adults responsible for their actions around appropriate bin use.  As students went on rounds, “contaminated” bins would not be picked up and without coaching 9th grade students gave several teachers instructions on what was appropriate & inappropriate use of bins.

It was fascinating to see not only less & less contamination of bins, but each week students had more & more recycling to pick up.  At the outset of the project one 32 gallon bin – called a toter – was enough to cover the whole campus. As weeks went on we would collect 2-3 rounds worth in our toter.  By the last week of school we emptied 5 toters worth, plus with each round students had to carry out classroom bins to compensate for the overflow of the 32 gal toter.  That is more than 160 gal of mixed recycling in one week produced by the campus that students were able to actively intercept and prevent from going into landfills.  We roughly estimate that in total, we were able to divert over 704 gal. of campus waste out of the waste stream.

Reflections:  Where do we go from here?

As we went into our final weeks of school I knew that students had fully taken ownership of the project when instead of me reminding them of pick-up dates, they instead came to class and would ask for their pass to make collections.  I saw them start to speak with more confidence when talking to teachers at their doors on rounds and could even overhear them checking each other if anyone on the team was lagging behind.  Yet, what was most meaningful was when one student said, “Because we have been doing this I have been making my mom & sister recycle at home.  Now when we come to school my sister helps me to tell other people in class to recycle their things when they are done with them.”  My hope moving forward in this work with students is that they can take their learning beyond just what we do on campus and into to the larger community.  I plan to ask our community partners for bins that students can take home and teach them to track their own waste production.  Another thing to look ahead to next year is that we will have students at three different grade levels who have directly participated in the project.  My goal is that students who have done the work will be able to continue to participate and even further develop their roles by taking on mentorships with the incoming 9th graders.

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