Environmental Citizenship Starts Early at Germantown Friends School
Environmental Citizenship Starts Early at Germantown Friends School
by Geoffrey Selling, Germantown Friends School
Late Spring, 2006:
March was cold and wet. The Lower School Environmental Action Club (EAC) had ignored the chill and dug shallow trenches under string markers in the woods, behind the Cary Building. The next week, they filled these trenches with small logs, creating handsome borders along many paths.
But on this early May Monday, a load of hardwood mulch has been dumped on the Emlen playground. EAC is bursting with excitement for school to be over so that they can spread the mulch on the paths. Maintenance delivers three wheelbarrows. I try to imagine how we will organize 24 willing students to spread the mulch, without quarrels, or anyone getting poked in the eye.
But I should not have worried. As I try to organize my charges, they miraculously organize themselves. They grab the dishpans in which we carry garden tools and with no adult guidance break into teams. Some load the bins with mulch, some deliver and empty them on the paths, while others spread the mulch up to the bordering logs and another crew tamps it down. It has all become a huge game. The children have created names and roles for one another. They shout orders and give advice and the whole place resembles a seemingly chaotic yet productive beehive. Mulch flies, unlikely laborers take orders from younger students who’ve somehow designated themselves as bosses. At the end of the hour, much to my astonishment, beautifully lined and mulched paths have appeared where before was just the dry patchy forest floor.
Throughout May of 2006, this scene is repeated every Monday afternoon and I learn some profound lessons. I learn just how much positive energy children have for outdoor work. I learn to trust their ability to work together and get tough jobs done, solving their own problems. I learn how much children care about the earth and nature and how willing they are to pick up trash, stand up for recycling, and assume their share of GFS’s environmental chores.
I had long wanted to start an Environmental Action Club (EAC) in the lower school but had not found the right framework. I knew that an after-school club was the way to go, but was unsure of how to organize it. Eventually I settled on a fourth/fifth grade group, and after years of experimenting, we’ve set the maximum number of members at 20. We meet on Monday afternoons from 3:00-4:00, after a hearty snack. Children apply to be in EAC by filling out a simple questionnaire about their environmental concerns and experiences. It is strictly voluntary.
Enter Earth Force, a remarkable organization. I met the staff of Earth Force at the Friends Environmental Education Network (FEEN) conference that spring. Their enthusiasm, ideas and structure were intriguing. Earth Force is dedicated to helping young people mature into environmentally responsible citizens and activists. Unlike many organizations, Earth Force does not merely help children to do “good works,” but rather teaches them a process. The students survey their own communities, identify problems, choose a problem they wish to work on, research their problem, develop a plan and implement it themselves. Earth Force is all about capturing the energy and natural environmental zeal of young people. With some guidance, the students learn to become environmental activists, goaded on by their own good instincts and determination to make the world around them a better place. What is special about Earth Force is that the students chose their own plan and with adult help, implement it. Earth Force provides a working structure, resources and ideas, some grant money and willing coordinators who work with schools on the chosen.
We formed our EAC club in the fall of 2005 with a willing but pretty clueless science teacher and the promises of help and support from Earth Force. 25 students signed up. Along the way, I learned my part from the children and our Earth Force coordinators. But the stars were always the children, whose passion and willingness to commit their Monday afternoons to this process never failed to amaze me.
Fall and Winter, 2005:
Our newly formed EAC has surveyed our Germantown Friends School (GFS) community. We have found problems with litter, recycling, and lots of paved areas that will create storm water run-off. The children have decided to make GFS a better habitat for animals and people by improving soil, cleaning up trash and planting bulbs.
The children plant bulbs everywhere by the thousand. They add compost and mulch to beds all over the campus. They plant mums. I remind them of the beauty that will emerge later, but they do not seem to need any motivators. Every tree in the Commons is surrounded by a circle of 50 crocuses. The liriope beds in the Commons are stuffed with daffodils. When the GFS supply of bulbs runs out, I buy out the end-of-year supplies at Home Depot for half price and they keep planting right into January.
During the coldest part of winter, the children pick up trash, survey the campus to determine the need for recycling containers and plan for their spring work building paths in the woods. They supply every classroom with a recycling sign.
The children do more than build paths in the woods. The planting plan for the newly created Commons has left an unplanted bed outside my science room. The EAC meets with GFS parent Nicole Juday, a landscape designer, and learns about planning and planting. Weeks later, they remove the hard rocky soil from this unplanted bed, add more than a thousand pounds of compost and peat moss, move the bulbs they planted to the back of the bed and then plant a butterfly garden. Nicole’s plan and the children’s hard work pay off. Within weeks, we have flowers blooming and by summer’s end, there are blooms, butterflies and caterpillars abounding.
Lots of Support:
Though I am the Club’s faculty organizer, there are many remarkable individuals who pitch in. Earth Force supplies each school with a coordinator who comes, gives advice, joins in the work and helps to solve problems. Parents have joined in. Parent Audrey Berman comes every week and has become the unofficial deputy director. Parent Shea Cronley becomes our “official” photographer. Primex garden store sells us tools at a huge discount and our Maintenance Department has helped in all kinds of ways.
We attend our first Earth Force Summit at the Philadelphia Zoo. Hundreds of students from Earth Force groups all over the city come together to share their projects. We meet in a huge pavilion and each group has a display table explaining their project. The students visit each other’s tables and interview one another.
We‘ve been given handsome Earth Force T-shirts and this unifies us. A group of our fourth grade girls puts on a play about bulb planting they have written. We watch a live animal show, and then Earth Force gives out its grants. GFS wins a $250 mini-grant. We are dazed and thrilled. We return to GFS all fired up! The children have suddenly learned that all their planting and trash picking is valuable work and that a large community beyond the walls of GFS values their work.
Special Events 2006:
Three EAC members are invited to an interview with Kathy O’Connell of Kids’ Corner on WHYY radio. I am proud of these articulate and committed young people: only nine and 10 years old!
Earth Force leads a delegation of students to Washington, DC to meet with senators and congressman about environmental issues. Three of our EAC’s students are chosen by the Earth Force staff to join the delegation of nine others going to the capital. After lunch at the Smithsonian, we visit the offices of Pennsylvania Senators Specter and Santorum, as well as Congressmen Chakkah Fattah (PA), Joe Murphy ((IL) and Allyson Schwartz (PA). We meet with a young congressman from the Midwest and learn about the challenges of getting environmental legislation through the Republican Congress. Walking the halls of power has been an eye opener for the children.
We end the year with a picnic and celebration. Parents gather at GFS and the children give them tours of the butterfly garden, the bulb beds and the new paths. We conduct a solemn graduation ceremony for our fifth grade graduates, complete with diplomas and a native perennial for each to take home. Then we enjoy a hearty barbecue. The first year is over. I breathe a huge sigh of relief but also satisfaction.
The Earth Force Institute:
During the summer of 2006, I am invited to attend an intensive Earth Force training institute in Washington, DC. The theme of the workshop is “kicking the advocacy up to the next level”—a rough way of saying that planting and other service work are not enough, and that Earth Force is about creating environmental citizens. The goal is to have each Earth Force group bring about real change in policies, practices and procedures within their defined communities. For a week, we attend workshops, led by the nation’s brightest and best organizers. We learn about youth organization, working with the press, fund-raising, on-line advocacy, working the political system, etc. The hope is that every school and group will attempt to actually change the institutional and individual behavior of those in their communities.
As the week wears on, I find myself torn. I am impressed with the conference agenda, but am also mindful of the very young nine and 10 year olds I work with. I believe that part of the environmental education is getting the students outside into the environment so that that they know and appreciate the natural world for which they are working. At the same time, I am keenly aware of the growing environmental crisis and the need to act now and forcefully.
I resolve to undertake two separate strands of work with the EAC in 2006-07 school year. We will use the Earth Force process identify and focus on a problem in the GFS community that will involve changing the school’s behavior, but we will also continue planting, maintaining the gardens and improving the woods. I’m not quite sure where we’ll find the time for all this, but that is my resolve.
The 2006-07 years begins with almost 50 students signing up for EAC, and my colleague, Ani Kame’ enui, agrees to form a separate fourth grade club, rescuing the situation.
We divide our time each Monday: half spent in surveying our school’s practices and the other half spent planting, trash-picking and working in the woods or butterfly garden. We look in trash cans and find recyclables. We find trash everywhere. We note that best gardening practices are not always being followed. We see where pesticides have been used on sidewalks to kill weeds, where the chemicals will wash into storm drains and then the Schuylkill River. We are troubled by the mess of trash, compostables and recyclables in the lunchroom. We notice open windows and latched open doors on freezing cold days, which in turn trip thermostats. We find lights on in empty rooms. We notice buses idling for long periods, while they await students’ arrivals. We wonder why there are hundreds of plastic disposable water bottles all over the campus. We watch high flow toilets flush, wasting precious gallons of costly water.
Eventually, through a series of criterion scoring systems that the children have devised with my help, they settle on one problem that troubles them the most: litter! Unsightly litter wins the day for the club’s focus.
Once our problem is selected, we brainstorm possible solutions. The children suggest the following plans. We need:
- more trash and recycling containers around the school, especially in locations where students gather. These containers need clear labeling.
- more active trash picking details from both Maintenance, faculty and students
- huge publicity blitz about the litter problem
- work with the Middle and Upper School EACs
- handsome professionally made signs on campus that urge everyone to KEEP GFS GREEN
- to make sure that everyone understands what can and must be recycled and where this happens
- to make sure that what has been put in recycling bins actually gets recycled and not mixed with the trash by tired janitors.
It’s an ambitious agenda but the children seem undaunted. There is not an ounce of cynicism in this determined group of fifth graders. They set to work planning and their first thought is to align themselves with the other two EACs. We organize a Litter Summit, with members and faculty advisers of the Middle and Upper School EAC’s. The groups meet and everyone is very enthusiastic. To my delight, the lower school EAC reps are undaunted by the mature seniors who attend. Everyone speaks up and there is a good exchange of ideas. The lower schoolers, as a gesture of good faith, offer to pick up the entire GFS Commons every day. Two children at a time will take 10-15 minutes of their daily recess to pick up trash, though they emphatically know this is not their trash! The other EACs each think that perhaps they too can do some trash picking though their plan is hard to implement.
Early on the first year, I learned that after a long day of school, fourth and fifth graders are eager to get out and DO things. We always begin with a hearty snack, and about 15 minutes of purely social time, to effect the transition from the busy GFS day to the EAC agenda. The children have less energy and focus for discussion and planning by day’s end. We struggle to find a balance between all the discussion, surveying brainstorming, listing and research that are a fundamental part of Earth Force and activity. In fact, the Earth Force process seems better suited for middle and upper schoolers, and so I find myself constantly adapting and compromising. We spend part of each meeting working through process, but I try to reserve at least a half hour each week for planting, weeding, picking up trash, making posters, digging, etc.
Winter and Early Spring 2007:
This proves to be an exciting time. The Assembly Committee has offered us an assembly date in mid-April, the day before the Earth Force Summit at the Zoo! This will be our assembly about the litter. I want the students to write the plays, the skits, the speeches and we spend several weeks planning what should be included. The students break into spontaneous groups to write skits. Each week, a small handful, accompanied by parents, walk the campus photographing examples of litter. Our Earth Force coordinator, Kate, joins us each Monday and we begin serious rehearsing. I trust the children, and by now, I have good reason to trust. We schedule an extra long EAC session the week before the assembly and miraculously, a solid “play” gets rehearsed, complete with four skits, a compelling PowerPoint presentation on litter, speeches etc. There are serious messages as well as funny parts. Having coached decades worth of students through crafted plays, it is a new experience for me to just “go with the flow.”
On April 17, the EAC puts on a fine assembly, complete with a fifth grader explaining to the audience, “Geoffrey didn’t tell us what project to do or how to do this assembly. We made the decisions.” He’s right and I am as amazed at its success as is the rest of Lower School. The Earth Force staff is beaming in the audience and the children are delighted at these additions to the audience.
As to the impact of the assembly, I get a real heads-up the next day when three kindergarten children and a second grade sibling decide to pick up the litter on the Pennsbury playground after school, while one of their moms patiently waits. The children arrive in my room at 4:30PM with mounds of litter and a huge sense of pride.
Late Winter 2007:
During all the hurry of play rehearsals, we organize another Litter Summit before school. Not only are there representatives of the three EAC’s, but Bob Ricketts from Maintenance, John Friedman from the Business Office, and Susan Lowry of the Campus Stewardship Committee all attend this student-led summit. We exchange ideas, the adults offer encouraging words and praise. We finish with a small delegation walking the entire campus with Bob Ricketts to identify where we need more trash and recycling containers. The students are immensely proud of their work and are beginning to realize that the whole campus is noticing and responding to their efforts. They can begin to feel the “trickle up” of their efforts!
The day after the assembly, we head off to the annual Earth Force Youth Summit at the Zoo, much more confident than the previous year. The children display photos of their work and again visit displays from other schools. GFS receives another Earth Force grant, puts on another play and is in the forefront of the day!
A few days later, a GFS family gives the EAC a generous financial gift and arranges for the Pew Charitable Trust to match the gift by an additional 200%. Things are looking up!
The week after the assembly and Summit, the EAC begins to dig a pond in the Lower School Woods. We don’t know a lot but we plunge in. The childrens’ enthusiasm is enormous and over the next four Mondays, mountains of dirt are moved and the hole for a pond appears. Again, the children turn the digging and moving of dirt into a huge game. Using our new bank account I purchase a pond liner and some aquatic plants. On the second to last meeting of the year, we collectively install the liner and fill the pond to cheers all around. Late in the day, a few children stay behind to install the plants. Later that week, the second graders release their tadpoles into the pond and we also release goldfish. The pond looks wonderful but unfinished. The plant will need landscaping and a pump and filter, but that will have to wait ‘till the fall.
On the last Monday of the year, we host another picnic, attended by parents and Earth Force staff. The children give tours and display photos. The litter project is not finished but it has been started. They hope that the next generation of EAC will carry it forward, and I resolve to make that happen. We graduate our students with diplomas and plants and then celebrate with another picnic.
Leadership Opportunities and Initiatives:
Through all of this work, I am ever mindful that we are trying to grow a generation of environmentally aware and competent citizens. We don’t just need do-gooders; we need leaders. Leadership is learned and must be practiced.
For each of the two summits, I appointed leaders to represent the EAC and help to lead the meetings. I give them pep talks and am delighted that the Upper School students welcomed the younger students and listened respectfully. It’s hard for a 10-year old to give a speech in front of the school’s Business Manager and other administrators, but the children did so. Given opportunities to lead, to write skits, to make speeches, in their youthful yet impassioned ways, the fifth graders stepped up to real leadership .
Other opportunities presented themselves. GreenPlan Philadelphia of the Mayor’s office holds a Youth Summit and three EAC members attend and speak up in a room full of mostly older students and unfamiliar adults. An EAC graduate from the first year writes a winning essay that gets her appointed to an Earth Force Youth Leadership Team for middle schoolers. Though no longer a member of the EAC, she is carrying the work forward.
The EAC has given our students a chance to be active on an issue that is of great importance to young people. They’ve learned about environmental citizenship and how to build a community around a cause. They’ve also learned the great fun of working together. Additionally, they’ve come to enjoy making their campus more beautiful and more environmentally healthy. In spring, they can look out at the Commons, awash in yellow daffodils they planted. They can pass the butterfly garden in the fall and know that the healthy plants growing there are the ones they planted in soil they improved. They can admire the Lower School Woods, knowing that they helped to clean it up, build paths in it and plant native species there. They are very proud of their pond! But they have also learned that it takes time, work and money to bring about change. None of their projects is finished. They bequeath to the next group the challenges of carrying the work on: raising the money for additional projects, figuring out how GFS can design and pay for professionally made permanent “Keep GFS Clean and Green” signs, further work in the woods and whatever initiatives the next EAC will undertake. They are learning the process of environmental citizenship.
About Earth Force
Earth Force is a national non-profit organization whose focus is to help young people become competent environmental citizens. Earth Force (EF) runs training sessions for teachers and youth leaders who are interested in EF’s community action process. Teachers learn to have their students survey their community for environmental problems, identify one that is of special concern, research the problem, make a plan, implement the plan and then celebrate at the year’s end. In some schools, this work is done in the classroom and in some, like Germantown Friends, after school clubs affiliate with Earth Force. While being trained, teachers are provided with all kinds of support materials; manuals, posters, guidebooks etc. Each club/classroom has an assigned Earth Force coordinator who visits at intervals during the year to help the group achieve its goals. Groups in more challenging areas or with less experienced leaders get more visits and groups that seem to be operating well, work more independently. But at every step of the way, Earth Force is there to help the teacher/leader and the students go through a meaningful selection and planning process and to support their efforts to bring about real change, especially in the behaviors and practices of their communities. Part of the Earth Force system is that near the year’s end, a summit is held for the students in all the participating programs. The summit is a chance for students to “tell their story” to other like-minded people and to learn about others’ projects. There are often performances, awards, short speeches and much celebration of the children and their work. In the Philadelphia area, there are two summits on two consecutive days, both held at the Philadelphia Zoo. The first is for elementary and the second is for middle and high school students. Earth Force also runs Youth Leadership Teams for older students who are especially interested in environmental stewardship.
This article is adapted from a previous publication in Studies in Education #94 Winter 2007-08.