By Teachers, For Teachers
Every year, the world celebrates Earth Day on April 22, a day the United Nations recognizes as International Mother Earth Day. It is a day to remind ourselves of the importance of clean air, fresh water, and unlittered land. It's when we can all participate in making that happen, rather than accepting the trash-filled oceans, the smoggy skies, and the debris-laden land that is becoming the norm in our lives.
Too often, Earth Day classroom activities focus on massive worldwide apocalypses that students can have little impact on, events like the death of rainforests and the melting of glaciers. These break our hearts, but for lots of reasons, for students, this often becomes making posters, collecting recyclables, or watching movies. If you'd like to ratchet it up this year, here are five classroom activities that will change the world, incrementally but indubitably. One student at a time, the world can become a healthier, more sustainable place for families and the generations that follow. Each of these classroom activities is designed to last a month (or longer but no shorter). By the end of that timeframe, students have begun creating the habit of living a sustainable low-impact life. They will be past the point of suffering an annoying change in their lives and into the pride of achieving the goal.
Published in 1962, Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” started many thinking about Earth's health. It brought to light the dangerous use of a pesticide called DDT that was polluting rivers and destroying the eggs of birds of prey like bald eagles. Have students read the book, meet in study groups to discuss it, and then devise their own projects to address the concerns. By the end of a month, the ideas contained in the book will color how they look at the world. When they leave school to work in an office that offers Styrofoam cups, they'll bring their own mug. When they go to a restaurant and order takeout, they'll provide their own reusable containers to fill. By the way, it doesn't have to be “Silent Spring.” It can be any ecology-sensitive book that will inform students on this subject.
Plastic takes millions of years to decompose. It can be found swirling in the ocean where it badly affects marine life. Every year, mammals, seals, and sea birds are killed after ingesting plastic or getting tangled in it. For one month, students work to reduce their use of plastic. This is more than straws. It includes plastic water bottles, throw-away plates and utensils, and plastic bags. Students start by calculating their plastic consumption with this Plastics Calculator from National Geographic. It focuses on their use of the most common plastics such as bottles, cups, straws, bags, stirrers, silverware, and food containers. Students will itemize their usage at the start of the month, meet in small groups (or as a class) to discuss ways to reduce this, and then weekly rerun the calculator to see if they're improving.
One easy suggestion for reducing plastic use is to reuse plastic containers, bottles, cups, and bags. Instead of considering them throw-aways, wash them and reuse just like people did before plastic took over. Two more easy, low-budget ways to reduce plastic: When ordering takeout drinks (like soda), refuse the beverage top (how often do you spill?). When eating out, bring your own plastic container for the doggy bag.
Yearly, the world produces more than 300 million tons of paper. Students will not be able to impact the largest users -- schools and businesses -- but they can affect how much paper is used in their homes. For one month, do everything possible to avoid paper:
Calculate the carbon footprint on the first of the month. Take a month to make changes and then recalculate the first of the next month. Has it changed? How did the student make that happen? Was it easy or tedious? Was it sustainable?
Wikipedia defines Sustainable Living as: “A lifestyle that attempts to reduce an individual’s or society’s use of the Earth’s natural resources and personal resources.”
This means living life in a way that doesn't use resources necessary for others or future generations. The problem is, few think like this. It's become a throw-away society with little regard for where that must end.
Have students write down all the changes they made in a month that promoted sustainability. Here are ideas to get started:
Despite the questionable health of our world, we have made progress. Back in 1970, when Earth Day was first celebrated, trucks spewed black smoke as they drove down the highways, toxic waste was dumped into oceans with no repercussions, and the general opinion was that the Earth took care of itself. That changed when U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day's founder, witnessed the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., and decided it was time for someone to do something. When he looked around for that "Someone," it turned out to be himself. He started with a “National teach-in on the environment” with a simple goal: Encourage people to recognize the importance of protecting the Earth: "It was on that day [Earth Day] that Americans made it clear they understood and were deeply concerned over the deterioration of our environment and the mindless dissipation of our resources."
In the 49 years since the inception of Earth Day, there have been more than 48 major environmental "wins." Here are some of those:
Each of these activities is rooted in the concept of personal responsibility. Students complete them individually, without assistance. By the end of a month, students will feel good that they took responsibility for saving the world.
Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over 100 ed-tech resources, including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in ed-tech, master teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on ed-tech topics, contributor to NEA Today and TeachHUB, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.