Tracy Derrell is a writer with an extensive background in education. She has studied journalism, fiction and non-fiction writing, and spent sixteen years as a middle school English teacher.
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When I started my career, I was a literacy teacher at an under-resourced school. I had seven classes of varying abilities and no books. My only option for sharing poems and short stories with my students was making copies, which is the antithesis of maintaining an environmentally friendly classroom. When I asked a colleague about where to make those copies, she laughed before explaining that teachers were entitled to a mere 100 copies a month—I had 200 students—and that was only if the one machine available to us didn't break down.
I helped keep my local office supply store in business that year, and because I spent my own money, I had to think of creative ways to minimize the number of copies I made. Though difficult at the time, this experience generated a desire to find additional ways to help create an environmentally friendly classroom. Here are some ideas you can use in your own class.
Taking a hard look at paper consumption is an obvious place to begin. Technology has given us many options for going paperless, so cutting back shouldn't be too difficult. If you have access to a laptop and projector, this could be a great opportunity to teach students about efficient note-taking. You can also manage digital documents through Google Classroom and Blackboard, which allow you to keep teaching materials in one easily accessible place.
If you often send notices to parents, think about using e-mail or text messages instead. This may also increase the likelihood that your information reaches parents—after all, getting notices into students' hands doesn't necessarily mean they'll pass the info on. When you have to print something, compostable paper and recycling will help you stay green.
Recycle and Ask Your Students for Ideas
My classroom trash cans were often filled with paper, plastic bottles, and food wrappers. The school provided a recycling bin for paper, but its proximity to the trash can led to a mishmash of garbage and recyclable items in both receptacles. My students helped address the problem by relocating the recycling bin and adding a second bin for plastic bottles, which helped improve our recycling practices. If you already have a handle on recycling, you can implement zero-waste practices by sharing ways to replace disposable items with reusable ones, such as food containers and reusable water bottles.
Plant a Garden
Most students love hands-on activities, and growing a garden is a fun way to address many academic topics while doing something to benefit the planet. Even urban schools, like the one I taught in, can have green spaces where students and teachers grow flowers and vegetables. Students can help examine potential locations to evaluate sun and soil conditions, and identify which plants will work in the space. Composting can also enhance your school garden while making the most of food waste. An outdoor compost pile may be a little too complicated for a schoolyard, but worm bins offer an in-class alternative (if you're feeling brave enough).
Complete an Energy Audit
This may sound intimidating, but evaluating how you and your students use energy is an effective way to create a more environmentally friendly classroom. Work with your class to identify where you use energy, and create a checklist to determine where it might be wasted. The results will pinpoint areas where you can cut back. For example, if you're fortunate to be in a space with a lot of natural light, you may choose to rely on that periodically. If you have classroom computers, are they left on overnight? Do they need to be? I regularly discuss ways to be greener with my class, and I felt embarrassed when one of my students pointed out my habit of going to lunch and meetings without turning off the lights. It was a light-bulb moment—no pun intended—and I became more aware of my own role in decreasing consumption.
Reflect on Nature
Today, kids are often fixated on gadgets and game systems, and may not fully appreciate the positive impact of spending time outside. While this won't necessarily create an environmentally friendly classroom, enjoying the great outdoors may help your students become more proactive about protecting nature. Scheduling trips to local parks and outdoor attractions is a great way to incorporate nature into your curriculum. My urban school was located across the street from a lovely community garden, which was a great place for reading and writing, and your school may have similar spaces.