“I plan to access the SLS program again. We also plan to continue our work with the waste audit and hope to change our school and community’s approach to waste management so that it is more in line with the sustainable practices and principles emphasized by the Vancouver School Board. On a personal level, these projects have transformed my teaching. Collaborative inquiry is a powerful agent of change and observing the impact these SLS projects have had on my students has inspired me to seek new ways to incorporate this learning modality into my classroom much more often.“
Our school is in a suburban setting, with the majority of our families being of Asian and South-Asian descent and with socioeconomic challenges experienced by working and middle class families. Our students have some access to wild space, but many of our students’ families have cultural and personal values which do not emphasize sustainability or connection with nature. In casual conversation with my students, it emerged that they were unhappy with how their peers were managing waste – often compostable material would be placed in the landfill stream and vice versa.
All of the above led to a question that needed to be addressed: “How do our current consumption and disposal habits impact people and the planet?” and “How can we value Earth’s limited resources in our personal and industry choices?”
In collaboration with a colleague, we accessed resources produced by Be The Change Earth Alliance. Between her grant and mine, we were able to secure access to their SLS program (Student Leadership in Sustainability) for three years and we were able to participate in their Waste Watchers program which facilitates a waste audit at the school as well as facilitates change-oriented projects to improve waste diversion. As part of the SLS program, my students began by completing world view surveys to gauge their current views on the issue In this process, the following topics were explored: Bright Energy (Energy Conservation), Transportation, Organic Food, Oil, Gender Equality, Paper Cuts (Paper Conservation), The Story of Meat, Costly Trends (Conscious Consumption), Food Security, and Animals and Us.
As part of the Waste Watchers program the students conducted an initial waste assessment which involved mapping the 4 different waste streams we have and assessing the efficacy of those streams at various sites around the school. We then discussed the process for conducting a waste audit and identified various stakeholders who will have a vested interest in this project and will need to be informed of our work. The students collaborated to develop some potential individual projects they could develop to improve the waste process.
In collaboration with a variety of partners, my grade 9 students created a pollinator garden at Renfrew Ravine Park. This park is a long narrow space bordering the daylight component of Still Creek, a salmon stream - one of only two remaining above ground streams in Vancouver. This park acts as a pedestrian and cycling path ending at a local rapid transit station as well as community green space. Garbage often accumulates along this space as it looks unkempt due to the proliferation of invasive species. Students engaged in garbage removal on several occasions, and then created a garden space. They removed some invasive species and dug out ground cover to create a plot. Students grew several native and non-invasive species from seed support local pollinators. Plants were transplanted into the garden space and then students regularly watered and weeded the garden space until the seedlings were well established.
During their presentations, many of my students became extremely impassioned by their topic. Students shared their personal stories of change with each other and persuasively advocated for attainable change. Individual student feedback on these activities also provided evidence of change. All students showed a shift in their world view, and a significant shift in their commitment to taking positive action in their inquiry topics. I asked students to reflect on taking action, specifically asking what was rewarding about making a commitment to action and changing behavior and what was challenging. Here are some quotes from their written responses:
“It made me feel that I matured a little more…because I’ve learned how to explore what I’m passionate about.”
“This ultimately helped me shop smarter, meaning that I only buy what I need and when buying a product, I’ll make sure that its durable and not the victim of hidden costs.”
“I found out that I stereotype way more than I thought I did. I’m going to work on that”
As a result of these projects, students have had more meaningful interaction with each other, with their families and parents, and with their teachers. Students have discussed their inquiry projects with several teachers in our school community as well as school administration and support staff. These connections will continue to develop as we continue our waste audit work in the fall and throughout the upcoming school year as well.
On a personal level, these projects have transformed my teaching. Collaborative inquiry is a powerful agent of change and observing the impact that these SLS projects have had on my students has inspired me to seek new ways to incorporate this learning modality into my classroom much more often.