That cautionary message, which surfaced several centuries ago, is increasingly and urgently relevant today. Just ask the Level 7 students of Turning Point School in Culver City and the 12 visiting Year 8 students from Goulburn Valley Grammar School, its partner school in Shepparton, Victoria, Australia, who were accompanied by Australian teachers Serrin Gardner and Greg Reynoldson.
The students, ranging in age from around 12 to 14, were acutely aware of the immediate need to set goals and take action as they offered final presentations and reflections regarding the ecological marine project in which they’d jointly participated.
Robin Gose, a Science Specialist and Community Service Learning Coordinator at Turning Point School, explained that “each year, Level 7 students from Turning Point School participate in ICOS, the International Collaboration on Sustainability. The program is an environmental leadership workshop interwoven with community service elements. Our theme this year is ‘plastics in the ocean.’ This year we are fortunate to be hosting the program on our school campus, and welcoming 12 students from our partner school in Shepparton, Australia.”
The roots of the ICOS program go back to 2000 at the Pacific Basin Consortium Conference, when a group of independent school educators recognized a shared desire to teach middle school students about the impact of human actions on the environment. Four schools were involved initially, and in the beginning the curriculum focused on wetlands. Students would study wetlands near their schools and then share data and observations with the other three schools.
“Now in its eleventh year, two of the founding schools, Turning Point School and Goulburn Valley Grammar School, retain their commitment to this project,” Gose said. “The program has changed as the needs of the students have changed. It now gives students opportunities to develop their leadership around environmental issues, and to ‘be the change.’ Each school takes turns hosting the two-week program. Each program includes a week-long outdoor education trip as well as school-based workshops. The workshops provide students the chance to research issues facing their communities, and gives them voice to express their concern and ideas for possible solutions.”
The kaleidoscope of experiences outside the school campus included many highlights. The students went whale-watching at Redondo Beach. Taking the Expo line to the California Science Center in Exposition Park and meeting with the curator of the Ecosystems Gallery was exciting, and seeing the space shuttle provided a very special memory. They took the bus to Ben Lomond, a small town in the Santa Cruz area, met with outdoor educators, hiked through the Redwood Forest, and learned about animal adaptations to understand how species survive. While kayaking they saw sea otters in their natural habitat. They visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row and San Francisco. At the California Academy of Sciences they learned how ecological practices can be integrated through the Green Building Tour. Attending a Heal the Bay presentation and picking up trash at Santa Monica Beach gave them first-hand experience about the abundance of litter and the dangers it poses to marine life.
The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where sick or injured mammals are rehabilitated, left a strong impression. “Without prompting, at the conclusion of that visit the students pooled their money to contribute to the adoption fund for these mammals,” Gose said. “I get choked up just thinking about it.”
An unusual feature of the trip included participation in a “challenge course” to build teamwork, trust and collaboration through a combination of physical and mental exercises. Gose cited an example of students in pairs, in protective gear, trying to balance and coordinate their movements in order to climb a hanging, swaying ladder 40 to 50 feet long.
On Wednesday, March 20 the students presented an intriguing distillation of their experiences in a final program that combined performance, information, video, poetry and fashion. Amazingly, these five memorable segments had been pulled together in only three days.
“The Gyre is Full of Noises” (Jane McEneany’s group) explained how the gyre is a place in the ocean where currents come together in a swirl and how plastics affect the marine population. Students presented a performance piece inspired by “The Tempest,” for which they’d made their own costumes and props. The piece ended with their quoting “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” raising the hope that dreams of a healthy planet do not turn into nightmares.
“Ecological Footprint” (Travis Reynolds’ group) shifted the vibe from emotional to logical by explaining the steps that can be taken to reduce one’s ecological footprint. Recommendations included reducing meat intake by initiating Meatless Mondays. Since technology increases the demand for energy, rather than getting the latest gadget, make do with those that still function. Turn power off or power down. Use energy efficient light bulbs and appliances. Be aware of your car’s MPG. Car pool and use public transportation whenever possible.
Confirming that even the smallest changes can have a positive effect, students gave examples of how they had diminished their ecological footprints by reducing the frequency with which they bought new clothes and magazines, by taking the metro instead of driving around, by shopping at a Farmers Market, and by paying greater attention to electricity usage at home. The message was clear – take individual responsibility; set reasonable goals and take action NOW.
“Junk Raft: An Inspiration” (Matt Kline’s group) was inspired by the Plastiki, a catamaran constructed with 12,500 plastic bottles. It had traveled from San Francisco to Australia to publicize the increasing problem of plastic garbage in the ocean. As messages in a bottle go, this was a powerful and attention-getting one: recycle, reuse and repurpose.
“Marine Reflections: Young Writers Create to Motivate” (Gay Callaway’s group) showcased some outstanding poems the students had written. They were read against a video background depicting dead birds with stomachs crowded with plastic trash and marine creatures strangled by or entangled in plastics, disturbing and effective images that translated into poetic pleas for awareness and action. An excerpt from one student’s poem seemed to sum it all up: “Whole islands made of trash/Floating in the sea/This is everybody’s problem/When will people see?”
“From Waste to Wear” (Casey Donohue’s group) offered fun and intriguing insights regarding the transformative potential contained within old clothes and waste materials. This came across as a clever, economical and very ecologically aware junior version of “Fashion Star.”
Samantha Lyon, an Environmental Service Learning Coordinator who works with schools to develop and implement service learning and sustainability education (www.lyonideas.com), attended the March 20 presentation. She had met Gose at a Water Planet Challenge workshop, put on by EarthEcho International and Cathryn Berger Kaye.
“Robin mentioned that her students were doing an international collaboration on sustainability project with Australian students, focusing on plastic ocean pollution,” Lyon recalled. “At the time I was assisting Windward School’s middle school Science and English departments in developing a cross-curricular Water Challenge for the entire 7th grade, and it seemed like there would be a great opportunity for collaboration among the students.
“I was blown away this morning by the range of projects students managed to accomplish and present in only a few days, from a moving performance exploring the hypothetical reaction of Caliban from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ to the effects of plastic ocean pollution on the stomachs of ocean birds to sharing real actions that 7th and 8th graders took to calculate and reduce their carbon footprint to poems reflecting on the fragility of ocean life to a fashion show using recycled materials! I was really impressed by the student performances and presentations, which showed their multidisciplinary understanding of a current pressing issue in sustainability.”
“As a teacher, it is the programs like this that renew your spirit and passion for teaching,” Gose reflected. “To hear students expressing their awe for the majestic beauty of the redwoods; to observe a group of students use their own money to adopt an injured animal; to watch and listen to students giving voice to their concern for our environment – these are the reasons I teach. These young people have a great capacity to lead our world into more sustainable practices and lifestyles. This program provides this group with the exposure, experience and knowledge to make informed decisions about what their future looks like. I am honored to facilitate this incredible opportunity for them.”
A sampling of student comments expressed the bonding that had taken place with the Australians (“It’s going to be hard saying goodbye to the Australians!” “Have the Australians stay forever!”) and attested to the value of this project, not only in raising ecological awareness but in personal development and teamwork.
They realized the strength in numbers: “Working with others as a team, my difference was multiplied by 38.” “If we pull together, we can make a difference.” “If we all share our ideas we can come up with something really good; we can all pitch in to achieve something.” “If a little group of kids are doing all this great stuff, people will finally notice and try to help.” “Working with others makes friendship stronger.” “There are a lot of threats that face our marine life. By studying this I can now pass on my knowledge to other peers and help them understand also.” “We need to talk, to work together, to step up and help.”
There were personal insights developed: “I learned that the more supportive you are to others, the more supportive they are to you.” “If you take time to listen, you come out with great results.” “I developed confidence in public speaking and interacting with others.” “It helped me understand how bad it really was.” “This experience helped me better learn about the earth and how we are destroying it.” “I learned that if I don’t give up on something, I will succeed, and if you expect people to help you, you should help them too.”
And commitments were made: “I will go to the beach more and pick up trash, use local transportation and recycle.” “I am going to inform my family of these issues, and be careful with the way I decide to live.” “When I have a chance to make a difference, I will try to make an impact on other issues.”
As Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see.” If these young ecological ambassadors have anything to say about it – and from the positive energy that permeated their presentations and reflections the odds are that they will – that change is already underway.