Recycling Teaches Many Lessons
by Barry Weinbrom
As a New York City middle school science teacher at Global Studies, a magnet school in Brooklyn that focuses on environmental issues, I have seen two excellent examples of how local recycling projects can lead to great opportunities for curriculum integration and thematic study.
Local issue provides impetus
In the spring of 1995, during the first year of the Global Studies Magnet School creation, the local community board presented a resolution at their monthly meeting to introduce mixed paper into the recycling waste stream. This was to be in exchange for one less day of sanitation pickup in areas of the district that had three days of sanitation pickup each week. It turned out that the people in the "three day" areas did not want to give up their third day of garbage pick-up in exchange for adding mixed paper recycling. The resolution was defeated. An appeal called for another discussion and vote the following week at a special meeting.
Upon presenting this information to my sixth grade environmental science students, they decided to write letters to the community board. They explained that in their various Brooklyn communities with three day per week sanitation most families never even put out their garbage for the second day pickup. They thought it was wasteful. If their communities were offered the choice to add mixed paper recycling, instead of a third day of regular sanitation, surely they would opt for it.
The students wrote letters and organized the newly formed school (185 students) to sign petitions supporting the need for adding mixed paper to the recycling waste stream. Two students attended the special community board meeting and presented their petitions and letters. They returned to school the following day and reported that their efforts helped make a difference in overturning the previous decision. They received a letter from the community board business manager complimenting them on the efforts.
Making a difference
Global Studies began sharing space with Nathan Hale Middle School when the school was formed in 1995. This situation led to uncomfortable feelings and much resentment between the schools, as well as miscommunication. We were approached by an enthusiastic science teacher from the other school who wanted to encourage our two classes to work together on getting the building to recycle mixed paper.
New York City public schools have been required to recycle since 1994. However the schools have been reluctant to cooperate for a number of reasons. In 1995 our building was not recycling. Remembering the success of their efforts from last year, my students were now interested in helping both schools in the building to recycle mixed paper. With the help of the newly formed Materials Exchange, (a group which collects re-usable materials from businesses and gives them to schools) we were given some beautiful wooden boxes. Swiss watches are delivered to U.S. ports in these boxes.
Fifteen of my colleagues 7th grade bilingual students and ten of my 6th grade youngsters planned for the recycling program and decorated and distributed the recycling boxes to the entire building. A certificate written by the students describing the recycling procedures and decoration contest was given to each teacher.
In the process of exploring recycling we introduced the students to the solid waste problem in several ways. There are some good videos available, including Tinas Journal. We watched a program that aired on public television. Students learned about the process of recycling paper by making paper out of scraps. They read articles about solid waste issues that appeared in local papers, including the New York Times.
Harry Martinian, chairman of the local boroughs Solid Waste Advisory Board, came to speak to the entire school. He presented information about solid waste issues, talked about the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, and showed the students some products of recycling.
This joint recycling program was welcomed enthusiastically by the entire school community. Classrooms and offices now have beautifully decorated containers that will be used to start off the 1996-97 school year with the entire building participating in paper recycling. The custodians and principals of both schools have been really helpful in making sure that our efforts are successful.
Youngsters have learned that they can make a difference, a powerful lesson for any early adolescent to experience. They learned about community and school decision making processes, resource conservation and the technology involved in the mixed paper recycling process. These experiences are what they will remember when they are long gone from school and lessons like these are what schools should teach.
- Barry Weinbrom has retired (2002) from the NYC school system after teaching science for the past 34 years. He has started his own educational consulting company, ASAP.