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NYC Schools Can Celebrate Earth Day in Countless Ways

With Earth Day just over a week away on April 22, I invited environmental writer and PS 166 parent Emily Fano to share ideas for what schools can do to celebrate. While Earth Day falls during New York City’s school recess this year, schools can still make a difference by taking on one or two of the fun green initiatives Fano describes — from helping birds to shredding paper, there are many options.

Guest post by Emily Alix Fano

April 22 will mark the 41st celebration of Earth Day. This year, “in recognition of the power of millions of individual actions,” Earth Day will be organized around “A Billion Acts of Green®.” The campaign is asking individuals, corporations, and governments to measurably reduce carbon emissions and support sustainability. More than 78 million actions have already been pledged around the world.

Schools are the perfect place to initiate Acts of Green; in fact, pledges are being registered on the campaign’s “Green Schools and Education” page. There’s no shortage of ideas for fun activities that kids, parents and teachers can do to celebrate Earth Day in New York City schools and beyond. Many of these can become permanent programs. Here are just a few ideas.

Host a Communal Paper-Shredding Event: For Earth Day 2010, PS 166 in Manhattan partnered with EcoPlum and CodeShred to host a communal paper-shredding event. Families appreciated being able — around tax season — shred and recycle piles of old documents. The school also joined in and unloaded bins full of old papers that had been clogging storage rooms for years.

Start a School Eco Club: One of the best ways to get kids interested in environmental issues and inspire them to work together to create positive change is to start a school environmental club. Clubs can address a wide range of issues from basic recycling and waste reduction, to cleaner indoor air, gardening, and energy conservation. Ideally, they’re led by a motivated teacher who acts as a mentor and can tie the club’s activities into the curriculum. Dedicated parent volunteers are always helpful and a caring principal can be key. “PS 276 has first-, second- and sixth-grade Environmental Clubs for now, and all the grades will eventually be offered the chance to start their own,” says Terry Ruyter, the school’s principal. Ruyter says club members serve as recycling monitors at lunch, are in charge of battery and bottle cap recycling, and harvest compost from worm bins in five or six classrooms. The first- and second-grade clubs created a list titled “100 Ways to Love the Earth,” which is posted in the school’s hallway and highlighted on its website. This list includes things like “unplug the TV” and “have a compost bin in the kitchen.” The art and environmental clubs at PS 276 are also collaborating to create an interactive mural about how cities can be green. The book “Green School 101” offers valuable tips about how to start a school environmental club.

Set Up Recycling Programs and Earn Cash: The children at PS 199 are super recyclers. Aside from paper and cans, they have collection bins for bottle caps, textiles, sneakers, used ink cartridges, and eyeglasses for the blind. Recycling pays, too, literally: Schools can redeem cans, empty ink cartridges, cell phones, and juice pouches and snack wrappers for cash!

Plan an Earth Day/Week Fair: PS 333, the Manhattan School for Children, is holding a weeklong Earth Fair this week, which includes a schoolwide fitness event, classroom air quality and energy labs, a green cleaning information table, a waste reduction competition for grades K-3, a Harvest Day featuring produce grown in the school’s greenhouse, screenings of educational films such as “What’s On Your Plate” and “The Story of Stuff,” and daily class worksheets relevant to each day’s focus. The school has also started its own Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, to offer high-quality, fresh produce grown by regional farmers to its community this summer and fall.

Schools can choose to be ambitious or pick one activity. For example, during Earth Month, sixth-graders at PS 276 are reading an earth fact every day this month over the loudspeaker. A campaign to raise awareness about plastic water bottle waste is also a great idea. School stores can be set up to sell things like stainless steel water bottles. Ask your community to purchase/bring in reusable bottles for a week or month and calculate the plastic you saved.

Start a Composting Program: In the U.S. we shockingly waste/throw away 40 percent of our food supply. As Jonathan Bloom points out in his book “American Wasteland,” when we throw away food, we’re not only wasting resources like water and oil that are used to produce that food, but rotting food in landfills produces methane – a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat. Composting can teach children that food isn’t trash.

Formerly a fourth-grade teacher at the Brooklyn New School, Matt Sheehan is now its volunteer Sustainability Coordinator. With $5,000 from a Golden Apple Award and a corporate grant in 2008, Sheehan organized a schoolwide composting program. The system — which is managed during lunchtime — took two years to develop but has now become part of the school’s culture. “There are small plastic worm bins in all kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms with eight teachers maintaining two big worm bins outside with 30 pounds of worms in them each, and four composting tumblers,” says Sheehan. Food scraps are collected in the lunchroom. Kids separate the food scraps into 5-gallon plastic buckets (fruits and veggies are separated from liquids and meat). Students in grades 3-5 work in the lunchroom on two-week shifts to supervise the program. Middle schoolers come down on Wednesdays and Fridays to chop up the food and put it in the bins. Because of the composting program and increasing consciousness among the students, Sheehan says he has less food being thrown out and wasted overall! Until Matt Sheehan can be cloned, the NYC Compost Project has designed a range of workshops on indoor and outdoor composting specifically to serve New York City schools.

Help Migratory Birds: Spring is migratory bird season. Songbirds headed to forests in Canada and shorebirds headed to Alaska will stop in the city’s urban parks to rest and feed, but New York’s tall buildings and reflective glass pose a collision threat to over 100 species of migratory birds. The New York City Audubon Society has launched Project Safe Flight to protect them. There are many ways schoolchildren can help migratory birds, according to the Audubon Society’s John Rowden. NYCA is working with first-graders at PS 276 to reduce bird collisions through the creation of artwork that will be hung in the school’s and nearby office building’s windows. Schools can turn off their lights at night and encourage families and neighbors to do the same. Classes can take walks in neighborhood parks to do some bird-watching, or they can make birdfeeders and birdhouses to hang on trees around their schools. They can also collect donations for the Wild Bird Fund, which helps injured birds.

For suggestions of more activities, including tree-planting, hosting an assembly on climate change, and waste-free lunch contests, see NYC Green Schools’ blog. Whatever you choose to do this Earth Day, remember to register your Act of Green here!

Emily Alix Fano is a writer and green schools advocate living in New York City.

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