Portrait of an eco school

Get tips on making your school greener. How students at one Calgary school are getting their hands dirty to make a difference

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Hands busy ripping old flyers into narrow strips, nine-year-old Sahail Atwal explains why he likes his grade four classroom’s vermicomposting bin. “You can put in orange peels, apple cores and banana peels with the paper, and the red wigglers turn it all into dirt you can use in your garden.”

Sahail’s teacher, Joyce Tysseland, brought vermicomposting into her classroom seven years ago as part of a science unit. “They’re learning to recycle, to be aware of the amount of garbage they’re producing, to be aware that if they’re careful, they can produce a very valuable product from garbage,” says Tysseland.

The bin full of organic-waste-devouring worms is more than just a science lesson for the students at Calgary’s O.S. Geiger School. It’s counted in the tally of more than 1,000 environmental projects the school has completed since 2004 in its effort to achieve Earth School designation in the Green Schools Canada program.

Created by the national not-for-profit Society, Environment and Energy Development Studies (SEEDS) Foundation, Green Schools Canada is an environmental stewardship program for elementary to high schools. “We want to help teachers promote student literacy, personal action and societal responsibility when it comes to energy, sustainability and the environment,” says Diane Field, executive director of SEEDS. More than 6,000 schools have completed over one million environmental class projects to communicate about or to enhance the environment in the past decade.

At O.S. Geiger, physical education teacher Dustin Turner heads up the Green Schools initiative. “Each time a project of any kind is done, the student or teacher brings me a completed project sheet, which is saved in our Green Schools binder,” says Turner. “There are projects we do each year, and those we do just once.” Students participate in litterless snack days, pick up garbage from the schoolyard after recess, and build bird feeders from recycled materials to earn points toward the designation.

Adorning the hallways is the kids’ artwork illustrating the various eco-friendly projects they’ve completed, and handcrafted posters touting the importance of caring for the environment. The school is taking its message out to the community as well; one popular project from last year saw students decorate a fast-food chain’s takeout bags with conservation messages. The bags were then given out to hundreds of customers in the neighbourhood.

When principal Lori Cooper joined O.S. Geiger in August 2010, she was impressed with how engaged the students were. “Being involved in this program unifies us as a school. This is the perfect age for them to learn about becoming better earth citizens.” School administration has embraced the challenge as well. Last year, they cut back the number of printers to three, to discourage unnecessary printing.

Even the school custodian can’t believe the difference it’s making for his job, says Turner. “We went from no recycling to having full recycling bins each week. Our garbage has decreased significantly. We’re reducing our production overall too — you might see a recycling bin full of paper, but then a class has a project, and the bin will be emptied because the students use that paper in their project.” Turner believes the changes he’s seeing in the school are having an effect at home as well. “When I was first here, there was minimal discussion in the classroom about how people are impacting the environment. Now there’s discussion about it all of the time, and they’re taking it home to teach their families.”

Grade four student Jessica Annor-Bediako agrees that her family is more green at home because of what she’s learned in the classroom. Her favourite program is the vermicomposting bin. “We compost at home too. I like to use the dirt we make for our roses and tomatoes.”

Turner is hopeful that more schools will take on the Green Schools Canada challenge. “It’s really amazing how this program has changed us as a school.”

What you can do

As a parent-volunteer or teacher, you can lead your school in becoming more environmentally responsible. Here are a few simple projects:

• create hallway displays on nature themes
• organize schoolyard plantings
• read books about environmental stewardship
• create additional recycling bin locations
• participate in schoolyard litter pickup
• share songs on the environment
• remove excess printers and photocopiers to make staff more aware of paper use
• recycle and reuse common objects to make bird feeders

Get involved

SEEDS welcomes new participants to their program. Schools receive a welcome kit, which includes an idea book, log sheets, hallway progress charts, certificates and even a trophy to be given to students or classes as they complete projects. To find out more about Green Schools Canada, visit seedsfoundation.ca.

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