Sunday, October 31, 2010

Paper Trails

As I finish making copies for the week for four first grade classrooms, I look down at the pile of worksheets and I am astounded by the sheer amount of paper these students will use and eventually throw away during a typical school week. Add school newsletters, announcements, and fundraising pamphlets and the paperwork coming home each day in students’ backpacks can become overwhelming. For families with multiple children in the same school, the problem is only compounded. As “going green” gains popularity, it only makes sense to tackle the topic of reducing waste with our students. Hopefully, allowing students to witness a problem and design solutions will help them become more aware and responsible citizens.

Are there ways to reduce the amount of paper we use every day in the classroom? For in-class work, you can try giving each student a small whiteboard. I cut a class set of white boards from shower board I bought at a home improvement store, and they work great for a lot less money than buying individual boards. If you have access to computers or a computer lab, there are lots of free games and activities available online that students can use for repetition and practice. Interactive whiteboards can be a great tool for learning in a less paper-intensive environment as well, although many of us aren’t lucky enough to get those, yet! For more structured work that is best practiced on worksheets, you might be able to save a little paper by doing double-sided copying.

After students learn more about the problem, they may start their own recycling or re-use programs. Some enterprising kids started collecting paper waste for recycling or re-use and made a deal with their teacher to have a party in class when they had collected a certain weight of paper. They created the plan and timeline and presented their ideas to their teacher. As the amount of paper they collected increased, they earned intermediate prizes, including the chance to hold a paper-airplane contest (created with recycled paper, of course), and a “recycled” art contest, where students were challenged to create artwork entirely from things that were meant to be thrown away. To help reduce the amount of paperwork created in the first place, one parent volunteer at my school offered to mark the classroom mailboxes of siblings so that only the oldest sibling in each household would get copies of school notes, saving a lot of paper over the course of a year.

Is too much trash really a problem? What’s wrong with throwing away garbage? When stuff goes into the trash, it gets buried so we don’t have to deal with again, right? This may be true, but lots of garbage doesn’t end up in landfills, and the garbage that does get buried can take a really long time to decompose. One class created a mini-landfill in a plastic container with all different kinds of trash in it. They left it outside all year to see what would happen to the trash. How long do you think it would take a diaper to start decomposing in your own mini-landfill?

If you need to get your class moving, try this landfill game from PE Central. Kids can start thinking about issues with trash and recycling while they run around and let off a little steam. For a very different approach, Waste Management partnered with Discovery Education to create lessons about trash and recycling. You might find some useful ideas for your class in their Buried Treasure activities and lesson plans.

A great visual example of the damage uncontained waste is doing to earth is the pacific garbage patch, a huge mass of trash collecting in the Pacific Ocean. You can find lots of pictures and explanations of this phenomenon online. There is a detailed description of this and a couple of other major environmental issues in a free webinar from Maps101. Depending on the age of your students, you might want to show parts of it in your class or just use the information in your teaching. This blog entry is also very informative on the topic. It was neat to learn so much about garbage, a topic I didn’t know a whole lot about. That’s one of the best parts about being a teacher…learning with your students!

For a fun and interesting conversation-starter, watch this “mockumentary” that details the journey of a plastic bag from a parking lot to the open ocean, contributing to the mass of debris in the pacific garbage patch. The movie follows the bag as if it’s an endangered animal as it makes its way out into the ocean.

For more ideas in environmental education, be sure to visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Education page. This page has a section for elementary, middle, and high school students. Their Kids Club has a great section on garbage and recycling with activities, science experiments, and more. I also really like their interactive game, Recycle City. It’s got a detailed introduction to the topic, an online game, and related activities.

We always like to collaborate and share ideas with other organizations we associate with on our social networking sites. Keep an eye on the National Environmental Education Association’s Facebook page for tips and ideas. Also, the Teaching Ideas site has an extensive collection of activities related to different themes. We discovered these collections through their Facebook page. Be sure to check the site in November for their theme “Saving the Planet.” Good luck, and have fun going green with your students.

~Peggy's Corner - 10/28/2010~


  1. Excellent focus! We rarely think about what happens to all of our trash, this is a great exercise of being mindful about what we use and throw away.

  2. Our schools now use "Virtual Backpacks," which are online newsletters instead of paper copies. An email is sent with a link to the Backpack each week, and archived copies are available on each school's Web site. Families who still want paper copies can sign up for them, but the overwhelming majority get the online version. I forget the exact cost savings, but it is projected to be well into the tens of thousands of dollars. Great idea for cash-strapped schools! (Joann)


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