Incorporating PLT GreenSchools in Culturally Diverse Classrooms

Five Latino students show their dirty hands from a vermicomposting project at the Urban Farm in Denver
Escuela students Jonathon, Jocelyn, Rocsana, Elijah and Mica, who are happy to get their hands dirty making soil from worm castings as part of the school’s vermicomposting project.

Back in 1971, the late social activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, saw that the Denver, Colorado, public school system was not responding very well to the needs of Latino children. Corky, who was a visionary leader in Denver’s Latino community, started our community school, Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios, based on the principles of educational/social justice and diversity that he believed in. As a PLT GreenSchool, we incorporate those principles into every part of the PLT curriculum.

As a teacher, I really like the PLT GreenSchools curriculum. With some planning and preparation—and awareness of the special needs of my Latino students—I have been able to adapt the investigations to reflect the cultural history and linguistic diversity of our school’s students, while remaining true to Corky Gonzalez’ vision.

Escuela Tlatelolco’s “Four Educational Cornerstones” are very closely aligned with the work my students do in the PLT GreenSchools program. For example, our students must be able “to utilize critical and creative thinking,” and to “recognize, query and analyze [the] environment from the most immediate to the most remote.” We also want our students to work to actively improve the community’s health and well-being. The PLT GreenSchools Investigations are well suited to help achieve these bigger goals.

Action and Results

When we first started with PLT GreenSchools, we did the Energy Investigation. Students were sleuths who inventoried our energy use. As a result of their findings—and with the help of a PLT grant provided through funding from Learn & Serve America, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service—we started using energy-saving light bulbs, turning computers off at night before we left, and using low-flow faucets and toilets in our school bathrooms. We cut back on the number of microwave ovens available to our students. We used to have several; now we don’t have any. We also recycle on a regular basis.

Students check the aquaponics system at Denver's Urban Farm
Students check the aquaponics system at Denver’s Urban Farm

Right now, gardening is Escuela’s major focus, which is pretty remarkable since our school is completely landlocked in asphalt. We have aligned our curriculum this year around PLT lessons. Luckily, we can use Denver’s Urban Farm as our outdoor learning environment. Once a week, my students work at the farm where they raise tilapia fish and a variety of vegetables and herbs. Most of their science curriculum is integrated into what they do there.

The kids do a wide variety of projects geared toward understanding the sustainable food movement. As an example, an aquaponics system houses the farmed tilapia fish, and the water in which the fish swim is filtered through plants to provide the nutrients the plants need to grow, the plants filter the water and it returns back to the fish tank clean. In a few months, we can grow and harvest lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and at the same time harvest fish.

My goal is to help my students understand the whole food system, all the way up to social policies. For example, we’re integrating the PLT lessons to add questions about food justice: what happens when a community doesn’t have access to fresh foods? What do they eat?

As we do PLT activities around trees, I try to bring in culturally relevant information. In addition to the maples and aspens included in the PLT curriculum, we study the ceiba tree that grows in Mexico. It’s a sacred tree in the Mayan and Aztec cultures and traditions, and there are lots of legends and stories associated with it. Adding this tree connects our studies to who my students are.

Five Latino students present at a national Green Schools conference in Denver.
The school’s emphasis on urban farming and gardening was the focus of the conference presentation by Escuela students Yesenia Luevano-Nava, Rocsana Contreras, Celerino Banuelos, Jorge Chavez, and Justin Torres.

Similarly, in addition to the PLT recommendations of poems about trees and nature, I have added a couple of poems to help my students see nature through a social justice and multicultural education lens. So alongside Robert Frost, I teach African American poet Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall,” and “La Tortuga,” a poem by Spanish poet Pablo Neruda.

Five of my students were pleased to be able to talk about this work to a national audience at a national Green Schools Conference in Denver. I hope their presentation will inspire other urban teachers to build community partnerships around gardening, regardless of their location, and to think about the possibilities of incorporating cultural diversity in their own PLT GreenSchools classrooms.

Tips for Teachers

  • Know your students and understand where they’re coming from.

That makes all the difference. It’s important to understand your students’ strengths and know, for example, which ones have a learning disability. A lot of kids with learning disabilities have been misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. Understanding which ones need extra help can help all of your students work better together.

  • Look for additional resources that you can bring into the classroom to help your students to “get it.”

I always think about my students’ different learning styles in everything I do. Some want to see. Some need to hear. Some have to have a hands-on experience. PLT offers all those opportunities, but it takes thought and preparation.

  • Plan ahead.

I work a week in advance to be sure I have everything needed to teach the next PLT lesson and make it relevant to my students.

  • Consider including reflective journaling as a regular part of your students’ PLT work.

Everything we do for PLT at Escuela Tlatelolco goes in one notebook: the assignment and the reflection about the work they’ve done. It adds an important dimension.

  • Be prepared to learn lessons from the unexpected.

When a toad that had been hibernating in our garden jumped out as one of my students was breaking up the soil, it launched them into research on what kind of a toad it was, the lifecycle of toads, and toads as “indicator species” of habitat health. The students have built a terrarium habitat for “our” toad, and are recording their observations.

  • Think outside the box.

Even city folks can become sustainable, and there’s always space in the cities for an urban garden. If you’re creative, you will find a way to make it work.


Our Environmental Journey Began with an Exchange Box

I teach Gifted and Talented at Mildred Elementary School in Corsicana, Texas. As educators, we continually request and receive materials to help develop new interests for our students. We also know that learning is not confined to the classroom, but rather can take place in any setting that presents new ideas.

My quest to offer my students opportunities related to environmental studies began when I discovered Project Learning Tree’s Environmental Exchange Box activity found in the PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide.

Planning Our Journey

I e-mailed Project Learning Tree and in a short time I received a letter linking me with Explorers Learning Center in Seymour, Connecticut – a preschool that was to become our partner in a fascinating journey. An e-mail to the principal, Jackie Yannes, put me in contact with Julie Cavanaugh, the school’s kindergarten teacher. Since my students were first and second graders and Ms. Cavanaugh’s students were kindergarten age, we decided this would be a good match.

In September, each of us began guiding our students in preparation for our “Box Exchange.” My goal in the project was to help students focus on becoming more cognizant of the natural resources around us. I also wanted my students to learn that other areas in our country have distinct natural resources that may be different from those in our locality.

The Journey Begins At Home

We began our project researching trees native to our North Central Texas region. Students collected leaves from trees found in their yards, or near their homes, and brought them to school. Through posters we acquired, an online guide to Trees of Texas from the Texas Forest Service, and What Tree Is That?, an online tree identification guide from the Arbor Day Foundation, we identified the tree from which each leaf came. This was a great way to connect school work with life at home, and also hone students’ observation and research skills.

My class consisted of seven students, so we narrowed our study to seven species of trees. Each student selected a different species of a tree to research. Time spent in the computer lab allowed students to prepare note cards with facts about the tree species they had chosen. After completing their research, students gave oral presentations to their classmates to share the information they found. Their notes would become a part of our Exchange Box contents.

A Local Field Trip Reinforces Learning

I like to enhance my students’ learning by making it relevant and tangible by connecting them to their local surroundings and things that are familiar. A local nature center operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is within driving distance of our school. Plans were made for a field trip that would give students an opportunity to walk a forest and wetlands trail, take time to observe the natural habitat, and gather specimens for inclusion in the box we would send to our partner school.

On the day of the trip, I handed out bags containing items students needed for making observations, taking notes or sketching, and collecting specimens. These items included:

  • zip bags of various sizes
  • clear plastic containers with lids
  • small scissors
  • hand lens
  • pencils, and
  • journaling pad.

Activities for the day included:

  • making tree rubbings
  • gathering leaves and specimens of native grasses, plants, and trees
  • collecting seed pods, and
  • in general, observing “all things of nature.”

In addition to the above, I wanted my students to have the opportunity to take photographs throughout the day. Because our program operates on a tight budget, as do many other educational programs, students shared the use of a digital camera.

Illustrating Our Journey

Once we were back in the classroom, students scrolled through the photos that were taken that day and selected the ones they felt best exemplified our natural wild scape. I printed the students’ selections and we added these prints to our exchange box. When asked what else should be included in our exchange box, most students wanted to draw pictures, so we set some class time aside to do this. Two students created a collage representative of trees and vegetation found in our region. Pictures from magazines such as Texas Parks & Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick were used to create their collage.

The final step was to assemble our Environmental Exchange Box and prepare it for mailing. Once this was done, our wait began for the box from students at Explorers Learning Center, our partner school in Seymour. 

A Personal Connection with Our Destination

One last special serendipitous moment occurred when a parent of one student called to tell me how excited she was to know our partner school was in Seymour, Connecticut. As a child, she had lived in Seymour for a period of time. I invited her to come as a guest speaker and bring photos of the area. Her mom had just returned from a visit with family and friends in Seymour and she was happy to share her photos with the students. What a wonderful coincidence and how fortunate we were to have this local perspective.

How excited the class was when our partner box arrived and what fun the students had examining the contents our partners had chosen to share with us!

My students benefited from it by gaining an understanding of the diversity of natural resources in the United States. Most importantly, I believe my students have a keener awareness for the beauty of nature that surrounds us, and gained new knowledge about their own environment.

Thanks to Project Learning Tree’s incredible network of educators across the United States for making our participation in this program possible. I have already made initial contact with our new partner, Pine Plains Central School District in Pine Plains, New York.

At Oil City Elementary, Environmental Education Saves the Day

Oil City Elementary GreenhouseSeveral years ago, Oil City Elementary Magnet School, located in rural northwest Louisiana, faced declining enrollment and possible closure. About one-third of the teachers were transferred elsewhere. The teachers and administrators who remained decided to fight for their school, energized by community support. Their solution: working together to create a school with an environmental focus.


Enrollment grew by about one-third, to 385 kids. School Performance Scores dramatically improved, surpassing the state average. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry named it one of the “top 10” most improved schools in the state. In 2006, Oil City won the National School Change Award from the American Association of School Administrators, Fordham University, and Pearson Education.

PLT as Catalyst

The school presented a proposal to the superintendent and school board to turn Oil City Elementary into a school that uses the environment to teach math, language arts, and other subjects. The school board agreed—with no extra funds, but at least with a promise to provide bus transportation for any kid in the district who wanted to attend and 20 extra instructional days.

The staff chose Project Learning Tree as the catalyst in turning this school around because of its track record of success in total education and student achievement. Each year the entire faculty receives ongoing PLT professional development. Under the leadership of Cindy Kilpatrick, the school’s science coordinator, teachers align PLT activities by topic and grade level across the curriculum–inside the classroom and out. Teachers taught every subject through an environmental lens, stressing hands-on, active learning.

Oil City is now also a certified PLT GreenSchool.

Suggestions from the Principal

Fortunately, a school does not have to be in the dire straits of an Oil City to gain from its experience. Principal Mike Irvin offered these suggestions:

  • Oil City Elementary Outdoor ClassroomTrain the teachers: All teachers receive training in PLT. They continue to keep up with environmental issues and how best to present these issues to their students.
  • Inspire the kids: Teachers in each grade level choose an environmental theme at the beginning of every year, for example, related to forests, wildlife habitat, or another concept. Hands-on learning, field trips, and other activities revolve around the theme. Kids clamor to find out their theme for the year.
  • Partner with the community: Grants from community groups, as well as PLT’s GreenWorks! program, helped pay for a greenhouse, a learning pavilion at nearby Caddo Lake, and other improvements. But it’s not all a question of what the community can do for the school. Students developed a butterfly garden for the hospital and care for flowers in concrete planters downtown. Families are involved in all aspects of school life.

Learning outside turned Oil City from a school on the way out to a place where things are happening for teachers and kids—inside the classroom and out.

EE_Saves_the_Day_ArticleNational Recognition

In addition to the awards mentioned above, Oil City’s turnaround was highlighted through feature articles in two prestigious educational publications: Science & Children, published by the National Science Teachers Association, and Educational Leadership, the flagship publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (You can download (PDF) the full Science & Children article “Environmental Education Saves the Day.”)

Special-Needs Students Create a Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden

At Columbiana High School in Ohio, Kathryn Kromer’s special-needs class works together, learns together, and recognizes the differing skills of each student.

For the past two years, students have volunteered each spring and fall at Goodness Grows, a church-founded, sustainable agriculture non-profit in North Lima. Goodness Grows facilitates educational workshops, produces organic vegetables, supports urban gardens, and hosts student and civic groups.

In 2010, the students learned about the importance of blossoms, native species, and pollination. They sampled fresh produce and learned about the edible parts of plants using PLT Activity 71 “Pass the Plants, Please.” This sparked their interest, and laid the foundation to complete their own garden project.

One year later, ten students and three teachers took on the creation of a pollinator garden on the Goodness Grows site. They designed and built the Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden with $700 from a PLT GreenWorks! grant, community support, and tools provided by Goodness Grows.

Gardening Builds Character and Skills

Planning and tending a garden is an avenue for all students to build character and gain skills. It allows special needs students have the opportunity to expand their capabilities in a collaborative, hands-on setting.

The Columbiana class splits into three groups and works on tasks most appropriate to their abilities. Over the past two years, these students have improved speech patterns and dexterity.

Once a week they help plant onions, peas, potatoes, turnips, lettuce, carrots, calendula, and day lilies. They water, compost, mulch, and weed. They help harvest vegetables and save seeds.

Creating the pollinator garden was a great way to connect classroom learning to the natural world, and to experience direct outcomes. They researched plants such as parsley and holly hocks that provide food for caterpillars. Nectar and pollen plants to suit local butterflies were chosen and planted as well. Not only did the garden grow and blossom, so did the students’ plant and butterfly knowledge.

Success On Many Levels

Our GreenWorks! project was successful on many levels. Not only did students gain research, planning, gardening, botany, and collaboration skills, but local groups and volunteers formed new relationships.

An unattractive mound was turned into a beautiful oasis for pollinators, and many people were inspired to see caterpillars, butterflies and bees in the area.

Before: Students and Goodness Grows Director measure the area

After: Dustin and Tori in the Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden

Students began planning the project with PLT Activity 96 “Improve Your Place.” Each student researched the nectar and feed preferences of a local pollinator. It enhanced their learning to know that the plants they researched would be the ones they would later plant and tend. Students were anxious to see the pollinators they had learned so much about.

The students took part in many aspects of the process, including:

  • Starting the seeds
  • Transplanting the seedlings
  • Drawing the garden designs (they decided on a butterfly-shaped garden)
  • Removing the sod
  • Adding compost
  • Sowing seeds according to the layout
  • Creating stepping stones for a path in the garden

Their creativity, leadership and learning are evident in the garden. They gained knowledge, skills and a sense of accomplishment for leading their project to completion.


Dan and Keegan mix and pour concrete into molds to create stepping stones while Rebekah and Tori decorate them.

Engaging Local Community Groups

As with any school garden or community project, success comes as a result of advance planning, having enough resources and a dedicated group of people with a long-term interest in the project. We found it helpful to have a project leader, schedule weekly work time, and enlist local naturalists to help.

We were fortunate to have the following local community organizations support our project:

  • A local bee keeper spoke about native bees during one of the nine weeks the students were at Goodness Grows.
  • A member of the Youngstown Men’s Garden Club helped determine the space and moisture requirements for each plant.
  • A speaker at a local Audubon Society meeting provided a pamphlet that listed our area’s local butterflies.
  • Community volunteers and church members worked alongside the students to encourage and help them complete the project.

Helpful Tips

Create a plan

To plan a garden project that will be enjoyable and rewarding, calculate the time, tools, materials, and funds you will need to create and maintain it over the long-term.

Set a schedule

Goodness Grows’ staff, the students, teachers and volunteers worked on the garden every Tuesday for nine weeks. The students, with support from teachers and volunteers, conducted research in the classroom and worked hard during on-site workdays. We allowed for three weeks of planning time before breaking ground, and we took three weeks after school ended to add the finishing touches. Over the summer, other volunteers installed a sign, pulled weeds, mulched and dead-headed plants.

Learn from local experts

It was very helpful that local naturalists gave their knowledge and time, plant starts and seeds to the Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden. They helped recommend plants that would not spread or takeover, such as tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), false nettle seed (Boehmeria cylindrical), and “Lo and Behold Blue Chip” butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)

Use the garden as an ongoing educational tool for students and the community

Our garden acts as a live lab for environmental education and horticulture programs. The double-sided sign features the butterfly’s lifecycle and food needs. Markers identify the diverse mix of annuals (zinnia, sunflower and hollyhock), perennials (cardinal flower, purple coneflower, butterfly bush, milkweed, and bee balm) and herbs (parsley, yarrow, and thyme).

The students and volunteers continue to care for the garden when they return to Goodness Grows each week in the fall. Recently they were excited to host a local garden club interested in seeing what a special-needs class and a church gardening ministry could accomplish together.

Our beautiful pollinator garden continues to show the students rewards of participating in the yearly cycle of life. It is vibrant, educational, and maintained thanks to the commitment of dedicated students, teachers and community members working together.

Outdoor Space Provides Many Learning Opportunities

Positioning rose bushOne team, one dream. That’s the vision of Pride Avenue Elementary School in Madisonville, Kentucky. Our vision helps create a school climate that is positive, family-oriented, and geared toward exploration and hands-on learning.

Our new “Courtyard of Curiosity” supports that vision. Thanks to my PLT training, we have incorporated PLT activities into the school. Thanks to a PLT GreenWorks grant, we are on our way to creating an inviting outdoor space between an existing and new wing of the school.


Making memories outdoors

When I Pride Avenue Elementary myself, we sometimes went out in the woods behind the school, which had a small amphitheater. I remembered my own experiences out there so well and have many memories of being outdoors.

Now as a teacher, we began to talk about building an outdoor learning area. I knew it would be a great project for the Pride Avenue kids. Unlike the area from my childhood, however, we decided the outdoor space should be easily accessible from the school building. Students and teachers can access the new courtyard from two different parts of the school.


Partnerships make the outdoor space more inviting and sustainable

Composting a pumpkinThrough a partnership with Green Giant Landscaping and employees from General Electric, students planned, built, and now maintain our new area. Fifth graders also developed a butterfly garden in conjunction with a Chrysalis project. They released butterflies into the garden and have observed many butterflies that lingered with us.

Fourth- and fifth-graders set up a composting station—composting pumpkins was also a real hit.

A local Girl Scout troop approached us to plant rose bushes in one corner of the area. They earned their badges, and we have a beautiful spot to enjoy. We plan to have an outdoor plaque installed in this area to feature the girls by name from the troop that completed it.

Various trees and bushes, native as well as nonnative to Kentucky, are spread throughout the courtyard. Benches will be installed near these areas to create little sanctuaries for reading and reflection.


Change didn’t happen overnight

Things got off to a slower start than we anticipated, partly due to delays with school construction going on simultaneously.

It turned out the adjoining area needed a better drainage system, which our board office provided, through an in-kind $20,000 expense. It took a while to troubleshoot and solve the problem. But the upside is that the plants and trees in the Courtyard will fare much better with improved drainage.

Student volunteers for initial plantingFunding from various sources provided us much-needed resources to complete this project. A PLT GreenWorks grant provided a good portion of our funding. We also received a $2,000 grant from the Hopkins County Education Foundation.

We also won contests run by the Sonic Corporation (Limeades for Learning-$800 in products) and Big Lots (Lots2Give-$2,500 grant) to secure additional funding and supplies.  These contests were based on online voting. With a little organization, these kinds of opportunities can pay off. We mobilized the school community to vote through reminders on school menus and other information that went home in backpacks and flyers distributed to parents during afternoon pick-up time. It worked!


Lessons along the way

Although our outdoor space is still a work in progress, we have already learned some valuable lessons:


Patience and determination are essential

We were hoping to start planting in 2009, but it took until April of 2011 to really get things rolling. Some circumstances were out of our control—we just had to accept that. But we didn’t give up the project either! We continued to work with the school district’s Facilities office to keep our dream alive. Patience and determination paid off.


Help can come from unexpected places

We received funding from several sources and volunteers from local employers also helped create the new space.

Sometimes, the help we received came from an unexpected place. For example, the plant leader for GE is the father of a student who attends Pride. He brought about 20 volunteers with him on a Saturday to landscape the area. This initial landscaping effort only took five to six hours utilizing an eager group of volunteers versus days with only a handful of our school stakeholders. Thank goodness we all had team spirit and wanted to give back to students in our community.


The outdoor space can provide many kinds of learning opportunities

Girl Scouts troop after plantingWe have many new ideas for the new space that will provide different learning opportunities for the students.

We’d like to continue developing the space by:

  • Creating more habitats for students to observe living creatures in natural places, such as a pond,
  • Showing how we can capture energy from the sun with a solar-powered water pump in the pond and solar-powered birdbaths,
  • Installing a spider web frame so we can examine the formation of webs up close while respecting wildlife, and
  • Installing a plant cam to capture photos over time to assemble into a video that will show the full life cycle of growth.

So far, older students have spent the most time on activities in the Courtyard. We are hoping they can serve as mentors to younger students, a relationship that will benefit both groups. It’s been a growing adventure creating our “Courtyard of Curiosity,” and we are definitely cultivating minds here at Pride through its creation!

Keeping Students Engaged Through “Green Teams”

NH-Bicentennial Elementary School

For many years, New Hampshire Project Learning Tree has worked closely with Bicentennial Elementary School, a school of about 670 K-5 students in Nashua, NH, to embed study of the environment into our curriculum at every grade level, provide sustained teacher professional development, and build stronger connections between the school and its surrounding community.

PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations and environmental improvement service-learning projects have been incorporated into this “whole-school” work. Driven by the school’s Green Team, which is a volunteer student group comprised mostly of 5th graders, teams of students and teachers have investigated their school’s solid waste and recycling, water, and energy.

Reactions and Results

It feels good to be doing something to save energy.”
“I want to save money for the school.”
“I was inspired by the time I spend outside with my dad.”

These comments from 5th-graders on Bicentennial’s Green Team reflect why our efforts are both popular and successful. Just like adults, children have lots of reasons why they want to learn and take action about things they think are important. PLT GreenSchools helps us give them this opportunity.

We incorporated environmental themes into science, language arts, math, art, and music. Among other achievements, our students’ science scores rose, and a focus on environmental education has had a positive impact on students, teachers, and the entire community.

In an email to the school staff several years ago, Principal Kyle Langille said, “It is with great excitement and pride I let you know our NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] Science scores for grade 4 show significant improvement. Our renewed emphasis on the science GSEs, our continued partnership with Project Learning Tree and your highly motivating and engaging lessons, are all contributing factors. Congratulations! It takes a collective effort to see this kind of change.”

Audits and Action

Through PLT GreenSchools, students examine the impact of the school on the environment and then design and carry out activities related to their findings. What we like about it is that we received training and resources so students—even at this young age—can carry out rigorous, data-based audits. Our fifth-graders formed a “Green Team” and meet weekly during recess to take action based on the findings from the audits. Here’s what they have done so far:

Energy Investigation:

The energy audit prompted installation of “Hit the Switch” reminders on all light switches. The students also designed “Energy Vampire” and “Energy Angel” classroom stickers—reminding offenders that they are “sucking up energy” when they leave lights on unnecessarily or are helping when they turn lights off.

Waste Investigation:

Keeping Students Engaged Through “Green Teams”The waste audit inspired a plastic and aluminum recycling program, a first for Nashua’s public schools. The program is student-run, and the students collect and sort recyclables. Second and third graders formed a “compost team” in concert with the cafeteria staff.

The Green Team also wanted to continue to minimize waste by having an “It’s Easy Being Green Yard Sale” in the spring near Earth Day. Staff, parents, and community members benefit from this event! By cleaning out closets, we fill our entire cafeteria with donated items that are recycled back to our community. The Green Team also constructed a little golf course out of recycled materials for kids while their parents shopped. We sold compost bins, rain barrels, and aluminum water bottles at this event, as well as demonstrated how worms break down material in some compost bins. The Green Team picked herbs from our outdoor classroom, let them dry, and made scented bags to sell at the yard sale.

Water Investigation:

When students realized the impact of purchasing bottled water, they created a “Back2Tap” campaign. The Green Team now sells re-fillable aluminum water bottles to students and staff.

The water investigation also revealed that our school had 3-gallon flush toilets. Students quickly found out this was a waste of water and wanted to find a way to change to 1-gallon flush toilets. We applied for a grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation that helped us to install six low-flow toilets, a start toward our goal.

Tips for Teachers

Keeping a program going beyond the initial excitement is always a challenge. A few things that have worked at Bicentennial:

Make connections: From an educational perspective, of course we need to connect to the curriculum. But it’s also important to motivate kids by connecting to the things they value. The comment above from a student about associating nature with her father is a great example.

Let students lead: It is tempting for us to want to save time and tell students what they should do. Sometimes we need to sit back and let them figure it out for themselves (as long as they remain safe). They have more ownership and they have learned valuable lessons.

Get buy-in: When we first decided to integrate environmental education throughout the school, the faculty took a vote—and it was very close. Since then, teachers have seen the benefits for themselves and their students, and the school leadership, up to and including the superintendent, has been very supportive. This is a great boost to what we are trying to accomplish at Bicentennial.

Have a committed coordinator: A coordinator promotes teamwork and decision-making. This person shows leadership by coordinating the Green Team, encouraging a sense of shared responsibility, providing the team with information, and overseeing implementation of programs.

GreenSchools in the Nation’s Capital

When most Americans think about Washington, DC, they think of the White House, Capitol, and Smithsonian. But the nation’s capital is also home to almost 600,000 people in neighborhoods throughout the city.

One advantage of being in Washington is the proximity of national leaders. For example, several years ago, students, teachers, and the principal of Barnard Elementary School attended a reception hosted by the American Forest Foundation, the national sponsor of Project Learning Tree, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Association of State Foresters, at which Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke in honor of International Year of Forests.

“It was very exciting for our kids,” said teacher Geraldine Meredith.  “They wore their best, crispest uniforms.  For them to stand next to and talk with high-level officials who they would ordinarily only see on TV was an empowering experience for them.”

Grants from the U.S. Forest Service and Learn and Serve America are supporting PLT GreenSchools in Washington. Seven schools worked toward becoming model PLT GreenSchools: Barnard Elementary, Miner Elementary, Martin Luther King Elementary, McKinley Technology High School, Paul Public Charter Middle School, Elsie Stokes Charter School, and Thurgood Marshall High School.

Out in the Gardens

Every day is not quite as exciting as a reception with a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, but Barnard teachers have found that other GreenSchools-related activities also motivate students. With the assistance of chef and Certified Master Gardener Mark Haskell, they developed gardens, which are now being expanded. “We are in the gardens all year round, not just in nice weather,” said Meredith. “We have a life-science standard about the cycle of life—what better way to learn than to see the garden growing in one season, then dying in winter, then growing.”

Using a garden for a science lesson is exactly what is needed to keep the project sustainable, according to Haskell. “Gardens can teach anything—European and African cultures, math, writing, art,” he said. “The key is to sit down with teachers and find out what they need to accomplish, and here’s how we can do it in the garden.” At the same time, he noted, students are happy outside, they are getting physical activity to combat childhood obesity, they are adding beauty to their community, and other benefits take place.

Haskell has worked with several other D.C. schools on their gardens. “One of my favorites is in a black asphalt parking lot at Paul [Middle School],” he said. “In the middle of the drought last summer, it was blooming and it was beautiful.”

Student Voice

“Honestly, before GreenSchools, I had minimal experience with environmental work,” said seventh-grade science teacher Julia Vereen. “Now we have a way to show students that if you take care of the earth, it will take care of you, for example, by providing nutritious food for your body.” 

Paul Middle School and Barnard Elementary School are located near each other. Through their shared GreenSchools involvement, Paul students mentored younger students at Barnard, starting with a project on Earth Day. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Paul 6th and 7th grade students helped 4th grade Barnard students, plus teachers, parents, public officials and community volunteers, plant Barnard’s organic, raised-bed gardens and dedicate an outdoor, instructional classroom. Vereen and Sharon McCrea, a fourth-grade teacher at Barnard, noted the advantages for both the older and younger students.

“One thing that is great about PLT’s GreenSchools is that students learn they have a voice,” she said. “Beyond us, they will take that to a level on their own.”

Little Things Add Up

According to Trisha Nakano, the wellness coordinator at Stokes, a Washington charter elementary school, PLT’s GreenSchools program has made the school community more conscious of ways to reduce waste. Last year, students measured energy usage and weighed trash. In the cafeteria, a local milk supplier now provides milk in a large dispenser, rather than in individual cartons, and a switch to an institutional dishwasher allowed the use of reusable plates and utensils. The number of photocopies is way down. Sixth-graders are now researching how to introduce composting.

“Community service is a big part of the school,” Nakano said. “Every trimester, every class does a community service project. GreenSchools is a way for us to do that.”

Tips for Success

The teachers were asked for suggestions about how to make PLT’s GreenSchools program a success. Perhaps not surprisingly, they came up with many similar ideas:

• Gather a core group of teachers: “A group of teachers is really helpful,” said Trisha Nakano, Stokes Charter School. Geraldine Meredith from Barnard Elementary agreed. “No one person can do it all,” she said.

• Supportive administration: “The principal has to see the value and teaching opportunities,” said Sharon McCrea, Barnard Elementary.

• Integrate into the curriculum: “Infuse study of the environment into the curriculum,” said Julia Vereen, Paul Middle School. “That way, it becomes a staple, not just what a few teachers do.”

• Tap into local opportunities: “There is always a resource,” said Vereen. “The worst thing that can happen is that someone says no.”

In addition, gardener Mark Haskell stressed the need to integrate garden projects into what teachers already need to accomplish. “Teachers are so busy, they don’t need new mandates of things to do,” he said. “But with a garden, you can teach anything.”

He also advised checking to see what might already exist on school grounds. For example, several schools in Washington have greenhouses that were not being used. Students at McKinley High School are now starting to raise thousands of fruit, herb, and vegetable seedlings in these greenhouses, and he is looking for partners to expand the program. 


Project Produce Garden Sparks Healthy Lifestyle Changes

After a few months of growing vegetables at Glenvar Middle School in Salem, Va., the students’ favorite recipes are “Hot Chinese Cabbage,” “Raddish Top Soup,” and “Mustard Greens Fried Rice.”

Not only did they learn how to grow the food, they learned how to cook it as well! By the middle of the school year, the sixth grade students had accumulated enough recipes to create their own cookbook for their parents as a gift.

With the help of a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree, the project started as a method of engaging a class of 16 high-risk students in sixth grade. Over the years, it has grown to include more than 140 sixth graders.

First, students built four raised-bed gardens. The students then researched recipes and voted on their favorites.
During the fall, we cooked almost every Friday in the classroom using an electric skillet. 

These students are not only excited about growing vegetables – they are eating healthy!

I used the National Gardening Association’s guide “Health and Nutrition from the Garden” to give me more ideas to help my students implement healthy life-style changes.  As the students began to appreciate the food they were growing and eating, they were ready to expand the gardening experience into their own homes.

Students selected plants for their home gardens, and in February we planted seeds for seedlings to go home with each student. The first year the students grew over 300 seedlings to transplanting size.

The Glenvar gardens were planted with salad vegetables, and the students learned not only how to grow and take care of them, but they also practiced scientific investigation.  When school came to an end, at least two plants went home with each student and we harvested enough salad greens to feed every sixth grader all the salad they could eat during the exam period break. The students left school confident in their ability to grow and cook their own food.

Expanding and building a greenhouse

Before the year was out, the wall-to-wall seedlings in every window and under every light in my classroom highlighted the need for expansion. In partnership with one of our eighth grade math classes, students began to make plans for a greenhouse!

I’m proud to say that a high-hoop style greenhouse has recently been built by the eighth grade “Green Math” class behind our school.  The math students have also spent countless hours building and installing two cold frames on our existing raised beds, as well as constructing eight additional raised beds for the new greenhouse.

In April, the spring seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are starting to pop up all over my room. Carrots and beets are also growing under our cold frames, and the lettuce and spinach planted in our outdoor gardens has recently been refreshed with compost.  I’m thrilled that Project Produce has expanded into multiple disciplines and grade levels and is touching countless students and families at Glenvar Middle School. 

Tips for engaging your students in gardening projects

Involve students early on

Involve students in decision-making even before a project’s inception, and help them incorporate their interests into a research plan.  For example, Project Produce students at Glenvar Middle School were responsible for researching which plants would grow best in their local area. 

Use planning as a learning opportunity

Get students to ask—and answer—complex questions during the project planning.  For example, Glenvar students needed to know What is the volume of soil needed to fill a 4′ by 4′ raised garden bed?

Project Produce students are responsible for all aspects of garden growth, including transplanting, watering, weeding, monitoring, and protecting the plants during unseasonable weather. 

Assign specific projects to groups

I assigned groups of Glenvar students into “gardening families” and each group designed and implemented a garden layout. Collectively, these young gardeners planned which vegetables each group should plant in each assigned garden plot. 

Establishing these groups created a sense of accountability among the students. Through their collaborative approach, students understand that they depend on each other.  For example. if a plant is not growing or there is evidence of pests, students must make inferences to determine the cause of the problem.

Reach out to community partners

External supporters can become your champions, and help your students research, plan, and continue project maintenance.  Through effective outreach, your project can receive financial support, media attention, and extra helping hands.

Our students partnered with Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Sheri Dorn to plan and build the original raised-bed gardens. David Williams, a master gardener, continued the partnership with the students as they built “critter cages” to keep out unwanted 4-legged visitors.

Mr. Williams also helped the students set up a red wiggler worm bin in which students place their lunch scraps to make rich compost for the garden.  He visited the classroom frequently and acted as a mentor both within the school program and also in the students’ homes and in our community.

Project Produce has been the subject of several newspaper articles, and I have presented it at several state education conferences.  Katie Williams, former Glenvar Middle School teacher, volunteered her time to help write—and secure—the GreenWorks! grant.  Our local Parent Teacher Association and the Roanoke County Schools Education Foundation provides support to Project Produce, and Koppers Industries committed financial and in-kind support when extra materials or labor were needed for the garden. 

Celebrate and share

A school garden is only one idea for an educational and rewarding environmental service-learning project.  Successful projects involve your local community and require students to think creatively. They also include different subjects, age groups, or abilities. 

Glenvar Middle School students are the harvesters—literally—of their project’s successes.  For their first spring harvest, students collected 25 gallons of spring greens from their gardens and donated over 20 gallons to the local Rescue Mission.  A few years later, they harvested two gallons of red Russian kale, dwarf blue kale, India mustard, and southern giant mustard.  From this, students made—and blogged about—garden cornbread.  The final harvest from last fall’s garden was in early January, and students created dishes in the classroom with four cabbages, harvested frozen!

Check out the Project Produce blog to learn more.

Two Schools in One City Show the Versatility of GreenSchools

Stonewall Jackson Middle School and The Monarch School are both in Houston and are both committed to their students–but at first glance, they do not seem to have much else in common.

Jackson was built in 1926 and is in the city. Monarch’s new building opened in 2009 on 11 acres. Jackson, a public school, has 950 students in grades 6 through 8, while Monarch, a private school, has 110 students of all ages.

But these two very different schools do have something else in common—both are PLT GreenSchools and both are finding ways to use the program to meet the needs of their students.

“When we developed PLT’s GreenSchools program, we wanted to ensure that it could work in rural, suburban, and urban schools, large and small, diverse and underserved” said James McGirt, PLT GreenSchools coordinator. “The feedback we get from participating schools shows that the program has the flexibility we were looking for.”

“When I started looking into the PLT GreenSchools curriculum, I liked it because it was very hands-on, and the kids had power,” said Richard Klein, director of the environmental education program at Monarch. “Kids were all on the same level as their teachers and the school administrators. Because of that, we knew that our kids would buy into the program, notice the changes they were able to make, and be proud of what they’d accomplished.  This program makes an impact because the kids have ownership of it. They leave here, and they’re still remembering and using what they’ve learned even after they graduate.”

PLT’s GreenSchools! program combines environmental education, service learning, and leadership opportunities for students to reduce the ecological footprint of their school and turn it into a model GreenSchool. Thousands of schools nationwide have registered to become part of the program, which has three components: professional development in environmental education and PLT, student-led investigations into their school’s energy, water, waste and recycling, site and other environmental aspects, and service learning based on their findings.

An Urban School, an Unexpected Renovation

Most of Stonewall Jackson Middle School is 80 years old; a “newer” addition was built in 1980. It is a Title I school with a student population that is almost 95 percent Latino. “GreenSchools has been great for our students because it exposes them to opportunities in the real world,” said Joseph Alva, LEP (Limited English Proficiency) coordinator. He is faculty sponsor of an after-school club called the Energy Busters, which has taken on the PLT GreenSchools activities.

For example, as part of the PLT GreenSchools Energy Investigation, students worked with a professor at the Energy Institute at Houston Community College. They learned how to conduct an energy audit on the college campus, which they applied by conducting an audit back at Jackson.

One twist in their plans, however: In 2010, a long-delayed school renovation began. “It was good for the school, but not for our investigations,” said Alva. Now, some of the students’ projects and plans, such as their recommendation to install motion sensors, were put on hold until the construction projects are over.

PLT GreenSchools has proven to be a lesson for the students in adapting to circumstances. Because of the construction, students decided to focus on three enclosed atriums that remain untouched during the renovation. In one, they are growing a vegetable garden, learning how to improve it over time, and hoping to eventually harvest enough produce to donate in the community. A second is a concrete space where they have added some play equipment and are investigating how to install a rain barrel, and they have cleared, weeded, and mulched the area in the third atrium. Students also hope to start a recycling program.

Joni Springer, a science teacher, said undertaking PLT GreenSchools as a multi-grade club works well at Jackson. “By involving sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, it’s ongoing,” she said. “Otherwise, eighth graders, for example, would move on, and it would take a while to get things up and running again.”

She had another piece of advice: “The activities are set up so that kids can follow the procedures,” she said. “Have the kids take the lead, with the teacher as the facilitator.”

“In Latin America, the school is the center of the community,” said Alva. “GreenSchools is a great way to make people aware that this school is not just for kids, it is for the community.”

A LEED School, A Way to Learn

The Monarch School is a private school dedicated to providing an innovative, therapeutic education for children with neurological differences, such as autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, learning disabilities, Tourette syndrome, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and other neurological differences.

Founded in 1997, Monarch began in three temporary buildings on a rental property, expanding three years later to include three suites in a business park. In August 2009, Monarch students and faculty moved onto their permanent campus in a new building, which is LEED-certified at the Gold level by the U.S. Green Building Council.

With many environmental features built into the new facility, teacher Richard Klein noted that PLT’s GreenSchools can still foster opportunities for environmental improvements and student learning. “Even in a new building, students and faculty don’t always get training in how to use all the features,” he noted. “We have had several big ‘ah-ha’ moments related to usage.”

Students and their teacher at a school in Houston work on building a piece of equipment in the outdoors.Klein said the hands-on aspects of PLT GreenSchools  appeal to his students and reflects the multi-sensory approach of the Monarch curriculum. “Students like the hands-on in collecting data,” he said. “The important thing, though, is not just to collect data but figure out what to do with the information. What do the numbers mean for the big picture? What should we do, based on the data?”

Even the forms themselves prompt learning. “Students ask me about why the forms have so much white space,” noted Klein. “Then we discuss the need to comment and write down observations, not just collect numbers.”

Through their investigations, the students calculated the energy savings that would be gained by switching to laptop computers. The students made a proposal to buy new laptops, and received a grant that went toward new computers. After documenting the energy savings ($160 per computer per year) from this first round of computer purchases, the students wrote and received another grant to replace all the computers in the school with energy-efficient laptops.They followed the PLT GreenSchools process to research and report their findings to Monarch’s executive board of trustees. “At first I was nervous,” said one student about the presentation. “We were trying to give a message that we are doing a good job for the environment.”

To help save energy, Monarch students planted 120 new trees to create shade on the campus. When drought caused one-third of the new trees to die, the students designed and installed irrigation lines on the perimeter to supply the trees with water during dry periods.

Several students made a DVD about the investigations that was shown at the Project Learning Tree International Conference in 2010. “I told the students that PLT was impressed with their work and would like to see a video of the process,” said Klein. “The students went to work immediately. As one student said succinctly when describing how their criteria for recommending new computers expanded to also include how much the computer is going to cost to run, “something that looks pretty is not as good as something that works pretty.”

Klein stressed the importance of the PLT GreenSchools process, beyond the content. “As students work through the survey questions, the teacher may have a tendency to lead the students,” he said. “I would encourage teachers not to do that. Give students the time to come up with the answers on their own. Their relationships and communication with each other develop as a result.”

A Small Project Inspires Students to Tackle Bigger Challenges

People connect to nature best when it’s with their head and their heart. That’s what led students at Upper Arlington High School in Columbus, OH, to create a self-guided Meditation Nature Trail at a local ecology center.

Beginning in the 2008-09 school year, students teamed up with Capitol Square Rotary Club to design and construct the trail. The students took charge investigating local ecosystems, determining a route and station locations, developing themes, and conducting an online survey to better understand how the local community best connects to nature.

They set up the trail at Shepherd’s Corner, a 160-acre ecology center of the Dominican Sisters of Peace located in Blacklick, Ohio. Each station sign includes a fact for the mind, a reflection for the heart, and an activity for the entire being.

Originally designed as a five-week inquiry-based project, the students continued to volunteer their time for the next year and a half. “At first, I just got involved because I needed some service hours. But then I really began to feel connected to the place – and I saw I could make a difference and do something positive to help people and the environment,” said Rose Mantel, an Upper Arlington High School student.

The students enjoyed seeing their ideas come to life in the trail stations. After the completion of that project, they decided to undertake a final project to tie everything together and create a more holistic learning experience for the trail visitors.

With the help of a PLT GreenWorks! grant, students developed and installed the trail’s final station during the 2009-10 school year.  This “Web of Life” station, based on PLT Activity 45, culminates all the previous stations’ themes and gets people to think about nature’s countless connections.


Interpreting PLT’s “Web of Life” Activity

In PLT’s “web of life” activity, students conduct research and simulate a food web to discover the many ways that plants and animals are connected.  Students decided to bring this activity to a new level. They took on the challenge of interpreting the activity in a way that would work for a permanent structure. 

At the Web of Life trail station that the high school students designed, participants learn about and assume the role of a local native species.  The physical web provides an opportunity to reflect on the concepts of interconnectedness in nature and effects of losing species.

The 14ft diameter web is composed of nine posts and a sloped cable, enabling people of various ages and heights to reach it.  Forty-five removable signs hang on the web, each representing a local native species. 

Individuals can read, remove, relocate, and wear the signs as they explore relationships among species.  As individuals tug on the rope, they see how one action can affect multiple areas of the web. 

A lot went into the planning process for this station.  Many hours were spent at Home Depot, asking questions, deciding construction materials, and evaluating costs.  They built a scale mock-up of a web section and species signs.  They refined their design several times after presenting their ideas to Shepherd’s Corner staff.

“Working on the Web of Life made me realize how many decisions and small details go into the making of a large-scale project. It was both challenging and rewarding to design something that will appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds,” said Julie Laudick, one of the students who worked on the project.

The Web has several layers of education to it, with various ways it can be used by different age groups.  It provides for multiple learning modes, so the educational activity can be memorable for as many youth as possible. When students use the Web, their questions and discussion are thought-provoking.


Debuting the Web of Life

In July 2010, students hosted summer campers (age 9-12) in the first official use of the Web.  They met with the local newspaper’s photographer and were interviewed individually by the reporter over the phone.

Watching students experience his work, Gaven McDaniel said, “I really hope that even at such a young age, they begin to understand why they need to watch what they do, because what we do impacts not only ourselves, but everything else that lives around us,” he said.  “It might be a stretch, but hopefully they can start making changes in their own lives.”

During the summer, high school students continued to refine how to conduct the activity. Shepherd’s Corner staff use the web with youth groups, and families in the local community visit the trail with their children and engage with the web on their own. 


Challenges and Lessons Learned

PLT’s GreenWorks! grants, with their focus on education and student leadership, ensured that the project was student-led and incorporated opportunities for environmental education.  To that end, this project was an incredible success, but it did not, however, go without its challenges.

Design challenges

There were plenty of glitches along the way with the design – engineering challenges, not having the correct materials in stock, ground too wet for installation, winter weather too cold for staining, etc. Each of these presented a “real life” opportunity to problem solve. Often, these troubles lead to improved design and implementation.


Perhaps the only significant difficulty was timing. The plan was to complete the project in late spring, but the naturally busy ebb and flow of a high school senior’s life was not factored into the original timeline!  Beyond graduation and into the summer, the group worked to complete the project in late July.


In terms of process and education, students were surprised to learn how much planning is involved in a project such as this one. These skills will undoubtedly transfer into future service activities, projects, events – and careers!

Building relationships

Students also established strong and positive working relationships.  They worked with Shepherd’s Corner, taking responsibility to complete pieces of the project independently.   They built a partnership with Capitol Square Rotary Club and involved 20 of their fellow students. 

A new appreciation for their local environment

Students have commented what a deeper, richer respect they have for their local environment. They were dedicated in their research to learn and teach others about nearly 50 local native species.  And, perhaps most importantly, they learned to teach others to appreciate the environment around them.


Keys to Success

Community organizations

Community organizations provide adult mentors and opportunities for youth to interact with adults in a coached, safe, real-world environment. 

For this project, specific adult skills were available to provide guidance in different situations: an architect and engineer to help with design, an education director/teacher to guide the local species research and educational programming, a naturalist to teach, a farmer “Mr. Fix-it” who had many tools and skills to help us construct. 

Students also took some of their design challenges home and enrolled parents or older siblings to help them problem solve.

Start with a small project first

It’s helpful to grow a GreenWorks! project out of another, smaller project. In this case, the GreenWorks! project grew from a previous year’s work with students.  They helped create the initial design for the trail in 2008.  Wanting to see their vision through to completion, two returning students recruited and lead others in implementing a project of their own. Adults can’t manufacture or demand this commitment; it must grow on its own from within a small committed group of youth – over time.

Commitment to service

It’s helpful for the schools, programs, and organizations involved to have a commitment to service. Upper Arlington High School requires its students to complete service learning hours and a (research or service) project in order to graduate. 

Students also helped raise funds for this project, through community booths and bake sales, as well as gathering in-kind donations from their school and parents. 

They also gave two public presentations – to the Rotary Club and at a PLT statewide conference. This gave them positive feedback during a long-term project.

Keep in contact with state PLT coordinator

It is rewarding to keep in close contact with your state’s PLT coordinator. This grant was special in the way it engaged students with PLT activities, the Ohio PLT State Coordinator, and other PLT leaders, facilitators, and teachers from across the state.

We invited the Ohio PLT State Coordinator, Sue Wintering, to our Rotary meeting, shared our project with her at different points in design/construction, and invited her to the debut of the educational activity at the Web.  It was meaningful and helpful to have this connection and feedback.

Student commitment

Ultimately, the biggest key to success in this project was the devotion and commitment of the students. This project wasn’t something they did to finish their Senior service project or to add a line to their resume. This project became an important thread in their lives. 

This happened organically– quietly, joyfully, without any planning or preparation. Mentoring relationships grew between Rotarians, Shepherd’s Corner staff, and students.  Friendships grew…and education flourished.