Talking Trash with Jacqueline Omania

Jacqueline Omania and her third grade students.

Last school year, before the words “global pandemic” were part of every conversation I had, I embarked on an ambitious and sadly ill-fated mission to eliminate landfill waste from my 1st grade classroom. Nowadays, I would give anything to just be able to teach in a real classroom again.  However, I’m also trying to see this situation as a chance to start fresh, to reevaluate some of the practices that are so deeply ingrained in elementary school culture. The shiny new plastic-encased markers. The individual plastic-robed glue sticks. The squeezable tubes of yogurt. The list goes on. 

Whenever I do get the opportunity to return to my classroom, I want to do things differently, and there’s no better person to talk to about my aspirations than Jacqueline Omania, the inspirational teacher behind the Zero Waste Classroom Project and winner of the 2019 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. 

What is a zero waste classroom?

  1. It tries to make no landfill trash. 
  2. It tries not to use plastic– we use real forks, spoons, and cups. 
  3. It tries to recycle and compost.
  4. It practices rethinking, reusing, and refusing. 
  5. It practices and studies about being a sustainable person. 

Why do you make your classroom zero waste?

Once I got informed about plastic recycling not really happening, I didn’t want to participate in that anymore. So I shared it with my kids. 

Having done a zero waste classroom for the fifth year now- I feel it completely inspires all my students. 

They can connect, they can make changes and see and measure it. They know the world has great challenges, but they are empowered daily with the desire to learn more and the ability to make a difference.

What have been the biggest challenges to going zero waste?

It’s not as much as you would expect. The trick is to get the kids onboard, to make it theirs. Make them feel like it’s reachable for them. It’s a matter of intention. You try to be intentional to make the least waste you can. It’s definitely a process–it took 5 years to get there. 

My obstacles are things that come from school. For example, all our math [materials] come wrapped in plastic. I’m required for them to use whiteboard markers when I teach math.

Students opt for reusable cups, water bottles, utensils, and more.

What surprised you about this project? 

In any moment it could be destroyed, but it wasn’t. The kids embraced it on a deeper level, naturally, without a lot of force. They all wanted to do this, to do their part. Kids feel so powerless in the world. For them to know there’s a concrete way they can make a difference. [that] what they’re doing is worthy [and[ they have a role in the world–they really want that. They’re so proud, so bold. They impress me so much. 

What kinds of impacts or changes have you seen in your students since starting this project? 

They’re more engaged with their writing in general. They’re often writing their speeches [for press conferences]. They’re engaged because they know it’s going to have a purpose. With math, they’re doing multiplication and division for each trash audit. They’re super engaged with their learning. 

I’ve had really positive feedback from parents. [They’re] so proud of their children for being advocates for the environment. 

We’re stronger as a community together. This had a ripple effect around our school. I opened up the Ocean Club for the whole school–all their friends came. The other kids wanted to know about it and talk about it. Now we have 45 kids coming. 

Omania’s students saved all their landfill waste for the entire school year.

Where do you go from here?

My vision would be to empower every kid to get on board. If you set up everything with a Kindergarten cohort on board, you’re set. 

More teachers need to be doing this, but we need the education piece for people to care. I’m hoping to create staff developments about this in a different way. Not telling teachers what to do, but showing them what we do. 

It’s more than the materials–it’s parent education. More education to not buy those school supplies. They don’t need their own stuff. I think we all just need to share more. We’re constantly buying and dumping. We have so much excess, and we just need to redistribute all that. We have to rethink the way we are together, and the amount of stuff we have. 

Learn more about the Zero Waste Classroom Project with these videos:

Trash Tales https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPctIgZ3eYM

Trash Tales Results https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWykO9lBnNM

Little Voices for Big Change in Berkeley https://www.upstreamsolutions.org/videos/little-voices-for-big-change-in-berkeley

Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet

Nanette Heffernan’s famous trash suit, created entirely out of single-use disposables from school lunches.

Have you ever wondered how much trash you produce in a day? How about a whole lunchroom of elementary school students? Nanette Heffernan, author of the newly-published children’s book Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet, became curious about this question while working as a lunchroom volunteer at her children’s elementary school about a decade ago. She conducted a trash audit, meticulously counting every chip and plastic bag in the trash for a week. 

“I told the principal, if you support waste-free lunch, I’ll do it for another week, and I’ll make a hat,” said Heffernan. Within the first day, the hat was complete, and it quickly grew into a suit because there was just so much trash. 

For Heffernan, what started out as a somewhat facetious challenge, soon morphed into an iconic and highly-impactful visual reminder of the astonishing amount of waste produced by school lunches every day. Ten years later, Heffernan continues to don her trash suit at school assemblies, festivals, and other educational events to draw attention to the environmental impact of single-use disposables. “Your first breath you laugh, then you pause, and then you react,” she said. 

Educating children (and “their grown-ups,” as Heffernan likes to say) about how to reduce waste is just one part of Heffernan’s work as a sustainability consultant. Her new book, Earth Hour, aims to reach an even wider audience of children who are looking for ways to get involved in protecting the planet. Earth Hour is a global environmental movement sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. This year, Earth Hour takes place on Saturday, March 28. Wherever you are on the planet, at 8:30pm on March 28, you shut your lights off for the hour as a pledge of what you’re going to do for the environment for the rest of the year. “It’s not about how much energy you save in that hour,” says Heffernan. She likens the event to Valentine’s Day. “We love each other year-round, but we go out of our way to show it on Valentine’s Day. It’s the same for Earth Hour.” 

Heffernan emphasizes that participating in Earth Hour is a way for people of all ages to get involved in a tangible way. “Kids have so many rules,” says Heffernan, noting that children are often told they have to go to bed at a certain time, eat their vegetables, do their homework, and more. “It’s easy for a child to feel overwhelmed when you hear these stories about climate change. They think, ‘What can I do, I’m only 7?’  You can participate [in Earth Hour] when you’re 7, and you don’t need permission.”

Above all, Heffernan hopes that her book inspires optimism. “[Kids] have so much power in their little hands to make a difference. With that finger they can turn off the light, with that hand they can turn off the water, they can say ‘no thank you’ to single-use plastic. Whatever their pledge is, it makes a huge impact,” said Heffernan. 

Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet is available from Charlesbridge Publishing at most independent local bookstores, as well as some Barnes & Noble stores.  

Check out https://www.earthhour.org/ for information about Earth Hour gatherings and events near you. 

Follow Nanette Heffernan at https://nanetteheffernan.com/, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

5 Reasons You Should Be Teaching Outside This Winter

Child jumping in puddle

Animals may be hunkering down for the long, cold winter, but that doesn’t mean you should enter hibernation as well. Don your hats and gloves, and take advantage of the many benefits of teaching outside this winter.

Disclaimer: Taking children outside in extreme temperatures and weather conditions can be dangerous. Always use good judgment when deciding whether to go out or not, and remember to keep the children’s safety as your top priority!

1. Fresh air leads to less sickness

Small, heated classrooms and indoor spaces act as the ideal incubators for bacteria and viruses to thrive, leading to rampant runny noses and coughs. Exposure to fresh air helps keep those germs at bay, plus it helps boost your immune system for added protection.

2. Natural light boosts mood

When you expose your body to natural light, it helps keep your circadian rhythm in tact, which in turn improves your overall sense of well-being and may even help reduce symptoms of depression.

3. Experiencing cold and wet weather increases resilience 

With proper gear and preparation, outdoor time in cold and/or wet weather can be an excellent time to teach children some mental toughness. A little discomfort can go a long way towards building one’s capacity for resilience, and it provides a great opportunity to teach children about the importance of adequate clothing and equipment. They may find they are much tougher than they think! 

4. Shorter days mean less outdoor activities after school

With daylight in short supply, after school soccer practices and backyard play time may be limited during the winter months. Providing outdoor time during the school day ensures that children are getting their much-needed dose of Vitamin N.

5. Wintertime nature is fascinating and unique

The winter months are rich with opportunities for unique scientific investigations, amazing observations, and just plain beautiful sights.

Here are a few things you can try this winter:

  • Examine a snowflake under a microscope
  • Search for animal tracks in the mud or snow
  • Collect and measure rainfall or snowfall
  • Splash in mud puddles
  • Track the temperature
  • Build a winter shelter– can you make it waterproof?

How will you be spending your outdoor time this winter? Share your ideas, learn from others, and stay warm!

Photo © Alyse Panitz Photography

Five Ways to Celebrate the Summer Solstice with Kids

It’s the longest day of the year, and that means it’s also the official start of summer! Take advantage of the extra sunlight by spending time in nature today.

Encourage kids to get their hands dirty today!
Photo by Alyse Panitz Photography
  1. Take a walk outside. Go for a stroll around the block, through a park, or on a trail. Notice the colors, smells, and sounds. Stop to smell those beautiful flowers and take a closer look at those fascinating insects. Bonus points if you bring a picnic lunch!
  2. Go on a nature scavenger hunt. Choose a few categories or items for kids to look for outside. Keep things loose by instructing children to find 3 things bigger than their hand, or get specific by asking them to look for a certain type of plant or insect. I like this 5 Senses Scavenger Hunt from Childhood 101. 
  3. Press flowers.  Channel your inner Martha Stewart and create beautiful keepsakes that will remind you of summer for months to come. Here are step-by-step instructions for how to press flowers in a book.
  4. Make a mud kitchen. If it’s hot where you are, cool kids off by getting out the hose and making some good old fashioned mud. Pull out some old kitchen tools (think muffin tins, measuring cups, bowls, etc.) and let them go to town creating delectable mud confections.
  5. Plant a pollinator garden. Did you know that today marks the end of Pollinator Week 2019? Help our hardworking insect friends by sowing some seeds in your garden. Check out these Pollinator Facts for information about what kinds of plants are best for attracting animal pollinators.

Don’t miss Part 2 of my free webinar Thursday 3/21!

Learn about what happens once students are out in nature.

If you enjoyed Part 1 of How to Start an Outdoor Classroom at Any School on Feb. 21, then you’ll love Part 2, which covers the “outside” work that happens once you’ve laid the groundwork for a successful nature-based learning program. Topics include: safety, schedules and academic time, and good gear. 

The webinar will start on Thursday, March 21 at 8:00 PM EST/5:00 PM PST. ​Register here.

This webinar is for teachers, administrators, parents, community members, mentors, and anyone else who is interested in helping connect children to nature. 

Participants will:

  • Learn directly from experienced professionals
  • Gain knowledge, tools, and resources to start their own outdoor classroom 
  • Ask questions 
  • Share their own experiences and resources
  • Network with other like-minded individuals 

How to Register:

https://zoom.us/webinar/register/3015524891250/WN_cn01hzPcR-yQWQ7zW6rI9A

Missed Part 1? View it below.

4 Great Children’s Books About Female Environmental Activists

Happy International Women’s Day! In my classroom, we spend a lot of time learning about change makers, especially those who may not be as well-known or celebrated. My favorite way to introduce these admirable humans is through read-alouds of high-quality picture books. In honor of International Women’s Day, here are some of my favorite books about environmental sheroes.

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter

Wangari Maathai grew up in Kenya with trees all around her. After studying abroad for many years, she returned home to Kenya to find most of the trees had been cut down. Wangari took it upon herself to restore Kenya to its verdant past, empowering thousands of women to help along the way.

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay & the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul

Isatou Ceesay was fed up with plastic bags littering her community in Gambia and causing health problems for humans and animals alike. She was inspired to find ways to not only recycle the bags into useful items, but uplift other women in her community as well.

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins

Northern California native Katherine Olivia Sessions was shocked to discover that the city of San Diego had almost no trees. After becoming the first woman to graduate with a science degree from the University of California, Katherine made it her mission to fill San Diego with trees.

Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson by Amy Ehrlich

Rachel Carson is most famous for her landmark book Silent Spring, which is often credited with being an impetus of the modern environmental movement. This book tells the story of Rachel’s childhood and the experiences that led her to become one of America’s most well-known environmentalists.

Want more? Check out Social Justice Books’ list of Environmental Books.

Free Webinar 2/21: How to Start an Outdoor Classroom at Any School

Free Webinar: 8PM, February 21st. Bring your classroom outside, learn to teach outdoors, and build support for nature programming in your schools.

Join veteran outdoor classroom teachers Amy Butler and Natalie Crowley for an interactive webinar to learn the ins and outs of starting an outdoor classroom at any school.

Part 1 will cover the “inside” work that needs to be done before heading outside with your students, including: finding your WHY, building alliances with administration and families, and how to find your space and place in nature.

The webinar will start at 8:00 PM EST/5:00 PM PST. ​Register at the link below.

This webinar is for teachers, administrators, parents, community members, mentors, and anyone else who is interested in helping connect children to nature. 

Participants will:

  • Learn directly from experienced professionals
  • Gain knowledge, tools, and resources to start their own outdoor classroom 
  • Ask questions 
  • Share their own experiences and resources
  • Network with other like-minded individuals 

Join the conversation! Submit questions ahead of time on this discussion thread.

Join us March 21 for Part 2: The “Outside” Work! 

How to Register:

Please follow the instructions on this link to register: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Lq_jhRALR3ODexKZ3OXINg

Can’t make it live? Register to receive a recording of the webinar!

Zero Waste Classroom Challenge Week 3 Update 

We are three weeks into the challenge, and just one week away from when we will say sayonara to our landfill bin. Here’s a rundown of where we stand at this juncture.

Landfill inventory

We have continued to monitor and chart everything that ends up in our landfill bin. By far the most common items continue to be food wrappers. Both foil-lined wrappers and soft plastic wrappers are frequent finds. Another common item has been adhesive backs, which are the slippery little pieces of white shiny paper that come on the back of stickers and adhesives, such as Command hooks and stickers.

 

A Challenge

A lot of the trash that is being generated is coming from kids’ lunches/snacks, which they don’t have a ton of control over. We have been actively encouraging kids to talk with their families about packing less single-use items in their lunches, AND we understand that this can be a hard sell for families who are already super busy and stressed. Which brings us to….

The Zero Waste Classroom Challenge One Change Pledge

             

Since we have not seen much reduction in our landfill trash simply from tracking it and charting it daily, we decided to invite kids to make a pledge to change just one small thing that will help us get closer to our goal of being a zero waste classroom. They had some great ideas, including making popcorn at home rather than buying it in individual bags, eating dinner leftovers for lunch the next day, and making art out of foil and plastic wrappers rather than throwing them away. A few well-intentioned kids had the idea of unwrapping their granola bars at home before bringing them to school so they wouldn’t have to throw the wrapper away at school, which led to an interesting discussion about how we are actually trying to eliminate landfill waste everywhere, not just in our classroom.

TBD whether these pledges will make a dent in our numbers. Fingers crossed!

What about the teachers?

We recognize that we have a big role to play in this challenge as well, as we are the ones making all the purchases for classroom supplies and materials. Here are a few of the changes/improvements we have implemented since starting the Zero Waste Classroom Challenge:

The question we continue to struggle with is: Is it better to replace perfectly usable but non-recyclable/compostable items that we already have with more eco-friendly ones, or wait until we use them up before replacing them? We’ve decided on a hybrid approach. For items that we use all the time, we opted to replace them and to donate our unused supplies to other classrooms or offices. This feels a bit like we’re just passing the buck so it becomes someone else’s problem, but the reality is that most teachers aren’t trying to go zero waste right now and will end up just buying more Elmer’s glue, Scotch tape, etc., so we might as well give them ours to use rather than tossing it out. For items that we use less often, like markers, we are choosing to use them up and then replace them with more earth-friendly alternatives as needed. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but it seems like a decent compromise for now.