Working Towards Sustainable Schools

Today is Blog Action Day 2009 – a day in which thousands of blogs will be posting on one topic – and I wanted to share some thoughts on education, the environment, and most importantly, sustainability. This year’s topic, as you can see, is Climate Change. Say what you will about climate change, global warming, whatever-you-call-it – whether you’re a die-hard activist or a nay-sayer, there are some aspects of the discussion that I think we can all agree on.

First and foremost, I think we can all agree that we must become better stewards of our planet. We need to find ways to preserve natural resources and work towards becoming more (to use a now-cliched buzzword) “green.” Education is no different than the oil industry – we have a lot of room for improvement here. Our school recently began focusing more on recycling and composting, both as a more environmentally friendly and a more cost-effective pursuit. However, our school also continues to function under a 20th century education model. Not sure what I mean? Here:

curricular sustainability

This is a photo of all the copies one teacher needed for one unit in our standardized curriculum. That’s five classes. We have 9 English teachers who teach about 40 sections, so multiply what you see in the photo by about 40, and that’s how much we would theoretically need for one unit. You can probably understand why I’m trying to go paperless.

I recall reading somewhere that the average teacher in the U.S. uses enough paper to kill about 11 trees each year. If this statistic is true, that means that my building alone kills at least 500 trees every year. Now, how many schools in our country? Honestly, I don’t even want to go there.

But paper is just one of many considerations that schools need to begin thinking about. Think about how many classrooms have lights on when nobody is in them. Think about how much food is sent to the landfills from each cafeteria. Think about how much electricity is wasted by idle computers or other appliances. There is a lot of waste in our schools.

Even going “paperless” as I am hoping to do is only so beneficial. True, I will be destroying fewer trees because I’m using less paper, but the cost of going paperless is that my students will be spending more time on computers, which uses more electricity. And unlike proponents of “plug-in hybrid” cars will tell you, this is not a “green” power source. Electricity still has to be generated primarily by fossil fuels like coal, which is also one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet.

 But what to do about it? Here are a couple of suggestions for how educators can quickly and easily begin working towards more sustainable schools:

  • When you’re alone in your classroom, turn off all but the light you need. For example, I have 3 light switches in one classroom, and one of them controls the light above my desk. That’s really the only one I need, so I can turn off the other two and conserve energy. Turning the lights off also cools the room down so you don’t need to use the AC as much.
  • I know it’s harder to read, but have students write on both sides of their paper. You will quickly cut in half the amount of paper being consumed by your students.
  • Speaking of paper, save all your extras. If you make too many copies, if you printed out something and don’t need it any more, or even if you find unclaimed copies lying around in the copy room, save them. You can then print on the blank side of all these pieces of paper. I went an entire year without using a new piece of printer paper on my classroom printer. My students even printed out their essays on the backs of other documents that I didn’t need any more.
  • Utilize technology. While still not perfectly clean, this is still more “green” than paper. Have students use Word or Google Docs to write essays. Use online surveys like SurveyGizmo. Stop sending home paper newsletters and start emailing them. Instead of using overheads, use slideshow tools like PowerPoint or Animoto. Not only are these better for the environment, but they’re likely to engage more students, as well.

Sustainability means a lot more than just conserving energy. The thinking behind sustainability is that our consumption of natural resources is balanced out by our production of natural resources. For example, if I’m killing 11 trees a year, I should theoretically be planting 11 trees a year, as well. Most of our schools, however, are only just beginning the journey towards sustainability. In reality, we must begin with baby steps – efforts to begin minimizing our carbon footprint by cutting our paper usage, reducing our electricity output, and taking further steps to conserve energy.

Working towards sustainable schools is certainly a long journey, and we have a long way to go to get there. Efforts towards conservation and decreasing our collective carbon footprint are certainly admirable first steps. In order to prevent climate change and be good stewards of our planet, however, we must continue to work towards not only decreasing our energy consumption, but towards contributing natural resources, as well.

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2 responses to “Working Towards Sustainable Schools

  • Samantha Lynn Harms

    Thank you for recommending our SurveyGizmo survey software as part of your sustainability protocol!

  • Leroy Hurt

    Good comments about sustainability. The word has expanded in the business world to include the social and economic dimensions. Unfortunately, computers and the like aren’t the greenest things yet. To offset that, organizations need to get more progressive about how they manage people to allow a lot more work models like telecommuting.

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