My stomach turns when I get the list of classroom volunteer jobs at school: copying and grading papers, filing, organizing carpools for field trips…Maybe it’s my years of teaching that make me avert my eyes from grading papers. I’d much prefer to interact with the kids – to excite them and inspire them. I always hope that our teachers want to take advantage of my classroom experience.
When my son’s 3rd grade teacher told me that she was doing a unit on ecosystems, I nearly tripped over my own feet as I rushed to her planning book to offer to help. After 4 years of teaching high school environmental science, my mind was filled with ideas for how to teach the kids about how they affect the ecosystem. Perhaps more importantly, we could learn how it affects them, in return. I could even tie it to food and how food safety is dependent on a healthy environment.
I was ready to rumble. Just a few days later, the teacher introduced me like I was a rock star (oh, you shouldn’t have…), and we were off. We started by talking about the parts of the ecosystem that the children had discovered on their expedition around the school campus. As I had expected, a student in each class mentioned the litter that they found. The litter was an ideal way to connect our activity to the kids and our relationship to the environment.
We went outside and stood in a circle. Our teacher held the end of a ball of yarn and graciously accepted her role as the sun in our ecosystem. She would toss the ball of yarn to a student across the circle, and he would say the name of an organism that is dependent on the sun. He would toss it to his classmate across the way, and she would name a critter who was tied to him. (Example: sun – redwood tree – woodpecker – worm – flower – bee – bird – seed – mouse – snake – hawk etc.) And so the activity continued, until the ball of yarn was woven into an intricate web, clearly showing our dependence on each other.
The crux of the activity was the interactivity between the students, and how everyone was affected by the pseudo-environmental disaster that I imposed on them. Everything was fine and dandy at first, but then I told them that an electricity plant exploded and the resulting smoke blocked the sun and pollution flowed into the soil. I asked each “plant” to drop its string. The web began to droop. From there each organism that depended on plants had to drop their string (insects, seed eaters, herbivores). Predators dropped their strings after that, and soon, the web had unraveled and was tangled on the floor.
It was powerful to have the children involved in a hands-on activity that demonstrated how all of the critters in the ecosystem were dependent on each other. But it was even more important to show the kids how their families are affected by the health of the environment. It felt natural for the conversation to turn to the safety of our own food supply. The kids agreed that they wanted to eat foods that were grown without pesticides (“If a plant has chemicals on it that is supposed to kill bugs, what does that do to me and my body?”). We learned about how pesticides don’t just stay on the plants, but that they move through the soil and travel to our water systems. (“I don’t think my dad should wash the car with soap near the storm drain anymore…”)
The finale was tasting the rainbow colored bell peppers and carrots that I got from the farmer’s market the day before. Aside from assuring the kids that I wasn’t giving them spicy peppers, they had hardly any restraint as they dove into their samples. They loved comparing the flavors of the purple+orange carrots to the yellow ones (“I thought those were slices of banana.”) The kids ate with gusto, loving their fresh snacks. (“This is just like my house, but way better.”)
They made special requests for my next “guest appearance.” They want to learn more ways to make snacks that don’t come in packages and they wanted tips on how to help their parents shop for good “growing food.” What would your kids want to learn?
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