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10 Ways to Go Green


Educators and students team up on the most important assignment ever.


By Mary Ellen Flannery, John Rosales, and Nina Sears

Just 10 ways to go green?
There are probably 10,000!

Educators across this beleaguered planet of ours have all sorts of innovative ways to conserve energy and energize conservation. You all are recycling, composting, crafting lesson plans that inspire your students and their families.

Saving Earth won’t happen in a laboratory. It’ll happen in a classroom, where educators like you are teaching and modeling a new way of life that’s practical, passionate, and positively awesome.

Please share the other 9,990 ways to go green at We’ll randomly select 25 contributors to receive a free NEA mug — union-made in the USA with recycled materials, of course.

Karen Preuss

1. Plug in kid power!

Sharon Campbell was in the control room when California ran out of power. It was an unforgettable experience—listening as officials called Oregon, Nevada, and Colorado, trying to buy power and reluctantly shutting off the lights in one city after another.    

Brown-outs are common in the California summer, but she had never seen one from such a dramatic vantage point. “It struck me then that there is no more electricity,” says Campbell, who was visiting a power company after winning an energy-conservation grant. “I turned cold—and there was no air-conditioning there in the 110-degree heat—when I realized what this meant for our children’s futures.” Campbell already had a winning idea for alternative energy. With help from her engineer husband, she installed a stationary bicycle, connected to a battery pack, in her art classroom at Redwood Middle School in Napa.

Pedal, pedal, pedal...and the computers go on! The kids have stored up so much power that the local fire department knows it can evacuate three nearby senior centers to Campbell’s classroom, where they have enough electrical reserve to charge their oxygen generators for three days.

Cool as it is, the electro-cycle isn’t Campbell’s only green project. Last year, her students distributed 5,000 LED light bulbs, including 1,000 to poor families. This year, she and her colleagues have launched a school-wide conservation project, aiming to cut energy use by 25 percent. And the latest? A grant to grow drought-resistant trees that the kids will give away on Arbor Day.

2. Color yourself green

Most crayons are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that takes years to biodegrade. Opt for soy-based crayons instead, like Prang-brand. Other school supplies can be switched, too. Consider this: If your school uses 20 cases of recycled paper instead of regular, it’ll save 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water. Specifically, to help prevent water pollution, choose chlorine-free recycled paper.

Norman Y. Lono

3. Your students, your pearls

Under an urban seascape of towering cranes and bloated container ships, in the turbid waters of Newark Bay, New York Bay, and the Kill Van Kull, an unlikely band of environmentalists is on a mission.

“Our nails are going to go right through these,” says one, as she snaps a thin latex glove over her long French-tipped fingers. Sigh. Shrug. There are more important things on Earth than manicures…and even this 13-year-old knows it.

“We’re supposed to be marine biologists!” says one.

“I don’t even care about these shoes,” says another.

And then, with little more thought to fashion, they grab their new accessories—rulers, pencils, data sheets—and get to work in the oyster garden planted by their teacher, Larissa Drennan, in a restored marsh in northern New Jersey.

Last year, two Bayonne teachers, Tom Tokar and Drennan, seeded two sites on the Bayonne shoreline with 2,000 baby oysters. And to their surprise—despite the years of abuse by industrial dumpers to these waterways—they survived! This year, with more teachers and students clamoring to be involved, and enthusiastic support from school district leaders and community partners, the program has expanded to 12 schools and 12,000 oysters.

Here’s a math problem for you: One adult oyster can filter and clean 500 gallons of water a day. So how long will it take for 12,000 oysters to restore the mercury-laden waters around the Port of Newark?

Norman Y. Lono

“Maybe not in my lifetime,” Drennan says. “We hope it’ll be good by the next generation,” says Jason, an eighth-grader who points hopefully to the tiny flopping fish in the oyster float.

“The killies are here, maybe the snappers are next!”

 The inspiration for the program was provided by retired teacher Anna Panyiotou, the chair of Bayonne Cleaner and Greener, who had heard about the free oysters provided by NY/NJ Baykeeper. “Why not Bayonne?” she thought. Decades ago, long before the fancy cruise ships and foreign container ships plied these waters, Bayonne was well-known for its white sand and oyster reefs. “Have you heard of Sandra Dee?” a student asks. “She came here. And I think she was famous.”

Today, the oysters are back. Gently deposited in wire cages, suspended in oyster floats built by volunteers from PSE&G utility, and lowered into shallow waters, they are growing. And growing. In August, each oyster was about the size of a thumbnail. Now, they are baby fists. By June, they should be about 10 centimeters long—ready to become the foundation of a new permanent oyster reef.

Drennan and her students at the Woodrow Wilson School return to their floats every month, as do the teams at the other 11 sites. Equipped with video and still cameras, courtesy of colleague Barbara Karafky’s Camera Club, the kids lean eagerly over a wooden railing, waiting for Drennan to wade into the shallow, frigid water and retrieve the float. The moment it is lifted, a dozen cameras click.

“There it is!”

Tiny, flopping fish spill out onto the walkway. “Quick! Before they die!” shouts a pony-tailed girl named Megan. Oh, wow! A glass shrimp! “We’ve never seen that before,” exclaims Karafky. “How are we going to get it back in the water without hurting it?” asks a tall boy named Joseph.

New Jersey teachers Larissa Drennan (left), Barbara Karafky and Tom Tokar wade into chilly waters to check their oysters.

Norman Y. Lono

Each float has a mesh collection bag with oysters that have been set aside for controlled measurements. “Data collectors!” Drennan calls, and a team of white-gloved girls steps up the task.

A splash of muck clings to an ear as they gently brush their babies, measuring their growth like anxious mothers—“Oh, oh! Sixty millimeters!” “When we started, they were like this,” says dark-haired Shivonji, pinching her long fingernails together. “Now, they’re like this!” she says, flashing her palm. 

But the ones who have really grown are the students. “These are urban kids,” says Tokar, a Bayonne High School teacher. And, even though they’ve lived all their lives on an island, most are a lot more comfortable on concrete than water. But suddenly, they are also avid environmentalists, who care very much about the health of their oysters and the water around them.

Today, on a cloudy December day, they find four dead oysters. Out of 1,000, it’s not bad at all. But their empty shells are lined up on a wooden railing, solemnly photographed and remarked on.

“They were so young!”

New York custodian Peter Giangaspro is at the head of a growing movement to use greener products to clean school bathrooms, floors, and other surfaces.

Sara Heidinger

4. Clean up

Anyone visiting a school in Wappingers Falls, New York, may not notice the massive shift from the Industrial Age to the Green Age that is occurring there.

It’s subtle, happening just one classroom, one cleaning product at a time.

“We’re in a transitional phase,” says Peter Giangaspro, a 21-year veteran custodian who floats between classroom and district offices. “We’re moving toward more natural products that are safer for children and staff, but it’s a situation of quality and availability versus price.”

Since 2006, when New York became the first state to enact the Green Clean Schools Act for public and private schools, this shift has been steadily occurring. By law, districts are required to “protect health without harming the environment” by using environmentally friendly products to clean bathrooms, carpets, hard-floor surfaces, glass, and hands. Illinois adopted the act in 2008, with several other states considering similar legislation.

 “There’s a real movement on every front toward buying green products,” Giangaspro says. “We haven’t moved on to [everything] coming down the line, but we’ll get there.”

5. Pack a better lunch

Start with an insulated Bazura bag, made by a women’s co-op in the Philippines from recycled juice boxes—$19.95 at—and pair it with a reusable water bottle. Then, go to the farmer’s market. An apple a day will taste good, help the local economy, and cut down on the energy costs of shipping. To find a market or co-op near you, go to

Keep in mind that meat production accounts for nearly one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations climate-change panel. How about taking note of that fact with Meatless Mondays? Instead of ham and Swiss, slap together a PB&J.

6. Be Cool!

Let’s see…you drove a few miles to school this morning, stopped in the lounge to pour a cup of coffee and toss out your junk mail, then flipped on the fluorescents and heard the welcoming buzz of your classroom computers.

Ready for the kids? Because they’re here, and they have a message for you:

“Stop consuming so much energy!”

The cool kids from Redmond High School, under the direction of science teacher Mike Town, have designed a Cool School Challenge, which aims to help teachers step more lightly on the Earth. In 2007, its first year, Redmond’s carbon footprint was reduced by 46 tons—and its energy bills by $7,500. Last year, it was more than 100 tons.

The way it works is, students meet individually with every teacher to talk about energy consumption. You drive to school? Eight miles each way in a hooptie that gets 12 miles to the gallon? Take the bus and you’ll save…so many pounds of carbon, Ms. Smith. They also remind staff to turn off lights during planning periods or sunny days, switch to reusable cups and water bottles, and recycle.

The Cool School Challenge has proven so successful that Town’s students won a trip to the White House Rose Garden in 2007. Even more significantly, the program has been duplicated in dozens of schools, all of them contributing to an overall reduction in the kinds of gases that cause climate change.

But the real difference adds up when these kids grow up, Town says. “We really want the students to understand that the things they do in their lifetime have a real carbon consequence. Then they go out and educate their parents and friends to make changes in their homes, and then some day they’ll get their own homes and make the same changes. The multiplier effect is really huge—and that’s the real benefit.”

For more information, go to the Cool School Challenge site.

7. Lounge a little

First, stock the coffee pot with Fair Trade coffee for a jolt of eco-consciousness. Then, toss out the disposable cups and replace them with mugs. (Check out the provocative “global warming mug” from Uncommon Goods. It features a map of the Earth on its sides. Pour in hot coffee and watch the oceans rise.) And don’t forget a stash of Fair Trade chocolate for planning periods.

Tom Reese, The Seattle Times

8. Recycle. Duh!

Every day, Arizona teacher John Jung pedals 20 miles to and from school on his recumbent bicycle—a “La-Z-Boy on wheels.” He recycles, of course, cut his front lawn permanently in favor of desert plants that require zero water, and even cooks meals in a solar oven.

“Some of my kids think I’m weird,” he chuckles.

For Jung, “going green” isn’t just a

T-shirt slogan—it’s a way of life, and it’s one that the environmental science teacher wants to share with his students at Mesa High School. This year, with the goal of making environmental awareness a part of daily life, Jung and a team of his colleagues have launched a new recycling program.

It’s not Mesa’s first try. Nearly 15 years ago, an enthusiastic environmental club started out strong in recycling. But, as dedicated members dwindled, the task of picking up paper and plastics generated by a campus of 3,400 fell to just Jung and three students. “It’s overwhelming for four people,” Jung says. “You kind of give up.”

This time, with much broader campus support, Jung is hopeful—especially since he has a key community partner, the city of Mesa.

If you’re looking to start a recycling program at your school, Jung suggests partnering with other organizations or your municipality’s waste collection program, which can share valuable equipment. At Mesa, the city has donated dumpsters and offered its trucks to haul them away.

“Moving [the recyclables] off the school grounds is the real challenge,” Jung says. “Everyone is involved with throwing out trash. Everyone should be involved with the separating. And then let the trucks take care of the rest.”

Iurii Konoval

9. Plant a tree

Ohio’s chief tree-hugger is Findlay middle school teacher Gary Kapostasy, a one-man arborist on the banks of the Rocky Ford Creek in northwest Ohio, where Kapostasy has planted 8,000 trees during the past seven years.

“One at a time,” he says.

Kapostasy’s love for trees first grew years ago, back when he was working on a tree-climbing landscape crew at Ohio State University. “A guy dressed like an elf said to me, ‘Are you tired of pushing that lawnmower?’” Kapostasy recalls, and that invitation was the start of a vocation that he truly loved. “Unless the winds are high, the top of a tree is actually a very nice place to be.”

More recently, Kapostasy has turned his attention to the other end of the tree: the roots. Since 2001, he has dug 4,000 holes on his watershed farm—and he’s paid a private contractor to dig an equal number. That’s 8,000 saplings, all native to the flatlands of Ohio: white oak, red oak, chestnut, walnut, hazelnut, hickory, sycamore, pecan, tulip, black gum, sweet gum, cherry, choke cherry, serviceberry, crab apple, persimmon, bald cypress, and more.

Why plant a tree? Trees absorb carbon, which means they clean the air that you breathe, and also conserve soil and water. In northwest Ohio specifically, the trees that Kapostasy has planted will reduce the amount of sediment pollution in the western basin of Lake Erie. Plus, all produce food for local insects, birds, or mammals.

Be cool!

Courtesy Kidwind Project

10. Build a wind turbine

Is there a windy season in North Dakota?

“Every day,” laughs Grand Forks teacher Tim Schanz.

It billows across the Plains like an old iron horse, whistling and chugging with engine force— the kind of force that America needs to harness. Just two years ago, wind energy provided less than 1 percent of the country’s electricity, but by 2030, it’s expected to provide 20 percent, according to Colorado Wind for Schools.

Many school districts already are riding the headwinds: 24 states have schools with turbines on their property and more are on the way. They power up classrooms and provide learning opportunities for students. But you don’t have to build a 10-story turbine to teach kids about wind.

In Grand Forks, Schanz’s students build small-scale models, purchased from KidWind Project. They set them up in front of fans, so that they can control wind speed, and test different kinds of blades: balsa, cardboard, even paper plates. “This one got three volts—and that one just got two volts!” Schanz recounts.

Out on the highway, Schanz and his students sometimes see a locally made turbine blade on the back of a truck, heading to wind farms across the country. His kids know that’s the future right there.

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