What Makes a School Green?
Editor's Note: Michael Cruse, Special Education ESL teacher at the Arlington Career Center, in Arlington, VA, recently traveled to Israel through the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. While there, he explored different models of green schools. Here is what he learned.
By guest blogger Michael Cruse
What makes a school "green?" There may be as many answers as there are shades of the color. Since joining my school district's sustainability committee, I have been studying the different projects and practices happening across our 39 buildings. With a portfolio of schools ranging from ones built in the 1940s, to the first—and largest—net-zero energy school in the Mid-Atlantic in the U.S., I learned firsthand how differently schools think about educating students for more sustainable futures. I have also explored how we educate students about environmental sustainability nationally, through programs like the U.S. Department of Education's Green Ribbon Schools. And internationally, I explored the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include resources specifically for K-12 educators to address issues of climate change and environmental sustainability. Learning more about these internationally focused goals led me to apply to the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching (DAT) program for the chance to see how schools across Israel's different communities reflect their values on some of the world's most fragile landscapes.
Examples from Israel
During my time visiting schools throughout Israel, I saw a variety of programs that exemplified elements of the SDGs. There is the Bat Yam Farm for Agriculture and Environmental Education in urban Tel Aviv, a working farm run by students, teachers, volunteers, and young adults completing an alternative to their mandatory military service. The Afek School—a Globe Program School, which is part of a partnership with researchers at Colorado State University, teaches elementary students to become citizen scientists by recording and tracking climate data for professional scientists. The Ecological Greenhouse in Kibbutz Ein-Shemer is a research center for socio-ecological studies, conducted by leading Israeli artists, scientists, and students, with a focus on addressing the needs of their small countries' booming population growth. The Environmental High School, a residential school located on the Negev desert plateau, immerses students in Israel's many unique ecologies, with a mission of providing students direct contact with nature, and the resources to learn to care for it.
Creating Shared Spaces Across Communities
While the pedagogical approaches in these programs mirrored many of those used in the U.S. to educate students about energy use, water access, and pollution, they also acknowledged a reality not often addressed in the U.S.—the impact of race and religion on our beliefs about the environment. While perceptions of environmental education differed between Jewish and Arab communities, the issues facing Israel are real. A growing population means an increased demand for energy, largely driven by the need for desalination of salt water from the ocean. Population growth also means the need for more food production, more land for development, and more trash to manage. This is something that all communities share a responsibility to address. The degree of reflection around these impacts on the environment varied between communities, from simply acknowledging others' perspectives, to creating space for honest dialogue between different communities to address grievances, inequities, and ideas for shared, sustainable solutions. What I valued most was finding examples of educational practice focused on creating shared spaces and giving voice to the environment as a tool for peacebuilding between different racial and religious communities.
In Israel, the terms "co-existence" and "shared existence" largely refer to programs seeking to build bridges between Palestinian and Jewish communities. I saw examples of this in community gardens where different Jewish ethnicities, both religious and non-religious, worked plots alongside Christian and Muslim Arabs. Members of all ages tended their plots side-by-side, growing an equally diverse array of fruits and vegetables. Once a month, they came together to celebrate with community meals, where each group contributed items from their garden for a potluck dinner.
These efforts to create shared community around physical spaces may not always achieve the goals of reducing tensions about what makes us different, but they serve as reminders that despite these differences, we must teach students to learn to live in communities that they are responsible for protecting and preserving through more sustainability-focused education. One of my favorite quotes by John Muir, chronicler of the Western U.S. and founder of the Sierra Club, is: "One touch of nature makes all the world kin."In one of the most contested regions in modern history, despite the political and religious boundaries that continue to separate communities, I found hope in seeing students investing in learning to become better stewards of the land—and their futures.
Reflections on Sustainability at Home
The Fulbright DAT program requires fellows to complete a culminating project. Since coming back to work at my school and reflecting on how my experiences in Israel translate into my teaching, I realized that the best lessons about sustainability are actually about people. That can be in their classroom, on the playground, at home, or in the community. My project is starting with student-designed crosswalk art installations on two elementary school campuses. The goal is to expand on the district's existing walk- and bike-to-school routes by highlighting students' involvement in the process and giving them a voice to show others what makes their school community great. By making the commute to and from school more engaging for students and their families, we are encouraging them to consider more sustainable behaviors in the future.
The environment is a gift we must learn to share, share in its joys and wonders, and also in its care and stewardship. Our nation's most patriotic songs celebrate the beauty of its natural environments, uniting us as a country of diverse origins, and religions. Each morning, students across the US are asked to pledge allegiance to the flag. While our nation struggles to reconcile the ideologies of our founders with issues of equity, students are making their own choices about what matters. I am hopeful that we can create more spaces for them to reflect on what they value in their physical environments, and develop skills to lead community-based discussions about everyone's role in championing these places.