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School and Student Transformation through Sustainability

A committee hard at work planning a conference scavenger hunt. A committee hard at work planning a conference scavenger hunt.

About three and a half years ago, I completed what I consider to be my biggest achievement as both an educator and an environmentalist - not simply because I happened to lead a successful eco-education event, but because the impacts of it were so profound and transformational for those involved. It was October of 2015, and the American School of Rio de Janeiro was hosting a Global Issues Network conference, an event that was two years in the making. Keynote speakers were brought in from around the world, student groups from across the Americas were in attendance to present their schools’ projects, travel and accommodations were organized, special meals were prepared, evening entertainment and excursions were arranged, a website and social media campaigns were created, and many other important details were fine-tuned. Final decisions and the overall execution were not done by me, or even by school administrators, but rather by eleven committees. And although these committees may have each included a few adults, they were in fact led by students. Over 300 visiting young people joined our approximately 150 host students for what turned out to be a truly remarkable three-day affair that sought to evaluate, discuss, and attempt to resolve the world’s inseparable social, political, economic, and environmental issues. Many great ideas were shared, and many educational and inspirational moments occurred. In the end, my school’s headmaster congratulated me on the quality of the event, and AASSA’s (Association of American Schools in South America) executive director even thanked me for what he called “a truly soulful experience.”

Rio GIN conference official logo.

Throughout both the planning and final orchestrating, I marveled at how the experience transformed those students who were the most engaged and took on the most responsibility. Class clowns become serious leaders to rally behind, anxious and controlling organizers exhibited calmness and flexibility, and typically-quiet followers discovered confident voices from center-stage. Students who were from opposing peer groups suddenly began collaborating and working together; they developed bonds and even empowered one another. All I had done was nudge certain students towards specific roles and trust them with real responsibilities.

Then, low-and-behold, over three years later I began reconnecting with some of these same students via social media and discovered that Carlos, the boy who was given the chance to lead daily conference mindfulness meditations, had traveled to India to undertake month-long retreats in monasteries. On a recent break from college, he even took the time to come visit my property to help with one of my many side projects - in this case, the construction of an earthbag and adobe stucco retaining wall (there’s a whole ‘nother article to be written about that!). Alice, the reserved girl who co-emceed the event and had been considering literature as a university major, now finds herself in a top university studying environmental economics with a passion for changing our failing human systems. Daniel, a natural comedian who morphed into a lion to rally his peers to serve as guides for visitors during the event, happens to be focusing on service and developing his leadership skills at the collegiate level. And Kevin, who took on the responsibility of organizing a conference fair for local non-profits, has already become quite an entrepreneur and philanthropist in his own right. He told me he intends to major in math, economics and philosophy after he completes his gap year. I joked with him about the possibility of him philosophically rationalizing and mathematically resolving the human invention of an economy based on both endless growth and finite resources. I was only half-joking, however. If anyone can do it, though, it will be Kevin.

GIN committee members posing just before the conference began.

Seeing the profound impact on my former students and the great things they’ve gotten involved in, it’s pretty hard to believe that three years prior to that conference, I hadn’t been able to find a single student in the school even remotely interested in ecological sustainability. We were using disposable plastic everywhere in the school cafeteria, not recycling, and wastefully consuming energy at alarming rates. Then, by the time the conference rolled around, we had switched to mostly all reusable products, implemented a recycling program, created a school garden and compost bin, integrated more energy-friendly lighting and A/C units, installed solar panels, and even built a green space for outdoor classes. So how were we as an institution able to make such a remarkable metamorphosis of culture in such a short amount of time?

The story actually begins with a different Global Issues Network conference - the one at Graded School in São Paulo in 2012. Although none of my students could be bothered to start an environmental club my whole first year of teaching in Rio (believe me, I pushed and prodded!), a handful of kids did like the idea of flying to São Paulo for a long weekend of “socializing” at another school, so I chaperoned the trip from Thursday evening through late Sunday night. The day after we arrived, something borderline miraculous happened. One of the boys, Vitor, who had gone on the trip, not only came to school the next day, but he approached me in my classroom and emphatically stated, “Mister (FYI, Brazilian students call all of their male teachers only Mister for some reason. In my five years at Rio, I was never able to break them of that habit), we need to do something. We need to start an eco club at this school! We’re wasting so much plastic and paper and energy everyday… we should at least have reusable water bottles for students here!”

A workshop on bamboo in EARJ’s green space.

“I know,” I remember replying. “I’ve been telling you this for over a year!” And with that, the six students that had attended the conference formed Rio’s first unofficial eco club. Those of you who have tried to make institutional changes in the name of sustainability probably know first-hand how difficult it can be to change mindsets at the top. Money is tight, time is short, and typically new initiatives mean more work and complications for administrators. So getting buy-in can be daunting, and my initial experience trying to get a dishwashing system and reusable cups, plates and cutlery for the cafeteria met an immediate roadblock my first year at the school. However, this second year I had six passionate students onboard, and together we created and rehearsed a research-based presentation that the kids then shared at a PTA meeting. Now the moms were on board, which meant there was no turning back, and within a year all of that disposable plastic in the cafeteria was gone (It’s worth noting that although Vitor had graduated before we hosted our GIN conference, he went on to implement a recycling program at his fraternity during his second year of college).

I helped the students establish an official eco club that by the end of the year had about 40 students, packing my classroom during meeting times. I divided them into three committees and limited them to three objectives for the following year, which were getting all students reusable water bottles, starting a recycling program, and creating a school garden. In every case, there was a degree of hesitation from above. Where would money come from for the bottles? Who would oversee the recycling, and who would manage the garden over the long-term? These are the types of questions that teachers who want to implement systemic change need to be ready to answer since administrators know that more often than not, money gets spent wastefully, as the culture continues on the way it always has. Also, new programs get created, then when the coordinating teacher leaves the school, those projects tend to just die off. Yet for us, in every case, the persistent student voice won out, and parental involvement and support kept initiatives moving forward. Each accomplishment built momentum, and students saw that they could alter the systems in which they live. They realized they could have actual impacts on the world around them.

GIN participants practicing mindfulness.

The final piece of the puzzle was philosophical - and I think this is the step where we often fall short as educators. At some point during my tenure, the eco club was given a slot to put on an assembly for the school. We brainstormed and created a framework during a meeting - we highlighted a few key issues, covered statistics, incorporated media, and concluded with some simple actions that all students could do to be better stewards of the environment. Then a few students were delegated to further develop and finalize the presentation. Yet, when it was all said and done, I still felt like we weren’t going deep enough, so I added a a section on spiritual ecology. At the next meeting when we viewed and revised the presentation, a discussion began that has since become the core of how I teach, not only ecological sustainability, but values and ethics in my courses in general. While the group didn’t care too much for the word “spiritual,” we had an open discussion and were able to unanimously agree that all matter, living or non-living, is the same substance at its core - a combination of light/consciousness and energy/vibration. Students were moved by the idea that we shouldn’t just care for the environment to preserve it for humans, but rather we should see the innate value in all life and recognize and respect its equal right to exist without human interference and disruption. After all, the only thing that separates us from plants and animals is, perhaps, just the frequency of our vibrations. We presented that philosophy to the entire school, and it was a wholesome and unifying experience that touched on what we as humans actually are in the scheme of things. And I believe that was the underlying belief that led to such wholehearted buy-in from our students when we began coordinating Rio’s Global Issues Network conference.

Christian Prendergast (Rio coordinator), Linda Sills (GIN coordinator), Paul Poore (ASSAA coordinator), and Ashley Sills (GIN coordinator) celebrating post-conference.

So if you’re a teacher who feels like you’re pushing against the grain to make your school community more environmental sustainable, don’t give up hope. These are the guidelines I would recommend:

  • Find and encourage a small core of committed students.
  • Create a strong, clear vision together.
  • Guide student efforts towards just one or a few achievable goals at a time.
  • Engage parents and administrators with students’ voices - not just your own.
  • Place the right students in the right situations to be able to push their boundaries and grow.
  • Find a unifying belief that you can all rally behind - one that isn’t human-centered.

What I observed was students organically creating their own educational experiences together, and my job was essentially just to help guide their vision and not to let their “spark” get extinguished by obstacles along the way. Additionally, I came to realize that it is through student choice-based, project-based and team-based experiences which place responsibility on students to work together to create and deliver something of real world significance, that students are challenged to reach, not just my teacher expectations for a grade on a report card, but rather their actual human potentials.

* The names of the students in the article have been modified to protect their identities.

Christian Prendergast

Christian Prendergast is a high school English teacher with a passion for engaging students in ecological sustainability and ethics. He has taught at the American School of Rio de Janeiro, helped to found an educational surf-related non-profit in northern Peru, and created an eco/adventure guesthouse on the coast of São Paulo state, Brazil. Christian currently teaches at Hawaii Preparatory Academy on The Big Island of Hawaii.