Going Green

Inspiration for our Green Hope Group: Field trip to Al Baydha

Al Baydha: A prototype for settling the nomadic people of Saudi Arabia by providing ecological and economical stability through greening of their desert. Ultimately the Bedu people of this region will live off the land they are developing.

About 20 of us clamor onto the bus and shortly teenage rock music fills our space and the desert landscape scattered with camels expands out before us. Two and a half hours later and hundreds of kilometers of sand behind us we finally turn onto a narrow dirt leading to our destination, a lone building surrounded by a burgeoning farm scape. The women in the group all don their abaya and hijab. Several girls chose not to join us due to the clothing requirement so kudos to those who are with us today.


We are the first school group to visit Al Baydha. Our host, Neal Spackman, guides us upstairs to an open-air room of the isolated structure on the property. We seat ourselves comfortably and receive an introduction to this project site.

We study the greening desert immediately surrounding us and note the harsh and barren geography beyond the boundaries of Al Baydha. The  pigeon house, the terrace garden, the dams, and the swales are visible from our viewpoint. We eagerly head out to walk around the site and see the different aspects of the project close up. The students are part of the Green Hope group at school and have visions of making a difference in the world through their environmentally conscious efforts. They are here today to learn about a farming project that actually is building the local water reservoir.

A walk through the swale shows us an area blooming with flowering plants and alive with trees and shrubs. Just outside the swale lies rocks and sand, undisturbed by life. The students are stunned that a simple change in geography (basically building a ditch) can make such a difference. This swale traps water and allows it to absorb into the ground, adding water to the reserves below the surface. The stored water sustains the plant life that provides oils for the local people to sell and animal forage, ground cover, etc. to the developing ecosystem.


The bat cave has been sealed up, waiting for more bats to arrive and for guano to accumulate.

The bat cave is next on the tour. The Bedu workers are proud of this structure and pose for us. One week after the construction of this cave, bats were already sighted within and thousands are expected to eventually reside here. The bats will serve to eat mosquitos and flies and will provide their nitrogen rich guano for fertilization.


The Green Hope Group with Neal Spackman and his workers. On top of the bat cave.

When questioned whether they want to see the dams, the students do not hesitate to accept the offer. Off we march up the hills to observe the dam structure. Again, it is clear that the Bedu workers are proud of the results of their hard labor and eagerly lead the way up the hillside.

Our tour takes us past the pigeon house where pigeons exist without any feeding or maintenance. We climb up onto the garden terraces and step across lush greenery, a rare and amazing experience here in the harsh climate of Saudi Arabia. Here we end our tour with one last view of the project from the terraces.

Back on the bus, the women hastily shed their outerwear and position themselves under the relief of the air conditioning. A student exclaims, “It’s hard to believe that such a place exists here in Saudi Arabia.” The other students nod and utter agreement.

A peace settles in among us.  Climate change can be battled and water can be conserved. Awareness, in already broad-minded students, has been increased. A vision of possibilities has been provided. What a gift to have found this little pocket of hope in Saudi Arabia!

Would you like to know more?

Here is the Al Baydha web page (http://www.albaydha.org/)

And find Neal Spackman’s blog  here (http://www.twovisionspermaculture.com/). His blog describes his 5-year journey with the Al Baydha project.






Getting dirty, service learning, and more inspiration

Garbage Audit #2 

Once again the space is scheduled and the supplies are stacked. Pupils have planned and prepared for this proceeding.

We meet at 15:15 in my room and the plan is put into motion. The students split up into groups collecting trash, spreading tarps, and organizing bins.

Finally it is time to don the gloves, open the bags and start sorting! The goal is to compare the results to last year’s audit and see if any improvements can be observed based on the implementation of the team’s proposals. Additionally, the students are focusing this year on the organic waste to determine how much of it is compostable

The most unusual discoveries? How about an entire briefcase with two phones in it? The bag of perfectly usable clothes? The intact mugs? The functioning umbrella?

The students are having fun. The sorted contents are analyzed. Data is recorded. Ideas for the proposals are formulating. They are disgusted, especially as they tackle the cafeteria waste, but they are still laughing. It’s 18:20 and we are nearly done.  We clean up and store a huge container to be wheeled off to the recycling station in the morning.

The next day data analysis begins. The data from last year is retrieved and comparisons begin to form. Have we made a change? An initial look suggests that there has been change! However, we’re still waiting for the final results.

One thing is for sure: there is satisfaction for the involved students. They feel ownership in the environmental status of their school. They are absolutely intrigued with the outcomes of the audit. They are eager to determine how to further reduce waste and energy usage at the school. The act of physically being involved makes the concept of Going Green so much more real. It spawns ideas. It inspires.

Oh yes, and it’s messy! Allow the students (and yourself) to get dirty. It will provide new inspiration and further ideas for service learning!

Graceless Green

The intermingling aromas of French fries and spring rolls from the cafeteria diffuse throughout my room. Stacked boxes await attention. Bites of lunch are snatched in between refolding boxes, sealing edges, digging through recycled paper bins for colored paper, and labeling the assembled bins.  Joyous chatter permeates the classroom. And soon a stack of boxes labeled for recycling plastic, paper, and markers has reached the ceiling of my classroom.

With glee the students began an orderly distribution of their bins throughout the school.  With five minutes to spare, exuberant students retrieve their backpacks and shuffle off to class expressing satisfaction with their accomplishment.

At first my heart is filled with skepticism for our inelegant approach. Would we create a shabby image for our school with cardboard boxes scattered throughout?  However, as I amble through the hallways noting their work I realize that their approach is, indeed, truly in the spirit of “Going Green”. The bins are 100% recycled! And they don’t look so bad. Suddenly my heart is brimming with pride for my little Going Green Group and their enthusiastic efforts for change.

We have all disbursed for the holidays but as New Year’s resolutions abound, perhaps you’ll consider taking a step towards a “greener” New Year?!? 

P.S. I had pictures but I've lost them! I'll take some more and add them later, once we've returned to school...

Becoming an Eco-School

Two men in suits stand engrossed in conversation.  They immediately turn to me and, switching from Dutch to English, offer welcoming handshakes as I cross the threshold of the room. The meeting is scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes and the table is prepared with coffee and tea and seats for ten people. My greeters are the host of this event and the country-head of Eco-Schools.

The others trickle in and we gather cozily around the table that fills the small room. Seven people represent three schools that are already accredited with Eco-Schools, and are proud displayers of the Eco-Schools Green Flag. Another woman, like me, is from a school that is in the initial phase of accreditation. She and I are here to gain as much information as possible about the accreditation process as well as ideas for a successful Green Program at our schools.

My jaw nearly drops to the table when a parent representative describes their six eco-groups in the secondary school, totalling 70 students. The elementary school boasts another 130 participants in grades 2-5. Others around the table are impressed and the representatives kindly remind us that they’ve been doing this for six years. Furthermore, their student numbers are about five times ours. They share amazing ideas and projects that are taking place at their school.

What is the secret? “Green is fun…” the parent explains, “It’s cool. It’s popular.”

It was a bit daunting to see the work the other schools had completed, but it was also inspiring. As they questioned me about the work our small green team has completed, they were very complimentary, and even impressed, reminding me that it isn’t about he numbers, it’s about the mindset and the process.

Our little group started out with four student-members and two teachers last year. Now we claim twelve active student-participants, a strong parent contributor, and five teacher supporters. Our projects include but are not limited to

  • A garbage audit that resulted in several proposals to reduce waste at the school which we are in the process of implementing. Mug racks for the teacher’s lounge have been completed and will be installed soon in order to reduce plastic cup waste at the school. Money has been raised to purchase water bottles for all students and eliminate plastic bottles and disposable drink containers. Our goal this year is to add plastic recycling, in addition to the paper recycling, bins in all the rooms at the school.
  • A goal to separate all the cafeteria waste so that the food can be hauled off separately for recycling in addition to all paper and plastic. This should drastically reduces our trash waste.
  • Lights Off Fridays and Warm Sweater Days increase awareness and also lower the school’s energy usage.

The students are ambitious and have a huge list of things they’d like to accomplish. From the eco-schools meeting I obtained a host of additional ideas for our group to consider. This Friday we will meet to decide exactly what we want to focus on for our short and long range goals this year and into the future.

Of a few things I am certain. One is that our initiative is important. We have an obligation to our Earth and future generations to protect the world we live in. There are people associated with our school (parents and/or other community members) that will be interested in joining our group and providing more ideas and manpower to help us progress forward, we just need to find them.

Our school will benefit from becoming an environmentally sustainable school. The benefits are likely to extend into areas of community image, appeal to knew families, energy savings, school unity, and general feeling at the school.

Being surrounded by teachers who share a passion for sustainability bolstered me up and strengthened me in the pursuit of building the Green Program at our school. Their programs have gained momentum and support over time, also having begun with the simple garbage audit a few years ago, like we did last year. I think our program is on the same path of growth.

We will collaborate together as regional eco-schools to have our students meet each other and join forces in sustainable efforts. I look forward to this association and to the support it will provide our program. After all, there is strength in numbers, right?

If you’re interested in more sustainable life, go for it! If you’re interested in helping your school or organization become more sustainable, go for it!  It’s worth it, of that I am certain.

Green Fun Night

A group of students has monopolized the bench space and availability of my classroom in order to perfect the art of making recycled paper. The last few weeks have brought recycled goods to my classroom that are stacked on the windowsill and lab benches. Craft samples of refurbished glassware into vases, candleholders, and bracelets are scattered throughout the room. Bins of soaking bottles pepper the lab benches. Excited students stop in throughout the day to check on their projects. The room is teeming with preparation!

This is event is different from others organized at the school. Our Going Green Team that is a student driven organization sponsors it. Unlike our school science fair, this event is organized by and will be conducted by the students.

At some point the students realize a need to advertise the event more effectively as our school newsletter doesn’t seem to be reaching families. They agree to visit all the elementary classes announcing the Green Fun Night in an enthusiastic and inviting manner. Furthermore, 6th graders see the recycled paper project in action when they come to science class and all exclaim, “Oh, I’m definitely going”. But not one single person has responded to the R.S.V.P.

Then there are the student presentations. We’ve asked to see the Power Point and hear what they want to say but several deadlines have come and gone and there’s still nothing. When do the students actually put the presentations together? Well, one person has it done the day before but the other two groups are working on their presentation an hour before the event begins!

The entire two days before the “Green Fun Night” is spent in preparation. By the time Tuesday night arrives, my room is in complete chaos. I seriously wonder if it will every be returned to normal again. But boy are the students excited. They beam with confidence and are eager to teach their “trade” to the school community.

Our Green Team students are juggling drama, sports, debate club, IB schedules as well as this Green Fun Night. They also have never organized an event to this scale before and don’t really know what it entails. They are doing the best they know and they seek to follow our guidance to the best of their ability. Finally we gather in the cafeteria, an hour before the event is to begin. We are basically ready. The students devour the pizza we ordered. The presenters quickly practice and make some modest changes. And then everyone positions themselves for the night.

As the students begin their presentations on the South Africa trip; the accomplishments of the Green Team last year; and the progress and plans of the Green Team for this year disappointment battles for a place in my heart. There are only a handful of people in attendance. Will it indeed, be a night with no participants? However, by the time the festivities begin, there is a crowd. After the presentations the students quickly assemble themselves at their “booths”:

  • Making recycled paper from scrap paper
  • Bowling with recycled bottles
  • Origami from scrap paper
  • Decorating recycled glass bottles with paint, string, and/or feathers and sparkles.
  • Trivia Game on green activities at the school (answer the questions for a free popcorn)
  • Organic Smoothies
  • Fundraising

A parent approaches me and tells me that her daughter awoke that morning and exclaimed, ‘Today is going to be a good day because there’s a party tonight at school!” This parent admitted having not planned on attending but due to her daughter’s enthusiasm changed her mind. She followed up with “What did you do to advertize?” Then I realize that the students’ efforts in the elementary school did indeed have an effect.

In the end, despite some glitches, the evening turned out to be a big success. Students and parents were engaged. All had fun. Awareness was raised.

One of the goals in becoming an eco-school is to educate the community and raise awareness and we certainly accomplished that at our Fun Night. We also made a start to our fundraising goals, in that we made a small profit despite a huge receipt for the ingredients for the organic smoothies. Going green should be fun. It should be cool. And hopefully we’ve begun to spread that word to our school community.

A thought on practicing what you teach

Here are some stereotypes for you. English teachers pride themselves in grammatically correct emails, texts, and tweets. Educators of math are exact and methodical. Teachers in the arts are creative, interesting, and dynamic.  PE instructors and coaches are athletic and encouraging. History teachers extrapolate advice from past events applicable to current day experiences. You can mention any country in the world and the social studies or geography teacher can tell you where it is. And, science teachers are analytical, employing the use of the scientific method in everything they do.

Not only am I a science teacher, but my focus is biology and that affixes further considerations to my life. The Green Initiative at the school is really important to me. My family eats mostly organic. We recycle. Our car spends 95% of the time parked in front of our house and we’re in the process of getting rid of it, as we tend to opt for our bikes or public transportation. Two weeks of my summers are dedicated to taking students on conservation based ecology research expeditions, mostly because I want to “spread the word” and I feel greatest change will come from the younger generation. When traveling, I consider the impact of our journey.  Basically, the things I teach pervade our lives.

So, my effort to live what I teach has just been taken to the next level. Our high school students have been challenged to participate in the Project Green Challenge.  For whatever reason, it seemed realistic to me to support the effort by joining the challenge. Eagerly I entered my information and signed up.  Well, the first challenge came through today in the form of an email.  I decided to do both the “Green” and “Greener” challenges.  It took me probably an hour (though the “Green” realistically only took about 15 minutes). Now worry fills me to think I might have committed to an hour each night for an entire month. That’s a lot of time!

Surprizingly, I learned a great deal from my endeavor. Do you know what the “Euro-Leaf” is and means? Were you aware that there is organic nail polish remover? My little projects veritably increased my awareness of organic products and instilled a greater desire to purchase organic especially in the areas of hygiene and cleaning supplies. So, it was worth it, tonight at least. It will be interesting to see where this month leads me. Will I regret my attempt to practice what I teach?  I hope not!

Anyone else care to join?  You can do anything for a month, right? Sign up here.

Fundraising for a Good Cause: Going Green

Reducing plastic waste by providing water bottles for all students.

“Oh my goodness! I made the best cookies I’ve ever made last night!” A 17-year-old teenage boy jumps up and down and squeals with excitement continuing, “Dr. Markham you’ll be so impressed”. My laughter is suppressed but a huge smile emerges. His utter delight is absolutely precious.

“My Mom and I made the best carrot cake ever!” claims another as she proudly places down her cake and cupcakes on the table.

The baked goods pour in and students, with great pride and excitement, place their items on the table.  Teachers have also generously contributed and they gingerly position their goods. They are more critical of their own donations, always “confessing” how they might have “cheated” on the recipe.  They are reminded that the only requirement was “organic” and they walk away smiling as they have, indeed, met that requirement.

We sell from 8:00 – 8:20 and then again during the break from 9:50 -10:00.  We are surprised that our little effort has already generated nearly 100 Euros.  Elementary and Secondary lunch brings us close to 200 Euros and then the after school time slot generated some more, to be counted for a final tally on Monday.  For our small school with a student body of under 200 students (Pre-K through 12th), we were thrilled with these results.

Along with our raffle in the spring, we’ve very likely raised the needed funds to provide a water bottle to all 1st – 12th graders, eliminating the need to purchase water bottles and significantly reducing plastic waste at the school.

Our entire Green Group is elated with this progress thus the momentum for our “Going Green” initiative is building. A good strong group of students who are truly passionate about being green and who are eager to be involved in every way invigorates me.

So, what was needed for our successful organic bake sale?

  • A good cause – I think it helps that is was for a local, school cause.
  • Eager student and teacher bakers (all of our Green Team participated and I sent out an email inviting all staff to participate)
  • Sharing of ideas where to purchase the organic ingredients (thankfully, in the Netherlands that is easy)
  • Approval from the admin and our cafeteria manager
  • Request for tables from our Facilities Department
  • A cash box with some change
  • Student volunteers and one teacher per selling session
  • A camera to document
  • Email notifications to staff and parents
  • A blurb in our morning announcements all week
  • Posters (made from paper from the recycling bins, of course!) advertising the bake sale and it’s cause
  • A price list

Why am I always surprised by the amount of work these events puts on us, the involved teachers? Of course, this feat was pulled off with the help of four teachers other than myself (not including teacher bakers). It felt like my entire day was spent at that bake sale with breaks to go teach my students. Not to mention the preparation meetings with students, emails, reminders, and general foot-work.

It’s worth it though. It’s marvellous to foster a passion in students and to see them awaken in their success. Thus, don’t be discouraged when faced with the workload of “a good cause” because you’re cultivating caring, arousing awareness, and stimulating independence. And truly, it IS worth it.

Science Fair Reflections

“I have to admit, as we walked out the door, I was really dreading the evening” a parent confided, “I thought it would be so boring, but then I was so surprised. The students knew what they were talking about and I actually learned something.  It was really good.” 

Due to my absence at the Science Fair, I have had to rely on colleagues, judges and parents for their input regarding the final product of the event itself.  Only positive responses have been relayed to me.  Basically the words “huge success” are repeatedly echoed.  Additionally, the student reflections have been insightful.  All pupils were required to ponder on all aspects of the project from start to finish:

  • Choosing a topic
  • Researching (Finding articles, understanding articles)
  • Transferring information from the Internet into their own written words
  • Blogging
  • Combining all written work into one piece
  • Constructing the Poster
  • Presenting at the Science Fair

Thus were they queried:

What did you enjoy most?  What was most challenging?  What did you learn? What are you most proud of?  How hard did you work? What would you do differently?  How could the teacher have supported you better?

Each student found different aspects of the project most challenging, whether it was the researching, blogging, poster construction, or the presentation.  However, many students found the researching difficult and especially the task of reading and extracting pertinent information. 

On the Science Fair itself:

“I could see how curious they were and when I presented it, it felt good to see them fascinated”

“I am most proud of my presentation during the Science Fair”

“…it was exciting to see all of our hard work come together and make something great.”

“I was surprised by how much I had learned and how well I could communicate it to others”

“Understanding the information made me really proud, then being able to teach others about it also made me very proud”

On other aspects of the project:

“I also enjoyed having my own blog and posting my research on the blog”

I learned that I need to tell my parents to begin to be a bit more green in my house.

Overwhelmingly the students responded with “3”, providing reasoning, to the question below:

How hard did you work on this project? Estimate your personal input on a scale (highlight the option) and explain why you selected the option.

  1. I did the absolute minimum and could have done much more. The quality of the project doesn’t at all represent my ability level.
  2. I worked on the project but sometimes I was distracted or off-task. The quality of the project doesn’t fully represent my ability level.
  3. I worked on the project and stayed on task, I think that the quality of the project fully represents my ability level.
  4. I worked harder than I ever have before, I stayed focused on the project at all times, I did my absolute best. I think that the quality of the project exceeds my own expectations.

When thinking of what they could do better, many suggested that they would start sooner and not get behind.  Others would have practiced their presentations more.  Yet others would have worked on their posters more. 

Half way into the project my colleague and I realized how unequipped the students were for this type of research work.  We floundered to help them.  Many felt adequately supported, yet there were several who felt similarly to this student:

“I think the teacher could help me get started off. The teacher could give me a good piece of information on the topic so that I can get an idea of the work I can do”

We did have to help some students find appropriate articles and we had to help many understand the articles and extract the information. In the future we envision a more collaborative effort with English and History on such a project as students still need to learn the process of research.

However, in the end, the hard work paid off.   Students learned about global warming and were converted to the need for change and definitely communicated this to visitors that night.  They also learned about the process of research and public presentation.  There is an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.  Surprisingly, community members also walked away from the evening with new knowledge.  The judges were impressed with the amount and depth of understanding that the youngsters had acquired.  I do attribute the success of the evening to the fact that the theme had such real world application and it carried meaning for the students. As a result they, indeed, had acquired abundant knowledge and conveyed genuine enthusiasm. 

How I yearn to fill every class with such purpose.  What gives the students you work with meaning in learning?

The Ups and Downs of the Science Fair Journey

What a roller coaster ride this year's Science Fair has provided us! 

EMOTIONAL HIGH: Our idea for the science fair was conceived towards the end of the last school year.  Coupling the Science Fair with the Going Green initiative at the school seemed genius.  We envisioned school unity as elementary and secondary schools embarked on the Going Green journey.  A conceptualization of parents, students, and community members participating in the Science Fair event settled into our minds and we knew it would “be awesome”.

IMMEDIATE CONFIRMATION BOOST:  When we introduced the topic, students were completely drawn into the Going Green theme.  Students from years past rejoiced at receiving a reprieve from the typical experiment and report Science Fair.  My colleague and I were convinced that this would be the best science fair ever.

SMALL SETBACK:  Realization hit that the students need guidance in every single step of creating a web site and beginning to blog.  Burning the midnight oil one night I created two podcasts, one for creating a web site and one for creating a blog post.  My colleague and I came up with some blogging guidelines.  Hope returned.

EMOTIONAL HIGH: The initial thrill for blogging enveloped both the students and us, the teachers. I even posted about what an incredible experience the blogging was turning out to be.

DISCOURAGEMENT: As we moved deeper into the project we realized that students simply weren’t equipped to truly research their topics or to find appropriate articles that they could actually understand!  Late nights once again rescued us as we helped students find the articles they needed to begin understanding the topics they selected.

HOPELESSNESS: The writing skills were as weak as the research skills!  Once students reached a point of understanding and could articulate their topic, they still needed a lot of support to put it into the written word.  At this point we’re starting to think that the students will never be ready for the fair.  It seems like an impending disaster and our hope of a successful event vanishes.

HOPE RETURNS: Receiving a lot of support, some of the written work begins to make sense.  The students are making creative blog sites, finding their voice and forming opinions.  We are left with a sense that it might be OK.

DISPAIR: The assignment is to put all of the blog posts together into one document and edit them so they “tell a story”.   We gave some explicit guidelines thinking it was straightforward.  Even the learning support teachers that help in the classroom commented on how clear the instructions seemed to be.  However, the results were a disaster.  Excessive repetition.  Nonsensical phrases.  Contradictions. Plagiarism.  How could this ever be rectified and come together such that students could print out their work and construct posters?  It’s going to be terrible!

EXPECTATIONS LOWERED: We decide to cut out the “Abstract” component of the poster.  We allow Middle School students to cut and paste the URL’s in the Bibliography rather than compiling APA format as expected in High School.  We start to make comments on all those Google documents.  We set up appointments with students.  We consult.  We resist the temptation to simply rewrite their text.

HOPE RETURNS: Students respond positively to their comments and sincerely make efforts to improve their work.  It starts to look like they might pull it together. 

DISPAIR and HOPE: Some students are still struggling with understanding.  We modify.  They smile and demonstrate sufficient knowledge.  They’re eager.  Their confidence and enthusiasm instills hope again.

HOPE and DISPAIR and HOPE: The students are so excited to put their posters together.  Today they start construction.  They print.  They cut.  They paste. They become creative.  They consider their presentation and make some adjustments in their order, seeking confirmation. It’s exciting.  A beaming student holds up a finished poster that she’s clearly proud of.  The placement of the text blocks is crooked and irregularly spaced.  Suddenly the room is full of smudges, tilted titles, and unevenly cut images, despite the presence of four paper cutters.  I search for the positive and give encouragement.  Then, the classroom is quiet.  The posters sit silently on the table. I start to leaf through them and am seriously relieved to notice that the High School posters are, indeed, more advanced than the middle school posters.  I read through all of them.  I realize they aren’t that bad.  I reflect back and remember the students carefully doing what they perceive as their best work and suddenly I feel better.  It’s going to be OK, I think.

During this entire process my colleague experiences the same cyclical roller coaster.  Fortunately, whenever she comes to me exclaiming, “This is going to be a disaster”, I’m feeling pretty good about it and assure her, “No, it will be OK”.  And when I’m feeling the despair she’s hopeful and encourages me on.  Every now and then our highs and lows coincide and we either rejoice or commiserate together.

The greater school community has received an invitation to attend the Science Fair. Posters announcing the event cheerfully decorate the hallways and stairwells.  Today guidelines for the judges, instructions for the students on the night of the fair, and student certificates printed from the big machine downstairs.  The judges’ clipboards sit assembled in the “Science Fair Box”.  The guest speaker is secured.  Our cafeteria business has committed to running that evening, featuring “Eco-friendly” food.  The facilities management team has confirmed its role for the night.  There’s no turning back.

On Friday the students will supposedly practice their presentations.  That could go either way.  On my end there’ll surely be times of panic interspersed with moments of assurance.  Next Tuesday night is the actual Science Fair.  Either a report of success or failure will follow.  Wish us luck!

Balance as students, teachers, people

My 6th grade class is currently completing a unit within the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC) titled “Balance”.  The big idea of the unit is  “Things are more stable when different elements are in the correct of best possible proportions” (1).

Coupled to our global-warming themed Science Fair, these students are investigating an animal that is threatened by global warming and analyzing the ramifications of the given animal disappearing from the food chain.  In preparation for this task, they viewed a short video (see below) on the impact of wolves in Yellow Stone National Park (2).

After watching the film I opened up a general discussion with “So what did you think?”  Immediately, a student responded with “It’s like the wolves provide balance to the entire ecosystem”.  As always, my 6th graders were duly impressed and expressed appropriate wonderment.  I love that about them.  In any case, it jump started them in their own research about their threatened species.

Furthermore, it gave them perspective on the exit point they are doing for the IMYC unit: Working individually, they are to create a “person web” (kind-of like a food web), with themselves at the center.  Branching out from themselves will be all of their classmates.  They are to identify a characteristic of each classmate that brings balance to their learning environment. It will be a surprise to the group when each presents.

This idea of balance is such an important concept.  We also teach it at the IB level claiming that IB learners are “Balanced” and that “we understand the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives – intellectual, physical, and emotional- to achieve well-being for ourselves and others.  We recognize our interdependence with other people and with the world in which we live” (3).

I hope that we, as teachers and adults, also teach this principle of balance by our examples.  It is an area that I have personally struggled with but am improving in.  Here are ways I seek balance in my own life:

  1. I prioritize time with my family.  We eat together and we do things together. 1:1 time with each person in the family involves date-nights with my husband, roller-blading with my 12-year old, dog walks and market visits with my daughter, and watching the “Walking Dead” series with my teenage son. 
  2. I exercise.  I run, especially when school isn’t in session.  Biking to and from work is my main mode of commuting.
  3. I write!  A few times a year I attend the Amsterdam Writer's Workshop (4) and I've committed myself to writing everyday.  I’ve started this blog.
  4. I read.  I find time to read novels and literature pertaining to education.

If I don’t do these things, I spend all my time on lesson planning, grading, and trying to make things better for the next time.  Since every lesson can always be better in some way, this could become a completely obsessive habit.  There have been times when I have worked from 19:00 – 24:00 every night.  And that is not balanced.  

My 2014 resolution was to break that habit and I have! 

How do you keep balance in your life?  Add your comments below.


(1) http://www.greatlearning.com/imyc/the-imyc/units-of-work

(2) http://youtu.be/ysa5OBhXz-Q

(3)  http://www.ibo.org/myib/digitaltoolkit/files/pdfs/learner-profile-en.pdf

(4) http://amsterdamwriting.com/



What motivates Students? - Real Purpose

A scene from last year's science fair, which was a more traditional event in which students presented data and results from self-conducted experiments.

A scene from last year's science fair, which was a more traditional event in which students presented data and results from self-conducted experiments.

This year we are trying a new idea for the Science Fair.  In conjunction with the Going Green initiative at the school, students will be presenting an evening on the topic of Global Warming.  Each student has selected a specific aspect related to one of the following subtopics: evidence for, causes of, results of, or solutions for global warming and/or climate change

This week I probed whether the middle school students understood a “big idea” of their own topic as well as the overall theme of the Science Fair.  I was pleased to hear that most of them (not all) did, indeed, understand their own topic and how it fit into the bigger picture of the science fair theme.

Furthermore, I surveyed the middle school students in different classes to determine what they thought the purpose of the actual science far was. To my surprise the following three purposes repeated themselves in each class:

Last year students also presented to the greater school community.

  • “I want to “Wow” them with my  knowledge”


  • “I want to inform them”


  •  “I want to inspire them to live green.”


Wow.  Seriously?  Could I ask for any better self-defined purposes from a set of 11 – 14-year old students?  I think this explains the scene during my last middle school class on the last school day before the break:

It was gorgeous and sunny outside. The students entered my classroom directly after lunch during which they had been playing wall ball and running around out of doors.  Their flushed faces exuded joy and anticipation of the upcoming Spring Break.  I immediately regretted not having an experiment for them to do.  How would they ever settle down and become focused on their science fair blog?  I debated a last minute change in plans but knew we needed to press forward with the projects.  Minimally my plan was to determine the progress of each student  before the 10-day hiatus from anything remotely academic. 

To my surprise, these little 6th graders whipped out their computers and immediately accessed their blogs.  First came the exuberance over the statistics, “I’ve had seventy-five page views!” “I’ve had over a hundred!” and so on until everyone had shared.   Then, to work they went.  By the end of the class every single student was current with our science fair timeline and had worked ahead, nearly completing the research required for the blog due three days after our return from the break!  Not only that, but the blog posts actually look pretty good!  I was thrilled.  Literally thrilled.

The last two weeks before the science fair will still be a crunch, especially helping them to get all their information into poster form, however, as of now it seems manageable! 

We will have judges this year like we did last year.  Bringing in experts from "the outside" raises the bar.

I attribute the momentum to their intrinsic motivation to “Wow people with knowledge”, “inform”, and “inspire”.  Where does this come from?  I think it has to do with the fact that they have truly been swept into the reality of global warming and perceive it as an actual problem that relates to them.  They sense that they can potentially make a difference in the world.   Additionally, they were allowed to choose the specific topic they will focus on for the science fair.  Finally, they feel responsibility in anticipating their roles as teachers of the greater school community at the science fair.   This project has real-world application and their presentations on the night of May 13th will be real-time with real people (other than their teachers) resulting in the process being a bona fide learning experience in every way.  

Graduation Traditions - The Senior Class Gift

The seniors have commenced on the final leg of their journey towards graduation.  Last week they gathered on the SS Rotterdam for their senior group picture.  When there are only 12 graduates you can do things like that.  Just before departing, in their caps and gowns, for the photo shoot on the ship, two representatives appeared in our staff meeting to announce the senior class gift, a long-held tradition at our school.  The seniors, each year, select a gift to give to the school by which they will be remembered. Past gifts have included a large clock engraved with “For all the Good Times” in the entryway of the school and a tree planted in the playground.

On this day, two young representatives stand before us, flushed with excitement and glowing with pride.  With animated gesticulations they describe how they participated in the school’s garbage audit this year and that the audit experience prompted their senior gift.  They proceed to describe the purpose and results of the audit.

An accounting of the plastic cups accumulated in just two days in the teacher’s lounge yields exclamations of shock and disbelief.  For the staff of 70 (some of whom are part-time), it is a bit embarrassing to consider that the paper cups from the teachers’ lounge alone represented 1.5% of the entire waste of the school (including cafeteria, classroom, and science waste). 

Mug wall designed by Christian Ward for the ready made 100 contest.  Link to the site.

The seniors then announce that their senior gift would be to build a mug wall in the teachers' lounge, eliminating the use of plastic cups.  They are planning a “mug drive” to load the wall with donated mugs (rather than increase carbon footprint by purchasing new mugs).  Their gift, as it turns out, additionally includes an act of service.  Nods of approval and smiles of encouragement are seen sweeping across our group of teachers.  Clearly, this is a good idea. 

With confidence and purpose our vibrant seniors depart through the library doors; their shiny, blue, freshly pressed graduation gowns flowing behind. 

Moments like these make the teachers proud and leave evidence of how ready these young people are to go out and conquer the world.

What special senior gifts or traditions are common in your area, at your school or at the school your children attend?

Student Ambitions for Going Green

I’ve mentioned before that I’m part of a Going Green initiative at our school.  We have a student group that meets Tuesdays during lunch.  A parent who’s an expert in the field is graciously consulting us.  The school itself is interested in becoming environmentally sustainable.  The community is open to our efforts.   So, even though our forces are small, the experience is productive and positive.

We completed the garbage audit (four posts in January were dedicated to this) and are putting together a proposal to reduce waste.  The students have launched several “reduce energy” campaigns that included a day of turning the heat down to the lowest setting all day and “lights off Fridays”.  Using our live portal with the electric/gas company the students collect the data from these different events and create charts and graphs illustrating the effect of our reducing energy efforts.  A goal is to reduce energy consumption by 5% this year.  The students are also preparing themselves to present to the greater school and neighborhood community in order to launch a fundraising drive.  This drive will initially fund the installation of solar panels for which the school has already received a subsidy commitment from the city.  The long-term vision is to have the school able to put energy back on the grid and to ultimately be a fueling station for electric cars.  It’s ambitious. 

The students are not overwhelmed with their task and dutifully show up each Tuesday at lunch working slowly and steadily towards their goals.  Yesterday the student group met during lunch knowing that they would be meeting during today’s lunch with our consultant as well.  However, today the consultant had work obligations and requested that we postpone until Friday.  I was mentally already filling the time with other things (lab preparations, printing, meeting with the EAL advisor, etc.).  The students arrived in my classroom and I told them we’d be postponing until Friday.  Their response?  “Let’s watch a TedTalk on global warming”.  OK!  Fortunately I have a few tagged and saved in my bookmarks bar. 

It is an honor to work with students who are truly interested in an issue and who sincerely desire change, even if it costs me three lunch periods out of the week!

Global Warming Science Fair to Come

Today my colleague and I met about our upcoming Science Fair on May 13, 2014.  We have been running behind on this project so it felt good to find an hour to sit down together and hammer some things out.

We have held two science events together so far.  The first year we did a Science Fun night in which students in groups of 2-3 held science based demonstrations/activities for the entire school to participate in.  The hands-on entertainment was interesting and fun and had a science explanation to accompany it.  The evening was a huge success.

The following year we conducted a full-on science fair for grades 6-12.  Students worked on science experiments that were founded in the scientific method.  We worked so hard to guide the students through the process of design, experimentation, and presentation.  The result exceeded our expectations.  We brought in outside judges from the local universities and they were very impressed with what they saw. The science was great and the students were so professional that night.  It was perfect.

This year we are aiming for something different: a tour of global warming and climate change to coincide with the school’s going green initiative.   We will have a special guest speaker to commence the evening.  Then parents and community member will take a tour prepared by the students.  Each student will be individually responsible for presenting a particular issue.  We envision the starting section to be about global warming and climate change, including the political issues surrounding it. Presentations on the causes of global warming will follow.  Next the Effects of global warming will be encountered.  Then participants will learn of solutions to global warming and they will finally be inspired to make manageable changes at home beginning that evening.  We are excited about it and, as with all things, it becomes more thrilling as the pieces begin to come together.

"Chasing Ice", Global Warming, and Teenagers

To launch our Science Fair project on Global Warming we showed the 9th and 10th graders the film "Chasing Ice".  I could see their eyes glaze over when I used the word “documentary” to prep them for the experience.

However, that film is so captivating right from the beginning that they were instantly engaged.  Occasionally I’d scan the room to study their expressions as we were watching and their eyes seemed to never leave the screen.  I’ve seen it already three times and am still amazed myself watching it again. 

James Balog is an incredible human being with a passion for something meaningful.  The students clearly caught the idea of what that man is all about and were impressed.  His journey, determination, and work are inspiring.   The photography is stunning and absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.   I highly recommend the film to everyone.  Additionally, the message that comes about from the photographical evidence is undeniable and definitely convincing. 

Later a student said to me, “That movie was SO AMAZING” as her face lit up with the pure excitement of sharing appreciation and discovery.  There is something so wonderful about having moments of equality with students in the shared joy of science.

"Chasing Ice"  for teenagers preparing for a unit on Global Warming?  Definitely a win.

National Warm Sweater Day - Going Green!

I was surprised by the cheers and raised fists at my announcement.  Why are students excited about the school being cold on Friday and about being requested to “dress warmly”?  That was yesterday.

Today was National “Greenchoice Warm Sweater Day” in the Netherlands.  In honor of this day we lowered/turned off the heat in the secondary school.   By 7:30 a.m. I had been in each classroom on the 3rd floor and turned all the heaters to “off” or “1” (the lowest possible setting).  By 8:00 I could already feel a slight chill in the air.  Students came properly prepared with extra clothing layers, sweaters and hoodies and didn’t complain all day.  Rather, I heard the phrase, “It’s not bad at all” or “If this is what ‘Going Green’ feels like then bring it on”

Our Going Green Group wants to reduce the carbon footprint of the school by 5% this year.  Our first event was the garbage audit (students are still working out a proposal based on those results).  Today’s event will enable us to compare the gas usage to that of a day when the heaters were running full blast.  We will be able to measure the difference in energy consumed when making a greener choice.  Our gas and electricity usage runs through a meter that is interfaced with a computer program.  Through this “portal” we can view our gas and electricity usage on monthly, daily, and even hourly basis.  I’m quite excited to see the graph from today as it compares to other days (there is a 24 hour lag time).

According to the Greenchoice Warm Sweater Day web site, for every degree the temperature is lowered, energy usage decreases by 7%.  It seems like turning down our heaters during cold months will be an obvious way to reduce our carbon footprint, save energy, and lower costs at the school.  It is amazing how "easy" it was to endure.  Staff and students were happy and content all day.  My room was probably the coldest (as it always is) since I'm at the end of a hallway and two of my walls are a row of windows.  Thank you icelandic woollen sweater!

Another rather unexpected bonus to our Going Green initiative is the unity and sense of purpose it seems to be creating among students and staff.  Go Green!

Garbage: Personal Reflections

Well, this is the fourth, and probably not final, post on garbage.  Seeing as it is driving the Group IV project and the audit was the inaugurating event to our Going Green initiative, it is on my mind.

So, this morning I assembled a meal for my family and threw it in the crock-pot before we left for the day.  As I began my preparations and opened up the garbage bin, my mind flashed back to the gloved hands of my students sifting through the garbage at our school.  I remembered them processing every minuscule piece of trash and sorting it to it’s proper bin. I remembered how seemingly inconsequential scraps added up to significant weight and volume of waste.

As chopping vegetables commenced, I found myself removing the merest of “inedible parts”, attempting to minimize what I tossed into the rubbish bin.  I finished off a carton of eggs and noticed the carton is 100% paper recyclable.  I was horrified that I hadn’t noticed this before.  Have I ever thrown egg cartons and (*gasp*) hence recyclable paper into Rotterdam’s landfill?  However, I felt mighty good marching that out to the paper bin. Then, I used the last bouillon from the vegetable bouillon box.  First of all, is the 6 x 7.5 cm wrapper (yes, I did measure it) around the bouillon cube paper, plastic or metal? What about the little box that holds the eight tablets of bouillon? I see the recycling symbol on the box but I can’t read it as both box and labels are TINY.  My 12-year old can read that it is, indeed, paper.  Satisfied that I have fully minimized my waste, I clean up the kitchen and turn on the crock-pot.

Anyone who knows me knows already that I’m pretty conscientious about Being Green.  Probably my number one response when asked why we don’t drive to school is “Well, it’s not very eco-friendly”.  However, I feel like there is still a lot of room for improvement.  Understanding settles in that the greatest challenge for our Going Green committee is to help our school community understand satisfactorily about the reason and value in Going Green enough to make a change to actually be greener in mindset and practice.

Garbage Audit: The contents of a teacher's bag

The bag is set on the floor with the others, awaiting its sorting.  A student grabs the bag and brings it closer to the sorting bins: plastic, metal, paper, and cardboard.  The bag is opened and the sides are rolled down for easier access to the contents.  The aroma of coffee and tobacco emanate from the bag. “What is all this?” queries Max as he plunges his gloved hands into the bag, “it is really disgusting.”  His British accent really emphasizes the word “disgusting” drawing my attention.

He begins filtering through a mound of coffee grounds that seem to coat every item in the bag.  “Are coffee grounds biodegradable or miscellaneous waste?”   Max begins scooping the grounds into the appropriate bin.  “Geez, someone likes coffee.  Is it possible to drink this much coffee in a day?”  Max continues to uncover cigarettes, multiple cans of energy drinks, nicotine gum packs. 

“Isn’t this a contradiction?”  He holds up his evidence.

The students analyze the finding of cigarettes juxtaposed to the ‘quit smoking gum’.

“Well, maybe he’s trying to quit but just hasn’t managed it yet”

“Yeah maybe all the energy drinks are a substitute as well”

“Yeah, and all the coffee too”

The bag is a manifestation of a struggle with a simple and common addiction.  I try to imagine a teacher finding time to smoke all those cigarettes (since it’s not allowed in the building), make and drink all that coffee, and juggle the energy drinks and gum while teaching.  It can’t be easy.

Then, my bag is up for sorting.  Paper towels soaked in all sort of things.  A dead fish from my tank.  Plant particles.  Fresh liver.  The biology students attempt to explain the contents. However, the sorters remain firm in their judgment.   “Um Dr. Markham, no offense, but the garbage from your room is the most disgusting of all”.  Of course I’m thinking, “Just wait until you get to the cafeteria bags”.

Well, I was wrong.  It turns out the biology classroom garbage bag was the worst.  So, I ask myself, “Are the contents of a teacher’s garbage revealing?  Absolutely. However, I don’t want to be psychoanalyzed by mine.  

Garbage Audit: Crunching Data

Twelve IB students gather in the Biology classroom as part of their Group IV project .  Anticipation hangs in the air as they look at the data from the previous evening’s garbage audit.  At first they are unsure how to proceed but then they power up their computers and open up Excel.  Keyboards are clicking, expressions are concentrated.  I circle around and begin to see pie and bar graphs appearing all over the room on the computer screens

“Can you believe we throw away over 1 kg of paper and plastic cups every day?” exclaims one student.  “Whoa, look at this, 35% of our garbage is recyclables!”, cries out another.  “That’s a lot of food waste”  “I think we can reduce our weight by at least 1/3 this year”.  And so it went.  For two hours the students crunched numbers, manipulated Excel data, created graphs, and analyzed their results. 

The final conclusions haven’t been reached but everyone is quite excited about what they’ve uncovered.  Over the next few weeks the students will share their results to the Going Green group at the school for that committee to submit a recommendation on how to reduce waste at the school.  The IB students will also formulate a proposal for next year’s Group IV project in the area of Going Green.

I’m quite happy with this initial event that the Going Green group has completed.  It will definitely generate awareness and hopefully be an impetus for change at the school.

Garbage Audit: Going Green

This afternoon we completed a garbage audit at the school.  It went a lot smoother than I expected.  The 15 10th -12th grade students were upbeat.  Our organization was efficient.  The garbage was bearable.  For example, when we opened the first food bag from the cafeteria, I was anticipating an overpowering stench to envelope us, however, it wasn't so.

We had sorters, weighers, recorders, and cameramen, working from 15:15 to 18:30 going through two days of garbage collected at the school.  Plastics, biodegradables, paper, and cardboard were sorted into big bins and then weighed.  Metals, glass, and miscellaneous were also sorted on the side and weighed at the end.  We also counted all the paper and plastic cups.  There were about 5 forks in there.  i wonder if the owner of the food service realizes he's losing several forks every couple of days.  Just last week he sent an email out to all staff requesting that we return his silverware as the numbers are depleting.

Entire sandwiches, unopened yogurts and drinks were in abundance.  There seemed to be a ridiculous amount of plastics, even for Europe.  What is with all the prepackaged food?  Why not wrap the sandwiches on plates in plastic? Why not serve the elementary children their milk and juice in small cups?  We are a small school.  For the sake of the Earth, we could improve our practices.

Why did we do all this?  The school is launching a "Going Green" initiative this year and our goal is to reduce our carbon footprint by 5%.  We're performing the audit with the plan to submit a proposal on how the school can minimize waste.  I somehow ended up leading the initiatve and it's a bit overwhelming at times but I also perceive that it will be incredibly satisfying when we meet our goals.  I hope I'm at the school long enough to experience the long term goals of the project: a truly Green School that actually puts energy back on the grid.