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Building Environmental Literacy

Teachers awarded Classroom Earth grants implement school projects to teach student eco-friendly behavior.

By Deb Buehler

September 24, 2010

Urban Farm

Courtesy Ben Laterell

Students in Portland, Ore., get to learn about installing gardens, cooking organically and selling at farmers' markets thanks to a Classroom Earth grant.

Teachers across the country face similar challenges on a day-to-day basis, but what do teachers Remy Dou of Miami, Fla., James Lorenz of Minneapolis, and Tom McKenna of Portland, Ore., in particular, have in common?

All three are 2010 recipients of the National Environmental Education Foundation’s Classroom Earth National High School Challenge Grants.

Overall, 10 high school teachers across the country received the $4,000 grants to implement creative, thought-provoking lesson plans to increase environmental literacy for students in grades 9 through 12. These three urban educators are using their funds to explore topics such as aeroponic gardening, native ecology and gardening with a focus on the politics of food.
Classroom Earth, a five-year partnership between the NEEF and the Weather Channel, focuses on providing resources for educators to use in the classroom and empowering them to teach environmental education beyond middle school.

“Ultimately we want to improve the environmental literacy of students,” explains Bobby Cato, senior education project manager with NEEF. “In addition to the grants, we created a companion social network where high school students can apply for grants of their own, explore college programs focused on sustainability and apply for green jobs. At PlanetConnect.org, students can post their own videos and articles.”

Student-supported Agriculture

Founded in 1995, Oregon’s Portland YouthBuilders program supports low-income men and women ages 18 to 24 who have not completed high school. Students receive education, vocational training and leadership development. The organization supports youth who are committed to changing their lives to become self-sufficient, contributing members of the workforce and their community.

“With our Classroom Earth funding, we are planting a garden on the school grounds while involving the entire student population across all disciplines in learning about foods, techniques of organic gardening and composting,” explains McKenna, a PYB teacher.

Sid Klein, sustainability manager at PYB, says they began to develop a plan to apply for the grant after considering how the school could expose its student population to food in ways students have never considered.

“For most, food is an issue of survival,” Klein says. “Their experience is wondering where they will buy their next meal. They have a heavy dependence on food stamps and face food insecurity every day. We wanted to address food insecurity and to encourage deeper thinking about where their food comes from beyond the local gas station or food pantry.”

Lessons focus on where foods come from, the implications of how far food travels and who students are supporting through food-purchase decisions. Classes will also consider food production—the impact of how food is produced, the impact on who produces it and the impact on the environment.

Students will be engaged in the garden installation by figuring the garden’s dimensions, determining how space will be used and preparing the garden for planting. Students will be responsible for tending the garden and writing about their food experiences as the garden grows and matures.

Local chefs will be teaching PYB students to prepare organic meals, and students will create healthy meals, sharing recipes with one another and teaching one another about organic foods.

A cohort of students from PYB has already been working at urban farms in the Portland area. Each weekend, the students attend two area farmers’ markets, working with vendors and fielding shopper questions. At the end of each market day, they glean excess produce and bring it back to the school, where it is distributed among the students.

“Basically, we are running a free CSA,” Klein says. The installation of their own on-site garden will enable students to grow their own vegetables to supplement farmers’ market gleanings and provide abundant, fresh, organic produce for students and their families.

Applying for the Grant

NEEF anticipates launching the 2011 grant cycle this fall. To learn more about the grants, see grant awards and read past project descriptions, visit ClassroomEarth.org.


Give us your opinion on Building Environmental Literacy.
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Good to know
Annie, Houston, TX
Posted: 6/20/2012 3:07:13 PM
Anytime you can connect urban kids with food production, you are doing a good thing. I cannot think of any city where there should NOT be an option for students to learn these skills. And waiting until the students are in high school wastes many opportunities for connecting kids with these subjects. There are many academic subjects that are or can be enhanced with stories, experiments and exercises that can only be taught in the garden effectively.
Bruce, Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 9/27/2010 11:52:49 AM
That's great.
Galadriel, Lothlorien, ME
Posted: 9/24/2010 11:06:04 PM

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