What the heck do I know about teaching kids? What if they won’t listen? What if I say the wrong things?
Those were the worries I had after agreeing to join Water Education Specialist Sue Alfeld in a Bay Area classroom to discuss my journey to cut back on plastic. Organized by The Bay Nature Institute in Berkeley as part of their “Blogging for Biodiversity” program, I planned to come and observe Sue’s lesson on ocean plastic and the fate of Laysan albatross birds and also participate in sharing my own experiences.
(Read more about Sue’s program in the Bay Nature article, “Turning Back The Plastic Tide.”)
Well, those worries melted away as soon as I met the warm and totally down to earth Sue. And the education started before we even got to the classroom. After picking me up at a bus stop near Benicia Middle School, Sue showed me where she and many residents of the area had gathered to collect trash during Saturday’s Coastal Cleanup. As we drove along, she stopped to examine some of the day’s trash collection.
This trash was not collected near the beach but further inland, proof, Sue believes, that the message about litter’s effects on the ocean is getting through. Benicia’s waterfront along the Carquinez Strait is actually pretty clean.
The Carquinez Strait, in the words of Sue to a class of third graders, is the “ponytail of the mermaid” that is the San Francisco Bay. Do you see it?
It was a beautiful day in Benicia, CA.
Our first group was a class of eighth graders at Benicia Middle School. Sue presented a slide show about Laysan albatross and managed to interest these restless California students in the plight of creatures thousands of miles away. They were especially captivated by a video showing the albatrosses feeding their chicks and performing their mating dance. (There are many more such videos on YouTube but I’m hoping to find a copy of the one Sue has, which is so much fun that the kids asked to see it a second time.)
Showing the actual stomach contents of some of these birds was the real kicker. As part of her regular program, Sue routinely has students dissect the albatross boluses and analyze what’s inside. What’s a bolus? Basically, what the birds throw up after digesting all that they can. See all the plastic?
This bird had ingested lava rock and plastic bottle caps. Trouble is, it’s not just the adult birds consuming plastic, but the baby for whom the mother has collected it in the first place. She only lays one egg per year, if that, and leaves it for up to two weeks to hunt for food floating near the surface of the ocean. Upon returning to Midway, she feeds her chick with what she has swallowed. And more and more, that “food” turns out to be plastic.
After showing the problems with plastic, it was my turn to share a few solutions. And as soon as I stood up and started asking questions of the kids, I knew I’d had nothing to worry about. Following up on Sue’s information, I asked, “What’s another word for marine debris?”
Answer: Trash in the ocean.
Questions: What percentage of that floating trash is plastic?
Question: And where does most of it come from? Ships out at sea?
Answer: No, right here on land from storm runoff, from us, our own plastic use and litter.
So I pulled out my bag of tricks and showed them some alternatives, like stainless steel water bottle, travel mug, stainless containers, jars I use to buy in bulk, glass drinking straw, etc.
The demonstration went well, and even better at our next stop: a class of third graders at Robert Semple Elementary School, where Sue lead them in a truly creative and interactive exercise. First, she presented a bowl of beautiful, clear water…
And then proceeded to lead them through the story of the San Francisco Bay, from creation through today. To each child (all 22 of them) she handed a labeled bag with something inside. As we got to that child’s part in the story, (s)he would come up and empty the contents into the bowl.
We went from sediment (rocks) and salt marsh (leaves) and shellmounds left by Native Americans (shells) to chemicals from factories (food coloring), litter (plastic bottle caps and other trash) and run off (cinnamon, soap, and more food coloring). The most interesting to me was a plastic octopus representing ship ballast, the water from the bottom of the ship that would be released after the ship had unloaded its cargo, releasing non-native species of sea life. That one was new to me.
Would you drink or swim in this?
Meet the Trash Turtle…
Fortunately, this class took place right before recess, because the payoff came afterwards as a group of girls stuck around to ask me where they could get the reusable things I’d shown them and practiced opening and restuffing a ChicoBag reusable bag. One little girl in particular looked at me with utter sincerity and insisted, “I want to help the environment! I really, really want to!”
I could have cried. What if every single class had just one child with such conviction? Would that be enough to change the world?
Later that night, I did cry, during the international screening of The Age of Stupid. More on that in a future post.
For now, what do you think is the best way to reach young people? And can they in turn reach out to the “adults” in their lives?