Teaching Green, Growing Change

May 11, 2011

Teacher intern establishes recycling program in Detroit school, inspires activism

Every week, Maybury Elementary School collects three 96-gallon bins full of paper that’s sent to be recycled.

A few months ago, students and staff at the southwest Detroit school didn’t think they could ever ?ll the giant containers.

And at the beginning of the school year, one particularly green—and determined—Michigan State University teaching intern was carting boxes of recycling from Maybury to her Dearborn home with much bigger plans in mind.

Clare Adamus didn’t let limited school resources, or even the College of Education internship’s time-consuming requirements, keep her from implementing a sustainable school-wide recycling program in an environment where survival must come ?rst for most families.

She embedded ecological issues into the curriculum of her third-grade bilingual classroom, in?uencing activism down the school hallways and into children’s homes.

“I really want to empower the students so they feel that they can effect change in their community,” Adamus said. “It is important for them to learn that even at 8 or 9 years old, they do have a voice.”

Protecting, and ?nding, resources

The program began with a simple box for gathering recyclable items in room 101.

Noticing students’ interest, Adamus decided to design and implement a language arts unit using reading materials about protecting the planet. Soon, her collaborating teacher Irma Arias said, reusable water bottles began replacing throw-away plastic versions on students’ desks.

If they saw paper on the ?oor, they would pick it up and exclaim “We have some Plooters in our school!” or “Michael Recycle would be so disappointed,” referring to a poem and a book character Adamus introduced. When she asked them to respond to the literature with their opinions, she had never seen them write so much on a topic.

Meanwhile, the 2010 elementary education graduate was busy beyond the school day tracking down recycling options that could work for Maybury, a Detroit Public Schools building with 600 students and absolutely no extra funding.

Principal Ellen Snedeker had asked the MSU College of Education interns for help with the task when she met them last summer. The idea had never panned out in the past.

“We tend to be the recipients of donations and offers to help, and we felt like we wanted to do something that’s good for the world,” Snedeker said. “(Clare) pursued it the most diligently.”

Adamus tried to secure grants and sorted through potential recycling services that would cost too much. Finally she spotted the name of a company, Covert Shredding, af?xed to recycling receptacles in a Dearborn school where she happened to be voting for the November election. She immediately called owner Ron Covert who explained the company could pick up Maybury’s recycling for free and, as a major bonus, give 10 percent of its sellable value back to the school.

With help from fellow intern Michelle Scott, Adamus found a ?re marshall–approved collection area, asked for support at staff meetings, posted sign-up sheets and created a tree in the school’s main lobby to measure and remind students about their efforts.

The bins from Covert Shredding arrived just a few days after the environmental language arts unit ended for her third-graders, who were ?red up about putting their new knowledge into action around school.

“She’s innovative, she’s resourceful and she has follow-through,” said Anne-Lise Halvorsen, assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Adamus’ ?eld instructor in Detroit.

“It’s important for students in urban and low socioeconomic settings to see that they can change things in their own lives, but so often the citizen component involves cleaning up a park or something similar and it doesn’t go any further. What Clare did was make it a much more intellectual task.”

Changing culture and, hopefully, the community

Halvorsen gave a presentation about Maybury’s recycling story, on behalf of Adamus, earlier this academic year before a group of College of Education faculty and graduate students who are interested in issues of urban education.

Although previous recycling projects have failed, Principal Snedeker says she is certain the initiative will continue along with Covert Shredding’s stated commitment to remain a partner. Each teacher has his or her own classroom collection box, routine for contributing to the school bins and way of reminding students why their efforts matter.

Next fall, Maybury is moving into a new school building across the street due to school district downsizing, so the 100-year-old school has had a lot of old books and materials to recycle—and reasons to think about an even brighter future.

The students hope to plant a tree at their new school in recognition for covering the lobby “tree” with leaves this year, one for each full bin of recycled paper.

“Creating the mentality that we are supposed to take care of our environment, I think, really helps change the culture of the kids and consequently the community,” said Arias, whose students helped carry recycling for the kindergarten classes each week.

They have also started writing a petition, as part of a social studies unit, to gain curbside recycling services in their neighborhood. Like most MSU teaching interns in schools across Michigan and Chicago, Adamus took even more responsibility for her students’ learning as lead teacher during the spring semester.

“I don’t know if it’s just Clare or if it’s Michigan State . . . ,” Arias said. “But she is a very dedicated, well organized and prepared teacher. She loves what she’s doing and it shows.”