The true purpose of schooling, the reason we invest our tax money and give our attention to our local schools, and the reason we hand our children over to teachers for 12-plus years of schooling is to prepare them for an active, purposeful and well-informed life when they become citizens of the local and global community. We want a bright and meaningful future for our community members. In general, elementary schools focus a good deal of attention on the essential skills of language and math, and focus to a lesser degree on science, social studies and the arts. How can educators support the essential basic skills and also integrate a sense of purpose into elementary education?
One area these crucial aspects of learning come together is “sustainability.”
Sustainability can be defined, as it is by the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, as “a vibrant economy, an equitable society and a healthy environment in the interest of meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” When economy, environment and community are considered equally and are cultivated with thoughtful decisions, your society can grow and evolve in a way that supports its members now and in the future.
One of the guiding principles at Saltonstall is to establish a school and community culture that is based in real-world connections. At Saltonstall, we strive to give students a sense of purpose and help them realize that our decisions and actions have an impact on our local community. We have recently adopted the term “sustainability,” but we have long-standing traditions about being “green.” For example, we have a yearly Earth Day, now called our Sustainability Fair. During this celebratory day, we invite local Earth-support agencies and volunteers to present information about sustainability in a fun, informative way that helps young children focus on people, place and profit. This year, we have a grant from the Salem Education Foundation for a project called “Mindful Munching.” This project helps children understand that making healthy food choices has a positive impact on the economy along with personal health. Adults are well aware of this because of the rising cost of health care, in part a consequence of lifestyle choices.
We have also received a grant from Dominion to work with a local agency called “Change is Simple.” This small, local organization has a big mission — to “instill environmental and social responsibility in our communities through sustainability-enrichment programs. By educating individuals on the cumulative impacts of their choices, we seek to inspire, empower and motivate others to protect our future.” Classes have frequently initiated fundraisers for causes that are dear to them, including Lifebridge wreaths of hope, animal shelter donations and an upcoming event to sell energy-efficient light bulbs, which will involve National Grid.
By design, Saltonstall has an enrichment block built into our weekly schedule. This enrichment block, called Friday Club, affords teachers a valuable collaborative planning time and offers a variety of activities for all students. Saltonstall’s mission to integrate the local community and to involve parents is sustained by Friday Club volunteers, parents, local agencies and school personnel. Our recent Friday Clubs have been organized to focus on people, place and profit — one simple way to define the three aspects of sustainability. Examples of clubs that have focused on people include “Be Positive,” a club that focuses on creating and supporting positive messages within the school, a club that focuses on the Heifer Project International, visiting the Senior Center and learning about traditional foods. Focusing on creating a “robust economy,” we have had presentations by the Salem Five bank, introducing the idea of thoughtful use of money, and visits to Life Alive, an organic restaurant located in downtown Salem. As a business, Life Alive has made responsible decisions about its construction, food choices and profit. Focusing on environment, we have craft clubs using recycled materials, watching and discussing the movie “Kilowatt Hours,” and learning about plants and trees.
We have a distance to go to make this important concept live with each of our decisions, but we are taking those first important steps, and we’re willing to keep raising our awareness to make healthy decisions for now and for the future.
Put in a simple poem, sustainability can be described this way:
When you think about the earth
And you care to take a stand,
If you consider folks around you
As you walk upon this land
In a conscious give and take,
It’s a system, no mistake!
— A commitment and a promise
To beauty, food and light.
It takes action every day
To keep our future bright.
Julie Carter is principal of Saltonstall School. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.