What Makes a Community Ecologically, Economically, and Socially Healthy? Compost!

Facilitator Perspective: Lindsey Slan Halman

Three years ago, learners from the multi-age (5th-8th grades) Edge Academy at Essex Middle School, in Essex, Vermont saw a need in their own community for composting, and together with a Vermont Youth Conservation Corp crew, designed and built a small scale composting system to absorb their daily snack waste.  Earlier this year, the Essex Town School District (ETSD), in collaboration with Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD), announced a compost initiative.  Edge students, already having a vested interest in this topic and realizing the impact of a district-wide compost initiative. eagerly signed on to this exciting and engaging project.

Students at the Edge engage in integrated, project-based units of study that center on the three justices of sustainability (social, economic, and environmental).  For the compost initiative unit, driven by the essential question, “what makes a community ecologically, economically and socially healthy?” students became involved in all aspects of the planning and implementation of the new district-wide composting system.

When planning for this unit, learners were asked to consider what questions they had about composting, and how they would ensure that the new composting systems would be successful now and in the future.  Learners were asked to explore the Vermont Standards that would be addressed and assessed throughout the unit, including Standard 4.6 Understanding Place, Standard 7.2 Investigation and Critical Evaluation (Inquiry), and Standard 7.11 Systems Analysis, and developed outcomes for each of the standards.  These outcomes were shared on a curriculum map that each learner used to determine their progress on the project.  Service, or making a positive change in our community, was also one required element of this project, as well as reading informational text and creating informational text posters for Essex Middle School students. 

At the outset of all projects at the Edge, we look to collaborate with our community partners to ensure that the learning is relevant and engaging. Working together with Jessica Sankey, School Outreach Coordinator from CSWD, a group of Edge learners looked critically at the current system for waste management and began to brainstorm ways to not only improve the current system, but educate all of the children district-wide (K-8).  Learners did a waste stream analysis to determine how the students at Essex Middle School were disposing of their waste.  It was clear that students were not putting their waste in the proper receptacles and therefore, changes needed to be made. 

While learning more about the rot cycle, learners identified critical vocabulary words that everyone needed to know and understand in order to fully understand the process of composting.  These words were used on the informational text posters that were dispersed around the school.  Learners also realized that in order for younger children to fully understand how to sort their waste properly, they needed to have a clear system in place and would need education.

After looking over designs of different waste stations, the learners created a plan for a waste station that would work well for all students in grades K-8.  Together, with the support of Essex Middle School Design and Technology teacher, Dan Airoldi, learners designed a waste station that would be placed in each of the three schools’ cafeterias.  The waste stations were then built by Edge students and consisted of a table that contained receptacles for silverware, liquids, recycling, trash, and composting.  Learners at the Edge carefully considered the placement of each receptacle in order to ensure that all students in ETSD would sort their waste properly. 

What better way to learn about the four R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot) than to teach other students about their importance?  Edge learners worked with Jessica Sankey to create an educational play for the students at Essex Middle School.  They first reviewed a few existing scripts, and then created their own customized script to meet our own district’s needs.  Edge learners rehearsed, and created costumes and props to enhance their performance.  They then performed their play for all of the students at Essex Elementary School (EES).  The play served double duty as it taught the kindergarten through second grade students about the four R’s, as well as introduced them to their new waste station. After each performance, Edge learners answered questions from the audience, and then had the EES students practice using the new waste station through an interactive game.

In this student-led project, learners identified a problem, developed inquiry questions, collected data, and then created learning experiences that would allow them to accomplish all of their goals.  Learners helped to design their learning experiences and were able to demonstrate their learning that met the identified standards in multiple ways.  Using rubrics adapted from the Project Based Learning Handbook , Edge facilitators assessed the learners’ projects on their research, organization of information, and presentation of learning. In the end, Edge learners were able to see multiple successes through the experience of teaching others, and the implementation of the waste stations at all schools district-wide. 


Learner Perspectives: Liam Kinney (Grade 6) and  Julia Chadwick (Grade 7)

At the very beginning of our project we started out discussing what we wanted to accomplish for our project by coming up with ideas that would drive our project.  We soon came up with designs for a waste station that would solve the problem of middle schoolers contaminating the compost.  Then we thought  “Huh, what if we taught the elementary kids about composting to prevent future contamination?”  Then, we contacted Jess Sankey who works at CSWD, and she shared a compost play that we thought was a good idea, so we adapted it.  After two weeks of craziness, we edited the script, assigned characters, and soon we had an Oscar-winning play going (not).

Before this amazing thing came together, we had to do some research.  We had to research what composting is, we made posters that educated others and then worked with Jess to finalize our play. This was a fun project because it involved hands-on learning and group work.  There was a lot of focus on creating the play and designing the waste station.  Once we were offered the chance to make the waste stations in the Design and Technology classroom, it became an even bigger project.  We made many different designs, revised and edited them with the support of teachers at our school.  Once the waste stations were built, we felt a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to have accomplished such a huge project district-wide.  We were able to be on the Channel 5 News and in the newspaper, which was a really big deal!

The feedback really came from the audience at the elementary school.  In acting, the best critic is always the audience.  The elementary school students’ participation and reaction after the play demonstrated their enthusiasm and how much they had learned.  It was clear that they really appreciated it and learned a lot!  At the end the adults that worked with us helped us evaluate the play and our learning.  In conclusion, this project not only made us better teachers, but, it also educated the community about the benefits of composting.


Download the entire Winter 2012 Newsletter here!





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