In June 2013, when we launched the first “Education Built to Last” Green Strides Tour, little did I know that I would be embarking on the best component of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) recognition award program to date. The 2013 tour took me to 11 states to engage in 40 events; spanning Alabama, New England, New York, New Jersey, California, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC. Like the award, it was a fantastic opportunity to build relationships and make connections at federal, state, local and school levels for facilities, health, and environment.
In 2014, under the theme “Healthy Schools, High-Achieving Students,” and with an additional 46 events in 6 states, I enhanced my knowledge about green schools practices. From Boulder and Fort Collins, CO to Palm Beach and Broward, FL, from West Virginia to Kentucky, from Prior Lake Savage and Waconia, MN to Maryland, – practices that save money, improve health and achievement, and just happen to help our planet to boot – all of which make sense for school administrators, teachers, and the students we serve.
I took fall 2015 off of to care for my son, but this fall I am headed back on tour, this time to focus our efforts on “Real World Learning” — authentic, hands-on education that connects students to their school, grounds, communities, and the world. As we think toward this fall’s tour, here is a bit of what I learned during the first 17 states, 86 events and two seasons of our Green Strides Tour:
1.) An unused swamp, forest, or stretch of asphalt can become a living, green classroom to engage students in science, engineering, social studies, music, and language arts as well as connect the school to its community.
2.) Alternative transportation programs reduce district costs and harmful air pollution. Walk and bike to school programs also get students and families active while engaging the community.
3.) Students joyfully eat veggies that they plant, grow, and harvest in their carefully planned gardens. Our ED-GRS honorees use school gardens to learn science, social studies, nutrition, agriculture, art, and civics, among many other subjects.
4.) Kids get excited learning about the world around them when they learning outdoors. Thinking about the interconnected social, economic, and ecological systems that make up our planet and the challenges that our communities face exercises complex thinking, problem-solving and collaborative working skills.
5.) Where students learn matters. Period. Ventilation, moisture, contaminants, daylight, acoustical and thermal comfort, and design that encourages collaboration and inquiry. All of these aspects of a school can hasten or hamper learning.
6.) Students don’t want to read about science. They want to do science. Environment and sustainability concepts make for engaging, project-based learning.
7.) Student tour guides tell it best. Everywhere we went, students wowed us with their health, environmental, and sustainability learning. This wasn’t rote memorization. They owned the concepts because they live them.
Green schools exist everywhere. There is amazing continuity among the practices, partnerships, and leadership that makes a school, district, or postsecondary institution effective in its greening efforts. For this reason and so many more, I can’t wait to visit state number 18 this fall, when Green Strides will head to Pennsylvania!
Andrea Suarez Falken is Director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and Facilities, Health, and Environment Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education. In her spare time, she hikes with a toddler on her back.