An arctic journey: Translating global issues into local action for kids
Instruction continues virtually during the coronavirus
Last updated 12/17/2020 at 12:57pm
Editor's note: Jennie Warmouth, who has a doctorate in Learning Sciences Human Development and Cognition, is a teacher at Spruce Elementary School in the Edmonds School District. This story is a follow-up to a Beacon story in 2019 at http://www.bit.ly/3abO6yL.
I had the privilege of traveling to Arctic Svalbard – midway from continental Norway and the North Pole – as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions in June 2019.
My mission – to connect my Edmonds School District student population with issues facing the Arctic habitat.
Prior to my expedition, very few of my second-grade students at Spruce Elementary knew where the Arctic was. I invited my students, their families, and our entire school community to follow along on my expedition through a website I built called http://www.globalwarmouth.com.
My second-grade scholars spent the weeks leading up to my departure researching the High Arctic ecosystem and formulating questions for me to investigate in the field. Initially, my students' interests centered on my basic needs such as where I would sleep, what I would eat, and whether or not I would be so brave as to take a polar plunge – which I was, of course!
Once they had a handle on those details, they were most curious about the majestic polar bears of the High Arctic. Unfortunately, we saw very few bears on my expedition.
This led my students to ask, "Why?" Of the many environmental threats facing polar bears, I directed their attention toward the issue of ocean contamination and specifically how ocean currents carry pollutants into the Arctic where they often remain – much like a dead-end.
To illustrate this, my Grosvenor Teaching Fellow partner Mindy Steele and I assisted a team of biologists with a plankton tow to investigate for evidence of microplastics. Much to our surprise we found evidence of macroplastics washing up on the otherwise pristine shorelines of the Svalbard Islands in Norway.
When I returned to Spruce, I presented an image of a gloved hand holding macroplastics and challenged our school's students to investigate how such human waste found its way to a region of the world where no humans live. Our students were particularly interested in the small white ice cream spoon in the photograph.
They recognized it as similar to the plastic sporks that they used twice daily at breakfast and lunch at school. They wanted to know how it got there and wondered if their own sporks might one day, too.
I challenged them to figure that out!
Students studied ocean currents and how plastics move. They presented their theories and those ideas and questions drove our continued inquiry. We also hosted virtual field trips for the whole student body – showcasing the 360-degree videos and photos I captured in the Arctic.
This helped the children imagine themselves in my shoes as an explorer.
Next, I encouraged my students to distill their learning down to some compelling and impactful imagery to begin to communicate their understanding of the cause and effect of single-use plastics on the global ocean. From there, we began to reflect on our own practices.
My students and I obtained data around how many school lunches are served in our school and district annually and then estimated the number of single-use sporks used in our cafeteria each year.
Armed with that information, I challenged my students to imagine a solution. They decided they wanted to ask our school district to replace all single-use sporks with reusable metal silverware. They prepared a PowerPoint slide deck and presented their proposal to our district's decision-makers.
Their proposal was accepted in January with the condition that they ensure that no metal silverware be thrown into the garbage. To address this, my second-grade students and I established the Silverware Patrol.
I purchased green vests, silver sheriff badges and telescopic magnetic wands for the Silverware Patrol officers to use to retrieve any silverware accidentally thrown into the garbage cans. We invited all interested students to apply.
My second graders assessed each of the applicant's essay on the tenants of responsibility, friendliness, and level of care for the Earth. We then welcomed and trained 70 Silverware Patrol officers.
The silverware stewards monitored the garbage cans and provided information on the reason behind the change. This was especially powerful because the education was peer-to-peer rather than teacher to student.
We are proud to have successfully removed over 70,000 single-use sporks wrapped in plastic from Spruce Elementary's environmental footprint. We built a website called http://www.silverwarepatrol.com and our school district is considering replicating our program in the remaining elementary schools that still use single-use plastic in the post-pandemic future.
However, we are actually having conversations now as a class about how there has been a spike in single-use plastic use specifically with cutlery due to safety protocol for COVID prevention. If we are to return to face-to-face school in 2021, we will be discussing this trend as well as the influx in single-use medical masks and gloves in light of the global pandemic.
As a teacher, I was struck by the power of my students' authentic curiosity in and connection with the image of the gloved hand. That simple image helped me translate a global issue into a meaningful call to action for my students.
Arctic design contest
In that spirit, my second graders and I decided to invite other students and teachers to engage in a similar line of thought. We invited all children ages 5-17 to enter our Arctic design contest. Applicants are encouraged to learn about the environmental issues facing the High Arctic before creating some form of visual art to inspire conservation.
Entries will be evaluated using a rubric created by the second-grade advocates with input from a panel of influential artists and National Geographic Explorers.
The prizes have been purchased through an Edmonds Arts Festival grant and a selection of winning images will be published in PCC Community Market's Sound Consumer magazine.
In addition to our single-use plastic policy change and design competition, my second-grade students are also busy drawing connections between the issues facing the polar bears of the High Arctic and those facing our local black bear population.
One interesting aspect of this, related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and distance learning, is that I was teaching virtually through http://www.globalwarmouth.com in June 2019 before it was the norm. It actually gave my students and I some great practice.
Additionally, all of the learning my students are doing around the bears has been virtual and internet-based. They have only watched videos of the baby bear cubs and our Books for Bears project was an "at home" learning project.
We have partnered with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood to study the three orphaned black bear cubs currently receiving lifesaving care at the PAWS' Wildlife Center. My students are investigating the skills that the baby bear cubs need to learn prior to their spring release.
With that in mind, they are designing enrichment items that will be constructed and given to the baby bears to practice natural food foraging skills. As toy lovers themselves, my students are demonstrating excellent Science Technology Engineering Art Math (STEAM) skills and biocentric perspective-taking abilities as they consider both what the baby bears need and would enjoy.
My students and I also learned that it's expensive to take care of three little orphaned black bear cubs through the winter.
With that in mind, we reached out to Brown Bear Car Wash and asked if they would like to partner with us to benefit the bear cubs, and they accepted. Together we created the Books for Bears readathon event in which Spruce students were given the opportunity to "unlock" $1 per book they read on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
The amazing readers at Spruce read an incredible 2,615 books in 2 days – successfully unlocking Brown Bear's generous donation of $2,000 to PAWS. Our top reader (who read an unbelievable 109 books) was honored by a surprise gift from local New York Times best-selling children's book author, Kobi Yamada, who signed and delivered five of his children's books to our reading champion.
I am incredibly grateful to National Geographic, Lindblad Expeditions, the Edmonds School District, and my principal, Emily Moore, for supporting every aspect of my expedition and the advocacy projects it has inspired.
I am pleased that my expedition to the Arctic has served as a catalyst for deep student engagement on both a global and local scale. I am proud that my creative and compassionate students have found ways to apply their emerging reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to change our school's single-use plastic policy and to directly improve the lives of vulnerable wildlife within our community.
I love joking with my students that I am going to be a proud little granny one day when we all enjoy the positive impacts of their compassion and far-reaching decision making on the health of our planet.