Guest post from Chiara Swartout, EarthTeam's Restoration Director
I have worked with middle and high school students for over six years in the realm of watershed stewardship. I've seen students trying out the various forms stewardship takes, from teaching children about water flow and making seed bombs, to hikes and camping in state and national parks, to installing native plants in the place of invasive species freshly removed. They have conducted these activities in their communities and neighborhoods as well as preserved lands an hour's drive away.
The most outwardly startling, inspiring, and surprising moments of growth from my students did not come within the context of seeing pristine, wild beauty or handling dirt. While unstructured time to explore forests and beaches was peaceful and enlivening for many of my students, and they ripped invasive ivy with gusto and installed native plants with care, they became the most fired up I would ever see them when they witnessed various forms of degraded trash accumulating along creek banks and estuarine shorelines. It is during and after trash pick-ups that the exclamations of surprise and what-do-we-do-about-this conversations would commence.
I get it. It's hard for me to enjoy peaceful, pristine areas when there's so much work to be done both there and everywhere else less pristine or damaged.The latter seems to give people a more outward sense of purpose. Now I'm not saying that I or my students did not find these peaceful moments of enjoyment purposeful and necessary; there just seem to be less words exchanged about these moments, which in and of itself holds a separate, equally important meaning. However, I haven't asked my students outwardly why they, when given free reign to select a service-learning project, choose to conduct public outreach about litter reduction or build benches out of plastic bottles filled with trash.
I don't know why I have more frustrated, surprised, and angry conversations with students right after we all realize that no matter how many pieces of trash you pick up from that corner of the wetland, the only real way to impact that corner is to remove the top foot of soil, which is sprinkled with thousands of pellets of degraded Styrofoam. This doesn't happen after we roll several cubic yards of invasive ivy and remove it from the restoration site or install one hundred native plants in the span of two hours.
Students conceive of art projects on the spot during clean ups and begin collecting Black and Mild tips for their sculptures because they look like duck bills. Maybe it's because the litter they witness and pick up is the stuff of their everyday lives as city kids, much more so than plants. They know it better, know how to interact with it, understand their direct impact from littered streets to littered waterways.
I used to minimize the time we spent conducting rapid trash assessments and picking up trash informally as we explored and restored. I hate the idea of having students pick up other people's trash; this is what people do as punishment! I stopped worrying about this when students unhesitatingly said they actually enjoyed picking up trash and collecting data about it.
The most satisfying, unintended, lasting consequence of my teaching came on the last day I met with my Richmond High School students who participated in an after-school watershed stewardship program I facilitated called the Aqua Team, many of whom had been with me for three years. After over a dozen field outings ripping out invasive plants, mulching around freshly installed natives they themselves had planted, learning about plant adaptations, bird watching, and rapid trash assessments, I gave them their final post survey to test the knowledge I thought I had covered: marine debris, native plants versus invasive plants, bird adaptations, etc. And while the last meeting was winding down and we were reflecting on our time together, they weren't babbling about sticky monkey flower or the invasive ivy they witnessed in their neighborhoods. They did babble about the camping trip and bike ride as being their favorite moments, which were the expected favorites.
And then, randomly, one of the girls mentioned that she had totally stopped littering. Used to do it all the time, and now it drives her nuts to see other people doing it. The other students nodded in agreement, and admitted that while they used to litter, they all stopped. It took three years, and it wasn't even the focus of most of our time together, but they all changed their behavior in such a meaningful, impactful way, without being asked, tested, or paid to do so. Isn't that what environmental education is all about?
--Chiara Swartout, Restoration Director