An Earth Day extravaganza for the New Brunswick community

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NBEA Leverages FAST Grant for Environmental Activities

By Angel Boose

Earth Day offers a variety of exciting opportunities to focus on recycling, energy conservation, increasing plant growth, saving water and preserving the environment. It also provides an opportunity to get everyone out for some hands-on learning. McKinley Community School in New Brunswick did exactly that by hosting an amazing Earth Day event on April 22nd. The theme for the event was McKinley Cares: Caring for the Earth, the Community and Ourselves!

Students, families and teachers participated in making the Earth Day event a huge success. It was sponsored by the New Brunswick Education Association’s FAST program and organized by Shan Byrd and members of the school’s environmental club. These members included Abby Reed of Elijah’s Promise & Food Corps, school educators including Laura Schwahl, Nicole Mudryk, Silvina Rivera-Clifford and Quincey Schenck, and a host of elementary and middle school students.

FAST is the NJEA Families and Schools Working Together for Children program.

It was Principal Janene Rodriguez’s dream to run the school’s greenhouse, so she enthusiastically gave Byrd plenty of leeway to lead the Earth Day event. Rodriguez had the foresight to ask McKinley to theme an environmental school. The Earth Day event was a major step in making the greenhouse a functional learning space.

“This Earth Day event is a demonstration of what real-time restorative justice practices look like,” Byrd said. “It depicts the finer elements of community building: the amplification of collective gifts and shared leadership among students, staff and parents.”

Educators, parents and community volunteers lead arts and science activities

Volunteers leading activities were asked what they wanted to do to support Earth Day. They organized activities around their hobbies and interests, which were then distributed among the stations. These included Koi Pond cleaning, nutrition classes, poetry slam, mural design, greenhouse seeding, rock painting, plant propagation, displays of recycled sculptures, composting , planting wildflower seeds, and an opportunity to get active with environmental cleanup led by the physical education department. Students from kindergarten to grade 4 participated in scheduled activities in the morning while students from grades 5 to 8 participated in activities in the afternoon. Grade 4 classes also participated in a workshop on environmental sustainability presented by Junior Achievement.

This Earth Day event is a demonstration of what restorative justice practices look like in real time.

Patrick Hall, an entrepreneur, led students, parents and educators in cleaning up the pond. They would end up putting fresh water in, painting the rocks, and making the space quieter.

“The difference between a pond and a pool is that a pond has fish,” Hall said. He is a swimming pool expert, but he was more than happy to lead the community in cleaning up the pond. Volunteers donned gloves, grabbed rakes, and got to work moving and cleaning debris from rocks, removing algae, and removing smelly, muddy water to begin sprucing up the space. The students were particularly involved.

Volunteer educators and parents have built raised beds near the pond. Some were made from a strong plastic while others were made from wood purchased by the Environmental Club. Mother Jessica Cabrera was so dedicated to organizing the event that she visited the school during lunchtime. All the volunteers worked diligently to provide space for the students so that they could later plant vegetation of various kinds.

The rock painting was one of the many activity stations enjoyed by the students.

Near the greenhouse, the students participated in various activities. Rich Ciancia worked tirelessly at his station to organize the wildflower plots so that each class had the opportunity to sow seeds. At another station, students selected one of a variety of seeds to plant in a small pot to take home and grow on their own. An additional station allowed students to paint stones and tiles. Once dry, they would be placed in the school garden to make it a more lively and colorful space.

Teacher Tamara Caruso volunteered to host a poetry slam, a timely activity as April is National Poetry Month. She taught Langston and Hughes students how to recite their own poetry. She began with an activity where she recited a line and invited students to take turns adding a line to demonstrate the construction of a poem.

Later, the students came up to share poems about the things they love. Some were shy and reserved at first, but teacher Natasha Branscomb volunteered to show the students how, using her words to recite a poem about teaching. Students became more confident in their performance. A male student embraced the stage after Branscomb’s demonstration and recited a football poem using body language to illustrate his words.

Jessica Rodriguez, the school’s art teacher, led the students in creating Earth Day murals. Three murals were positioned along different walls in an outdoor space for students to add their creative touch. One mural showed the ocean, another a tree, and the last was a depiction of all things Earth Day. A fourth fresco was positioned on the ground. In the same area, students were able to use sidewalk chalk to embellish the floor and decorate tiles placed outside the school building with images they associated with Earth Day.

College ambassadors lend a hand

The Environmental Club middle schoolers donned uniform shirts they designed by hand, so everyone knew they were student ambassadors. The shirts were specially designed for Earth Day. After taking a break for lunch, the students went in pairs to the lower grades of primary school to read books. Some of the titles included The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom by Lita Judge, Bilal Cook Daal by Aisha Saeed, and Anywhere Farm by Phyllis Root. At the end of the book readings, club members handed out blank bookmarks for students to personalize. They provided the students with sample Earth Day images to stimulate their creativity.

Jennifer Duncan led students to learn about various types of plants and how they can be propagated. Propagation involves cutting specimens of a plant from a “mother” plant. The specimen is placed in water to grow roots to start as a new plant.

“A ‘pro’ of propagation is being able to share a plant with others, while the ‘con’ for some is making more of the same plant,” Duncan said. Those who were interested in growing a new plant by propagation were able to take part of the plant home in a jar filled with water.

Nutrition and Literacy Lessons

In the cafeteria, nutrition classes were taught by Mia Funcheon of Elijah’s Promise & Food Corps. Students learned that the environment provides us with different food groups, including fruits, grains, proteins, vegetables and dairy products. Students were asked about food groups. When they answered correctly, they received prepackaged containers of fresh fruit and granola. They also received a flyer from the non-profit organization, Elijah’s Promise, inviting them to learn more about their food programming.

The non-profit family business, Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, hosted a free mobile library where they distributed books in the first floor hallway. It was run by Kaila and Raymond Sykes and their son Truth. The Sykes family believes in spreading love through literacy. They hold free book events in schools and aim to distribute 1,000 free books across the country each year as part of their initiative, #1000FreeBookTour. Their bookstore is located in New Brunswick. If you are interested in a free book tour HiddenGemsLiteraryEmporium.com.

Throughout the day, not only were their activities organized for the whole school, but the class teachers engaged in activities alone with their students. An example is the class of Marta Parris, who engaged in a craft, building a model of the Earth. The students added concertina legs and a face to give it human characteristics. Towards the end of the school day, you could see many students carrying or holding items they had made in honor of Earth Day.

McKinley Community School hosted an exceptional event on what turned out to be a great day. Collaboration between stakeholders in the school community and the wider community has provided the social and emotional learning (SEL) that is so essential for students, their parents, and all school staff. Despite the unpredictability of COVID-19, the Earth Day event allowed for the necessary collaboration while enforcing safety protocols.

“This event is important to show how the community and schools can come together to do great things,” concluded Byrd. She encourages everyone to use funding through FAST to continue providing opportunities for community and school collaboration. To learn more about FAST, visit njea.org/fast.

Angel Boose is a third-grade teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academy in the East Orange School District. She is vice-president of the East Orange Education Association and communications consultant for the NJEA. Boose represents Essex County on the NJEA Women in Education committee.

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