The Last Straw

This year in my classroom, we have established a few important philosophies.  The first is having a “yes, and…” attitude toward things - an improvisational technique that encourages us to “just go with” things that happen and find a way to make it work.  The second is liberal use of the small, but important word: “yet”. No person in our room is allowed to say they they are not good at something without appending the sentence with “yet” at the end (... and yes, they frequently correct their teacher on this when they catch me forgetting to do it too!).   Recently, a third catchphrase has started to embed itself in our classroom culture as well: “Do something!”

Earlier this school year, our talented District Literacy Resource Teachers introduced us to a powerful video called, “The Tree” .  The message is so transformative that we have gone back to re-watch this video multiple times since, for a variety of purposes.

Each time we have watched this as a class, we have followed up with a talking circle to discuss our thoughts on how the theme is related to our current topic. The important messages that we have pondered as a result of watching the video are that it’s important to “do something” (don’t just sit there and wait for someone else to solve the problem), that kids can make a difference, and that (based on a connection to an important message in a short TED talk by Derek Sivers that we also watched as a class) often the first couple of people to join the “lone nut” trying to start something are actually the most courageous ones, helping turn a good idea into a movement.  

This week, due to the fact that it is Earth Day (April 22), we chose to address this year’s campaign of ending plastic pollution.  As a provocation, I shared a beautifully filmed, yet challenging to watch, video trailer for a movie called “Albatross”, that illustrates the negative impact that the plastic waste being generated by humans is having on our oceans and marine/bird life.

Many of my students were shocked by the video, and had no idea that their plastic waste is impacting the planet and its inhabitants in such a harmful way.  We had a really rich talking circle after watching the video, where many of the students shared their surprise and distress. I spoke frankly to them about my honest concerns that, despite its many positive aspects, social media has helped create a culture where many of us feel that we are “making a difference” by simply clicking a “like” button, re-sharing something, or changing our profile picture to temporarily include a logo or colour scheme. While these actions can show support for a cause and help an idea to spread, if that is all we do when we are truly upset or passionate about a topic, are we really “doing something” that will lead to any positive change?  This led to more great discussion and sharing. Most agreed that more action than a "like" needs to be taken in order for something to create a measurable impact. Fifth graders can be pretty amazing, and I was impressed by their thoughtful and mature conversation!

One thing that was touched on in our talking circle, and that I will be going deeper into discussion on with my students in the next week or two, is the impact of single-use plastic drinking straws.  We’ll be watching some more provocative videos on this topic, including this difficult-to-watch piece about a beautiful sea turtle who is having a plastic straw extracted from its nasal passage, and another about a sea turtle who has a plastic fork caught in its nose.  We’ll also be talking about some exciting advances in the area of plastic waste, such as the recent discovery of a bacterial enzyme that “eats” plastic, and interesting innovations that humans are designing to try to address the problem, such as a collapsible, reusable drinking straw that fits on your keychain, and using quickly biodegrading food products to create items usually made from plastics.  I am curious to hear their thoughts on the ban on plastic drinking straws that has recently been implemented by Great Britain, and that Canada has been invited to be a part of as well.

I am interested to see, as we learn more about this topic, what my students come up with as ideas to “do something” to address this issue. Kids CAN create a difference. It only takes a few people to start a movement.  Courageous, curious and caring humans can come up with creative solutions to our world’s problems that we don’t know how to solve YET, and a “yes, and” attitude will help get us there! I wonder how we can leverage technology to make a bigger impact? I am excited to see where this goes in the next few weeks!

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