Listening to Student Voices: Sustainability Education and Student Centered Learning

“All education is environmental education…by what is included or excluded we teach the young that they are a part of, or apart from the natural world.”

David W. Orr, 2005

Do many high school kids these days have a sense of what’s really going on with the environment, with social equity issues, with where the energy they use comes from, with where their water will come from in the future? Where do they get this information, and who helps them to find it? Does the public school system here in Sonoma County do a good job in helping students navigate these interconnected issues that will play a substantial role in their later lives? 

As a participant in the 2014 cohort of the Leadership for a Sustainable Future course, I wanted to use the group project we were assigned to help find the answers to these questions, and to help put into action what I had just recently learned as a graduate student in Education at Sonoma State University.  My group project for the Institute course developed and funded the ongoing youth program of the Leadership for a Sustainable Future course. The Youth Leadership Program creates space in the class for high school students to participate as full cohort members. The idea for this was planted in my mind a couple of years before while working on my thesis.

In the fall of 2012, I assembled a case study of a public high school course, called Sustainable Practices for my SSU graduate thesis. This class is still currently offered at Montgomery High School* in Santa Rosa, California. It would not exist without the determined and caring work of the teacher who developed it, Len Greenwood (Institute Fellow, 2010). At the time it was one of only a handful of courses in the curriculum offered by Sonoma County public high schools that addressed sustainability issues directly as the basis for the class.

In the spring of 2008 Mr. Greenwood was asked by his school administration to help set up a Green Academy for at-risk youth who attended the school. At-risk youth are students who fail three or more classes their freshman year. The idea was to form an alternative learning program within the school for these students that fully integrated curriculum in science, math, English and sustainability. The Academy’s focus was to be vocational in nature and centered on green building and sustainability.

Mr. Greenwood developed the curriculum, helped find external private sector funding for the program, and arranged for internships for his students. I wanted to find out about and record what the student experiences of the Sustainable Practices class were like for them, and what they said about it themselves.

In class, Len Greenwood said to his students, “Don’t expect your parents to do it, don’t expect somebody else to do it – it all starts right here.  So I’m going to try to give you the tools to be a complete advocate, steward, you know, activist for this movement of sustainability.” Mr. Greenwood continues to be an advocate for student voice and student agency. He held high expectations for his students, and they knew this.  He also gave them the space to be themselves. Greenwood sums up his thinking on teaching sustainability this way,

“For me, the biggest outcome is that they (become) complete citizens, apply critical thinking and keep aware, not just picking up the newspaper and saying, “Yup, that’s the truth.”  In this class they are looking at multiple sources for their news and information.”

Through the use of student peer-to-peer teaching, and actively listening to student voices, many students came away from the class with a focused direction for further study, and a purpose to pursue.

Peer-to-Peer Learning and Teaching Opportunities

My previous research had suggested that more students become engaged in the content when classroom discussions contained a peer-to-peer, student-centered component.  Mr. Greenwood utilized peer tutors in many of his classes to augment classroom discussions. These peer tutors had typically already taken his Sustainable Practices class and could help the other students find their own voices by speaking with authority in a student voice. Student’s comments kept me intrigued, and the classroom experience had a personal affect on me. I could not help but be impressed by and hopeful about many of the students I observed and interviewed.

During one of my many visits to the classroom that school year, groups of students reported on the several different articles they had read for homework. Along with the statement, “Thank You For Being Well,” Mr. Greenwood had written two questions on the white board at the front of the room. The first asked: How does your article relate to human rights, to animal rights, to earth rights? The second question asked: Discuss the relationship between exponential population growth and resource distribution. For this assignment the students had been working in groups of two or three to come up with responses to those questions. I arrived in time to watch the last three groups present their articles.

Teacher Len Greenwood in action. Fall, 2012

Teacher Len Greenwood in action. Fall, 2012

One of the most dynamic discussions occurred surrounding an article that was presented about the process of fracking.  The student’s article talked about an oil and natural gas company who were drilling for natural gas under a school in Pennsylvania. The two students, Ryan and Travis, then discussed the practice of fracking with the class.  They talked about the problems associated with this extraction method, which involves the injection of a mixture of water and numerous chemicals into the ground under extremely high pressure to fracture and crack the rock miles below the surface. This allows drillers to extract the latent oil and gas trapped in the rock. Travis had a lot to say on the subject:

Hydraulic fracking is when natural gas companies come in and they drill a well, a well that's extremely deep.  It takes a huge amount of energy, first because of all the truckloads.  It takes about 400 truckloads (of pipe and water and chemicals), just to make this well in the first place.  Second, they (drill down and put into the ground) millions and millions of gallons of water full of chemicals, over 500 chemicals, 300 of them known to be toxic and 100 of them are just unknown. 

They refuse to release exactly what's in that mixture…pretty much they drill all this water straight underground, pressurize the gas out and just leave.  After they get all the gas, they just leave this messed up water right in people's living spaces 'cause they have the right to do it wherever they want. So they come up, destroy your water, and just leave.  And there's nothing you can do about it 'cause the government refuses to say that's bad for you.  There are people down in Colorado and places like that that, literally, turn on their water, and when they light it, it goes up straight in flames.  They can't even drink their own water.  (Travis, student).

The students really seemed to pay attention and listen to Travis while he was speaking. The class was very quiet and intent on what he was saying. I was impressed with the knowledge Travis was able to relate to the group from memory. I was even more impressed by his conviction about how wrong he felt this practice was, and how he was able to convey his feelings to the class in a measured yet compelling way.

I asked Ryan how he approaches talking to his friends and family about what he’s learning in the Sustainable Practices class. He responded:

I do talk issues with my parents, but not as much as I do with kids my age, ‘cause if a kid my age asks me a question about something, it – I really feel that’s like a genuine question, and he’s asking me one to one, like, “I don’t understand this.  Please pass your knowledge on.”  And so, that’s what I try and do.  I try and tell them everything I know, and a lot of the times it’s hard, ‘cause people don’t always want to change.  I think it’s really powerful when students talk to students.  The way that it really inspired me is this – in this class there were kids older than me, senior kids that were talking these issues that my parents were talking about, and they knew these things because they were becoming more sophisticated.  They understood more, and that was something that I wanted.  I wanted to know what they knew. 

Ryan wanted to know what his older peers knew. He wanted to get it. So he understands that same feeling that younger, less experienced students have when they talk to him. He wants to help them understand too. I agree with Ryan. This is a powerful approach.

Peer-to-peer learning outside the classroom

One bright Wednesday morning, after a brief introduction, Mr. Greenwood assigned Ryan and Travis to lead the students in an activity of planting flowers and vegetables in wooden boxes that had been constructed for this purpose and set up alongside the portable classrooms. It’s a cool day, but warmer in the sunshine. Ryan and Travis split the group, and then each showed the students how to carefully remove the seedlings from their trays and place them gently in the holes they had dug in the soil. Ryan mentioned to be careful to space the seedlings out so that they would have enough room when they grew larger. He showed the others how to do this, and he then encouraged them to do the same. Travis and Mr. Greenwood helped the other students with the flowers. Some students gravitated toward the flowers and some toward the vegetables. All seemed to be paying attention, participating and enjoying themselves.

After the activity was completed, I mentioned to Ryan that it was enjoyable to watch the students really paying attention and listening to him while he was showing them and explaining how to properly put plants into the ground. He responded:

Yeah, I was actually a little surprised by that, [Laughter] to be honest.  So, you know, I said, “Okay, we’ll go,” you know, and everyone broke off into their own like little thing, and everyone just – no hesitation.  Hands right in the dirt and just did it. And I think that’s just kind of something that most kids would do, you know.  I think kids just have a lot of energy to burn, and so they were just happy to get out of the classroom for 15-20 minutes to get their hands a little dirty and just get some fresh air.  So I think they’re more than willing, and I think that’s why they were very responsive.

Montgomery students listening to Ryan and prepare to plant some veggie starts. Fall, 2012 Montgomery students listening to Ryan and prepare to plant some veggie starts. Fall, 2012

Montgomery students listen to Ryan and prepare to plant some veggie starts. Fall 2012.

I then spoke with Mr. Greenwood and mentioned that it was so great to see Ryan and Travis taking leadership roles in the class, and he agreed. He said it should help some of the newer students to “get it” sooner rather than later. Mr. Greenwood really believed in the power of providing opportunities for students to have responsibility and take leadership roles in the classroom. Ryan expressed to me on several occasions how much he appreciated this peer-to-peer teaching and learning. 

Student Voices

My thesis project allowed me the privilege of speaking with and asking questions of several students in Mr. Greenwood’s Sustainable Practices class. All of the students were very gracious with their time and welcomed my questions. Several students participated in multiple interviews, at school and at the two different internship sites I visited. These interviews were the most revealing and inspiring portion of my research. Below is a sampling of their voices speaking on the topics they were learning about through Mr. Greenwood’s course. The students were able to clearly articulate what they were learning, what concerned them about what they were learning, and in many cases what they wanted to do about it.  I asked several students early in the study what sustainability meant to them. Ryan responds:

Well, sustainability, you know, it can mean different things, but to me, the way that I look at it, mostly is something that is good for the planet as a whole, something that can sustain in the environment of the planet forever (Ryan, student).

Ryan Johnson volunteering at The Laguna de Santa Rosa Native Plant Nursery, 2012.

Ryan Johnson volunteering at The Laguna de Santa Rosa Native Plant Nursery, 2012.

Shelbi also had a thoughtful answer to the same question when I interviewed her several months later:

Before I went into the class I knew nothing about green technology or sustainability or anything like that…But, once I got in there I got really interested in it and I started looking at everything I was doing.  And, was just like, wow, okay I really need to take a step back and look at everything (that) isn’t working! (Shelbi, student).

Shelbi’s response led me to think how beneficial this class could be to students who had not yet been exposed to this information. I was surprised to hear that she had not learned about any green technology or sustainable practices prior to this class. Much of northern California, and especially Sonoma County, is quite progressive in these realms. Her comment made me consider that the public education system is not yet doing enough to promote this topic in K-12 schools.

Helen spoke about how helpful the internship requirement of the class was to her, and what it could mean for her future:

I think there are a lot of things that we learn in this class that we can use in the future.  Being in the internship program, we have so many options.  We could work with who ever we want, and dabble in whatever we want to do and see what we really want to be, instead of just being thrown out in the world and expected to figure it out in a short amount of time (Helen, student).

Andrea expressed her thoughts about the affordances of sharing the act of gardening, and how the practice can spread through a community with very positive outcomes:

If you, yourself do a small garden and then you share it with your neighbors, and then they do a garden, and then it just expands.  It’s like you turn one person on, and then they turn another person, and then it just keeps growing and multiplying; and soon you have like the entire world farming instead of buying from stores (Andrea, student).

Mr. Greenwood’s students working at their internship jobs on the school’s farm in Santa Rosa. Mr. Greenwood’s students working at their internship jobs on the school’s farm in Santa Rosa.

Mr. Greenwood’s students working at their internship jobs on the school’s farm in Santa Rosa.

Hunter agreed with Andrea and added his own feeling of having agency and making a difference in the community:

You never really realize how nice it is and how good you feel when you’re doing all this work, because when you get in and do it, you just think to yourself, “Wow, I’m making a difference.  It’s small,” but it’s like what Andrea said – everyone starts doing it, and all of a sudden, everything’s great again.  It’s kind of like that [Laughter] (Hunter, student).

During a class discussion about the Keystone XL pipeline, Helen shared her thoughts about allowing tar sands oil from Canada to cross the U.S. using the hotly debated pipeline:

I don’t think it would be beneficial at all.  It’s the worst kind of oil you could possibly have produced.  And, you know, it’s not even going to us, and we’re going be shipping it.  So it’s all this transportation problems, like energy and just all that money that’s just unnecessary.  I think we should be investing in clean energy, and I think that we can do that.  I mean providing the states with more access to, you know, clean energy companies and talking to them more (Helen, student).

All of the students I spoke with felt that the Sustainable Practices class should be mandatory for all students. Ryan put it this way:

And I think it should be required, because this is like – this seems like such basic knowledge, and it seems like such basic human aspects of life that they should just already be thinking about, but they’re not. And so, the fact that this class can get those juices flowing and those thoughts created and those ideas and everything there, I think it should be required.  I think this should be the most valued class on campus (Ryan, student).

Michelle agreed with Ryan and echoed Shelbi’s earlier statement about a general lack of knowledge about sustainability among her peers:

I just couldn’t believe that everyone thinks it’s a problem that’s going to fix itself.  Everyone at my school’s completely clueless and they don’t even want to take the time to learn it.  I honestly think this program should be enforced (mandatory for all students) to learn (Michelle, student).

Travis took this thought a bit further and discovered that the information from this class provided the answer to his question, “Why bother with school?” The Sustainable Practices class gave context to what he was learning in other classes and made him realize the benefits of and the need for his education. From that thought he made the connection himself in thinking about using his education to do something that would benefit not just him, but the environment and community as well.

Before I was in this class, school was like – I don’t know.  I always kind of wondered, “What’s the point?” because it’s hard to think and realize, like put together like reading this book and writing this essay, or doing this math problem and whatnot, how it’s really going to help out?  But once I got into sustainable practices I realized, “Wow, this really has a purpose…And it just kind of gave me hope in school that made me realize that there are people out there that do think the same way I do, and that people do care and do want to help you get out there and do the right thing (Travis).

These are thoughtful and concerned youths. Through this class many of them have become aware of the challenges posed by climate change and the effects humans have had on our planet’s environment. They also discovered that even though they are young they have a voice, and valuable thoughts to contribute. Many have found that they can do things right now that will be of benefit to the environment and initiate change. Ryan is now working on a farm, helping to grow native plants, another is an intern for a Member of Congress, yet another is learning marine biology in a professional lab. These students are already making a difference. They also realize that it will be up to their generation to come up with the answers needed to fix the complex and interrelated problems we all face. Their thoughtfulness, passion, ideas, and energy give me a great deal of hope for our future.

The Sustainable Practices course continues its legacy of student centered learning at Montgomery High School today with a current Institute Leadership Course student, Melissa Neufer as the instructor. Len Greenwood retired from Montgomery High at the end of the 2014 school year, and currently resides in southern Oregon where he continues to farm, advocate for youth, and tend the land. The current high school youth cohort of the Leadership class is working on their own projects right now. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish!  

Montgomery High School is also the first venue for the Leadership Institute’s Seeds of Resilience Seminars. Seeds of Resilience is a free service to teachers connecting the academics of the California Common Core State Standards with real-world examples and sustainability issues in Sonoma County and abroad. Accessing over 450 experts from the Institute’s Fellows Network, Seeds of Resilience connects classrooms with local, regional, and national experts in sustainability-related industries and fields. The Institute, essentially acting as a speakers bureau, facilitates 2 hour seminars and hands-on activities that use issues such as energy use and behavior, land use decisions, environmental conservation, and disadvantaged communities to achieve desired curriculum outcomes. 

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James Freed is an experienced educational exhibit designer with twenty years in the industry. His specialty is conceptual design and James Freedthree-dimensional development of educational exhibits. A skilled draftsman and illustrator, James also has a background in architectural and interior design. Originally from Los Angeles, CA, James grew up in the North Bay Area, but returned to southern California to attend Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After earning a BFA in Art Center's Illustration program in 1992, he worked as an artist and animator in the software industry for several years before moving into exhibit design.

James also teaches drawing and design to both graduate and undergraduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where he has been an adjunct professor since 1995. He also teaches Design at UC Berkeley Extension in San Francisco. In 2013 he completed a Master of Arts Degree in Education from Sonoma State University, with an emphasis in sustainability education. He is also 2014 Fellow of the Leadership Institute. James loves drawing and painting, especially outdoors, and is an avid hiker, swimmer, and cyclist.

This blog was produced as informational material for the Leadership for a Sustainable Future course.  It has been provided to the public to promote community wide education on issues of sustainability. You can support the education efforts of the Leadership Institute, 501 (c)3 non-profit, by donating here.