Empowering Youth Leaders with In- and After-School Clubs

Are you doing something exciting in your school garden that really empowers students to engage with the environment in an altogether different way than classroom instruction can? If so, tell the world about it!

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of sharing three such stories at the Garden in Every School Symposium at Soil Born Farms. Here is a recap of my talk.

When I was teaching in Milwaukee, teachers I knew drank a lot of soda.  That was back in the day when “sugar-sweetened beverages” were commonplace and recycling was not. I enlisted the support of the custodian to implement an aluminum can recycling effort. Although I was somewhat motivated to raise awareness about diverting waste from landfills, I was more inclined to raise money to take my students on outdoor field trips.

Fast forward twelve years: I found myself working in the schools again. This time, I took a job at an environmental science school in Napa, where I now live. By 2015, the City of Napa was offering food composting at all residences and small businesses, including school sites. Yet, I was appalled at lunch duty to find that most students didn’t seem to be consistently separating their trash. I had to take action. I updated the school-wide lesson for teaching how to properly recycle and compost at lunchtime. I requested better signs to label the recycling, compost, and trash containers. Most importantly, I started a youth club that empowered students to be peer leaders.

The school custodian, along with City of Napa Recycling Specialist and several “Minion” lunch waste leaders.

When we invited the City of Napa Recycling Specialist to visit our school, she gave an engaging talk about the importance of recycling and composting. She used a very powerful tool to appeal to the students: she plastered her presentation with the little yellow construction workers popularized in the animated film “Minions.” We adopted this name for our club, and all students wanted to belong. All we had to add was a clipboard and some name badges and we were good to go!

You’ve heard the expression, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” right? Well, in the case of my most popular after school club, it applies. I first started Dirt Girls  because the school garden needed regular maintenance (see Return of the Dirt Girls: Fostering Teamwork and Inclusion in the Garden and Dirt Girls to the Rescue!), but now this group of girls does so much more. They protect the garden and spread enthusiasm for nature. Weekly sessions empower girls to become environmental stewards.

Dirt Girls proudly don their personalized T-shirts on the day we meet for our club.

By promoting independence, freedom, choice, beauty, teamwork, perseverance, friendship, and, of course, fun, this ever-rotating team of girls pulls weeds, moves wood chips, spreads compost, starts seeds, and protects the garden! They love to be in nature and they love to get dirty. In the garden, they get both! To see examples in pictures, see theĀ complete talk, seeĀ Cultivating Environmental Stewardship with Youth Leaders.

Finally, nothing beats the feeling of success that comes from a garden grant award. When I received a funding from the Captain Planet Foundation last year (see Spring Plants, Grants, Contests, and Events), I started a STEM Club so the project could be more student-led. With minimal guidance from me, students measured the garden and shed roof, researched plant size and growing habits, selected native plant varieties, and designed a daisy-chain rain catchment system. The project culminated with a parent work day, when students also led the installation.

Finding time in the school day for student-led projects can be a challenge, but as Dirt Girls, Minions, and STEM Club demonstrate, extracurricular opportunities to engage in the garden can be incredibly empowering!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. johnnnita says:

    Northwood Elementary School last year or so started a beginning process with implementing composting. I wonder if they would be still interested in what you’ve done. I don’t know if they are still doing some form of composting.

    Liked by 1 person

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