New Jersey Learns Mondays

February 22, 2010

On the heels of our Earthwatch guest blog series, Dodge has now teamed up with the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education for a new round of guest blog posts, “New Jersey Learns Mondays.” The reflections and stories from K-12 teachers and community leaders who have completed Cloud’s unique leadership training program “New Jersey Learns: Schools and Communities Learn Together for a Sustainable Future” will show that it is possible to lead the shift to a sustainable future.

From innovative instructional partnerships to curriculum design, NJ Learns is building capacity among educators, parents, community members, and, ultimately, our youth, to “live responsibly and well within the means of nature.”

If you missed them, you can read the previous NJ Learns entries with Stacey Kennealy of GreenFaith and with Winnie Fatton of Sustainable Jersey. Today, we hear from Caitlin Wargo, the Director of Sustainability and Energy Management for the Far Hills Country Day School.

Making Bird Feeders

Far Hills Country Day School students making natural bird feeders

By Caitlin Wargo, Director of Sustainability and Energy Management
Far Hills Country Day School

The Far Hills Country Day School team (who are Jen Berry, parent; Jen Wagar, fifth grade teacher; Ben Yu, Pre-K teaching assistant and I) almost didn’t make it to NJ Learns. A freak power outage shut down the school on the day everything was due. FHCDS parent and Energy Committee member Jen Berry had power at her house, so we went there to finalize our application, along with an apology for not including any of the attachments, which were stuck on my computer at school.

That was about a year ago, and I know I can speak for our team when I say that we have gotten so much more out of this program than we could have imagined.

I thought I might walk away from the workshop with some helpful tips for the school’s new Energy and Sustainability Initiatives. Far Hills had been recycling and composting long before I was hired, so our students already had a stewardship in their “think.” The new Energy Initiative, on the other hand, charged us with achieving energy independence in ten years, a lofty goal offering us a significant opportunity to impact our students’ mindset regarding energy. From the outset, we saw this first and foremost as an opportunity to educate, so we have involved our students in all of our plans, enabling them to be the decision makers charting the course of the initiative: from researching renewable options to speaking on behalf of the school in front of the Planning Board.

Post-workshop, I met with our Head of School, Jayne Geiger, and told her I wanted to change up my whole approach. I think the words I used were, “Put my money where my mouth is.”

The information on systems thinking and brain science presented by Jaimie Cloud made so much sense, and helped me understand what we as a school needed to do if we were to really let the kids be leaders in this initiative.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Far Hills. We had just launched a new strategic plan emphasizing 21st century and project-based learning, as well as fostering global perspectives and building community. The EfS standards dovetail seamlessly with these, setting the stage for a collaboration that will have meaning at FHCDS and our community for years to come.

Here are some great things that have come about since our team took part in the NJ Learns workshop last year:

  1. We played the fish game with the entire school faculty at the start of the school year. Feedback was unanimously positive and our faculty engaged in lively discussions about preserving the “commons.”
  2. We taught the Jaimie Cloud’s one-day seminar over the course of two evening sessions to a group of ten co-workers and school parents, who were so enthusiastic that we had a hard time wrapping up each session. Some of those same teachers are now planning to attend the Curriculum Design Studio at the Cloud Institute this summer.
  3. Jen Wagar is using the EfS standards as her team revises the third grade curriculum.
  4. Jen Berry is organizing parents to host a film series/discussion group on sustainable themes for the school and community.
  5. Ben Yu is working to put in a school garden. This garden will provide endless opportunities for learning about sustainable practices on a level that can be understood by our youngest learners. He is working with a group of interested students to decide what we should grow. One of the first suggestions was “puppies,” which may take a little work!
  6. After taking part in NJ Learns, I revamped my environmental club to use a project-based learning approach. Within this new framework, the students generated several ideas. They decided to fix our defunct composting system and to rehab an underused courtyard at the school with outdoor seating and to create art installations and bird feeding stations. They also want to put in a small pond – I am not bursting their bubble yet. Who knows? It just might fly. As part of their research, are interviewing several community members who have offered to lend their expertise.
  7. This spring, I will be working with eighth graders who want to help me determine the school’s most effective renewable energy options as part of their research project requirement.
  8. The Science Department is working with the Upper Raritan Watershed Association to revise our existing Pond Project so that it includes data on the effectiveness of our retention basins in filtering runoff from our parking lots and drives.
  9. FHCDS joined Sustainable Jersey in Bernardsville and will have students participating in their community information session in March, alongside students from the local public high school.

Hanging Bird Feeders

Hanging Bird Feeders 2

FHCDS students hanging their bird feeders

Where do we go from here? We’ve built a strong, committed team, and as Jaimie Cloud says, “This isn’t instant orange juice.” As a result of Far Hills Country Day School’s participation in the NJ Learns program, however, I think our students will be even better prepared to take their place as the leaders of the future.

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New Jersey Learns introduces teachers and community leaders to Education for Sustainability. Education for Sustainability (EfS) is a whole system approach to schools and communities learning together for a sustainable future and includes the Cloud Institute’s EfS Core Content Standards. The program brings community-based teams to participate in one year of introductory training, implementation, coaching and assessment activities.

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