G.R.E.E.N. Your Classroom the Catholic Way

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What can students do to be good stewards of God’s creation?

By Jill Buck

In 2002, I was a catechist for fourth-graders. When I taught a lesson on Creation in the spring of that year, they enthusiastically embraced the truth that God created the world with great love, saw that it was good, and then gave human beings the awesome responsibility of stewardship of his see if there is anything we can find creation. My students asked me a question that was so simple, yet so profound: “Mrs. Buck, what can we do to be good stewards of God’s creation?”

I said something like, “Let’s look around us here in this classroom and see if there is anything we can find that might harm creation, then let’s see if we can do something about it.” The students found plastic water bottles in the trash can and decided that we should recycle them. I told the kids that if we took the bottles to our local transfer station, we could earn money for them, and I asked them what they they though an appropriate use for the money would be. I expected to hear, “How about a pizza party for our class?” But their answer was so beautiful, and so Catholic: “Let’s give it to the local shelter for women and children who have been abused.” My sweet, soulful fourth-graders had taken a lesson on Creation and made the connection to social justice and helping those in need.

In June of that year, Pope John Paul II issued a joint statement on environmental ethics with the Ecumenical Patriarch, His Holiness Bartholomew I. Their message encouraged the faithful to “think of the world’s children when we reflect on and evaluate our options for action,” and further to embrace that “it is love for our children that will show us the path that we must follow into the future.” This is an excerpt of their joint statement:

We are … concerned about the negative consequences for humanity and for all creation resulting from the degradation of some basic natural resources such as water, air and land … we have been placed by God in the world in order to cooperate with Him in realizing more and more fully the divine purpose for creation…. In our own time we are witnessing a growth of an ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged, so that it will lead to practical programs and initiatives. … A new approach and a new culture are needed, based on the centrality of the human person within creation and inspired by environmentally ethical behavior stemming from our triple relationship to God, to self and to creation. Such an ethics fosters interdependence and stresses the principles of universal solidarity, social justice and responsibility, in order to promote a true culture of life.  (Common Declaration of John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I, Monday, 10 June 2002)

What kept echoing in my heart was the line, “ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged, so that it will lead to practical programs and initiatives.” And so began a journey that has become my life’s work. I wrote a free environmental education initiative to help schools role model and teach environmentally responsible behavior to their students. There are five simple principles to the program, and schools devise their own ways of expressing them:

  1. Generate less waste.
  2. Recycle everything you can.
  3. Educate the educators, kids, custodial staff, and parents.
  4. Evaluate the environmental impact of what happens in your classroom.
  5. Nourish discussions that integrate care for God’s creation into everyday subject matter.

Generate Less Waste

One of my favorite stories of a teacher who took this principle to heart is that of a middle-school Spanish teacher. She provided small white boards for her students to use in class. She would say, “Write the Spanish word for door,” and each student would write his or her answer on a whiteboard and hold it up for the teacher’s inspection. After their work was checked, students wiped off their whiteboards with tissues or paper towels, then repeated the drill with another vocabulary word. At the end of every day, the trash can was overflowing with tissues that had been used for cleaning the whiteboards. When the school began to talk about generating less waste, the Spanish teacher decided to use old (washed) socks that the kids could use to wipe their whiteboards all day, and, when necessary, the socks could be laundered and reused. It cost her nothing to ask the kids to bring in old socks, and washing the socks was a simple task. With this one modification, the teacher eliminated nearly all the waste coming out of her classroom.

Take a look in the waste cans in classroom and around campus Is there a way to generate less waste?

Recycle Everything You Can

Recycling is not just a good idea; it is a behavior and a skill that takes daily practice. In some ways, recycling is a lot like math. In order to teach children addition, we introduce the concept to them, and then we provide them with ample opportunities to practice worksheets, games, and activities. Similarly, when teaching kids to recycle, we introduce the concept of what it means to recycle and what items can be recycled, and then we have to set up a learning environment where they can practice recycling over and over again. I have visited many campuses where Earth Day is celebrated, but on any regular day it might be difficult to find recycling cans being used properly. A campus that is serious about recycling will ensure easy access to recycling bins in classrooms, common spaces, and the lunch area. And above all else, it will ensure that kids see the adults on campus recycling everything they can. If they see their teacher, principal, custodian, or parent volunteers putting recyclables in the regular trash, they will be less likely to believe that recycling is truly important.

If your campus lacks a campus-wide system of recycling, consider talking with the waste hauler who picks up your trash about establishing a program with the proper bins and recycling pickup days to meet your campus’s needs.

Educate the Educators, Kids, Custodial Staff, and Parents

Too often I see Environmental Education programs aimed strictly at students and teachers. I firmly believe that Environmental Education is an “all hands” operation, and I advocate a holistic approach that involves all the stakeholder groups in the Campus Community. Running to preserve and conserve natural resources can become a campus culture instead of just a lesson plan if everyone on campus is part of the “green team.” When parents, faculty, administrators, and staff coalesce around the notion that they are “going green” in order to create a better future for the students they care about, it gives your efforts to promote environmental protection a much deeper, richer meaning. My personal motto is “It’s not enough to prepare our children for the future … we must prepare the future for our children.” In Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the World Day of Peace on January I, 2010, he expresses this sentiment far more eloquently:

A greater sense of intergenerational solidarity is urgently needed. Future generations cannot be saddled with the cost of our use of common environmental resources … We cannot refuse to interest ourselves in those who will come after us This is a responsibility that present generations have towards those of the future …. Natural resources should be used in such a way that immediate benefits do not have a negative impact on living creatures, human and not, present and future. (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 2010: If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation)

Help the adults in your campus community understand that your efforts to “go green” center on your concern for the future of the students you teach and care for. It is likely they will share this concern for children, and endeavor to get involved.

Educate the Environmental Impact of What Happens in Your Classroom

After you check the classroom trash can, think about other easy changes you could make in your classroom. Consider:

  • Is the paper used in your classroom made of recycled material?
  • Is the paper used in your classroom made of recycled material?
  • If you send notes home to parents, can you use half sheets or double-sided printing to reduce the amount of paper used?
  • Is your classroom using energy wisely, e.g., taking advantage of natural lighting on sunny days and outside air when temperatures are mild?
  • Are there pesticides or toxic cleaning products used in your classroom that might affect the indoor air quality?

Creating a perfectly “green” classroom doesn’t happen overnight; consider it a marathon, not a 100- yard dash. Pace yourself. Some of the best resources to help you evaluate the environmental impact of your classroom can be found on the U.S. EPA website for schools and teachers.

Nurse Discussions That Integrate Care for God’s Creation into Everyday Subject Matter

Many teachers have told me that they cannot institute environmental education in their classroom because they are so inundated with existing curriculum requirements that they cannot add any new lesson plans to the school year. I believe them, and I offer an alternative. If you cannot add new lesson plans, add the environment into existing lesson plans. These are just a few examples:

  • Math – If kids are learning EPA website for schools and teachers: multiplication, tell them that they can save 7,000 gallons of water for every ton of paper recycled, and ask them to calculate how much water was saved with various amounts of recycled paper.
  • History – If kids are learning about early American history, talk to them about how the settlers had no choice but to eat food that was locally grown. Ask them to consider some of the benefits of eating food that is produced near where they live, and perhaps plan a field trip to a local farm.
  • Spelling – Who doesn’t love extra credit? Consider creating a list of age-appropriate bonus “eco-words” the kids can learn to earn extra credit each week on their spelling test.

Our children are counting on us. We must never give up hope that God will richly bless our efforts to care for his creation on behalf of the children he has placed in our care. In peace, I leave you with the words of Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch, His Holiness Bartholomew I:

It is not too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the earth toward our children’s future. Let that generation start now, with God’s help and blessing. (Common Declaration of John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I, Monday, 10 June 2002)

For more papal remarks on the environment, see Pope John Paul II’s message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 1990: Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of creation

For further reading:

The Wonders of God’s Creation

Activity: Plan an All-School “Creation Care Fair”

Mary, the Visitation, and Care for our Common Home


Jill Buck is the founder of the Go Green Initiative (GoGreenInitiative.org). She is also a catechist in her parish, and she and her husband are the parents of three wonderful children.


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