by Ann Berlstein, Greening Fellow, Teacher, Solomon Schechter School of Westchester
When the Schechter Westchester Lower and Upper Schools selected “reducing waste in the lunch program” as our project for the Jewish Greening Fellowship, we were thinking about garbage. Trash. Piles of empty, half-pint milk cartons. Mounds of uneaten pizza slices. We were not focused on giving struggling students a reason to turn up at school every morning or unearthing hidden leadership skills in fourth graders.
So nobody was more surprised than I was when our trash-reduction project became the vehicle for several third and fourth graders to organize themselves into a student-run “compost crew,” complete with job assignments, checklists, badges, protective gear, and – most importantly – “cool kid” status in the halls of the Lower School. In the upper elementary grades, it seems, kids look up to kids with clipboards and big shovels. And for some of our students, that recognition could not have come at a better time.
At the time we decided to recruit students to work on the snack-composting plan, one of our boys – let’s call him Aaron – was going through a hard time. He often did not want to come to school at all. We asked Aaron if he would like to be the captain of the compost crew, and in addition, write a “green tip of the week” for the principal’s newsletter.
Aaron was thrilled with his new job. To our surprise – Aaron recruited a group of 10 of his classmates, created a complicated schedule showing which students collected the snack waste from which classroom on which day, made I.D. tags for each member of his crew, and got them blue rubber gloves. Of course, this blue-gloved posse with their official-looking badges were quite a sight in the hallways. Other students regarded them with awe and begged to join their ranks.
Aaron began to spend less time with the nurse. Weeks went by. Months passed. Aaron remained committed to compost. I spotted him hauling filled containers out to the compost pile in the rain one day. “Aaron, “ I said, “you can skip it in the rain. You’re getting all wet!” “ That’s O.K.,” he assured me. “I dry off fast.”
We probably gave Aaron a bit too much autonomy, as I learned when the mother of another boy approached me to register a complaint. Her son had been “fired” by Aaron for showing up five minutes late for his assigned shift. The boy was distraught. I assured his mother that I would have a chat with Aaron and go over a few management tips. Aaron subsequently accepted the boy back into the crew.
Our compost piles grew and thrived, and the “crew” carried on with its mission until the very last day of school in June. Composting did not cure all of the kids’ problems. For a few kids, however, it did create a space in the school day when they could run the show and prove – to themselves as much as to others – that they were stars.