Kindergarten students use crayon to draw stalk of broccoli from real life.

Sowing a Big Idea: Growing Up Green

Some big ideas are meant to be shared. It is through partnership and collaboration that the big ideas grow roots and become an integral part of something even bigger. In 2015, Pat Cruz, YA’s then-chief innovation officer, and educator Mary Kate Bransford had a dream. What if every kindergarten classroom in Prince Georges County Public Schools (PGCPS) had an arts-integrated environmental literacy program?

Their big idea brought together twenty teachers and five teaching artists to write a five-day lesson plan that both met environmental literacy and visual art criteria and explored themes like habitat restoration, local ecosystems, the life cycle of plants, and the lifecycle of animals for a brand new program: Growing Up Green. The program, a partnership between Young Audiences and the Prince Georges County Office of Environmental Literacy, would be piloted in 17 schools in the district in the 2015-16 school year.

Teaching artist Bomani guided students in writing poetry about worm composting!

That first year resulted in the creation of five separate 5-day arts-integrated environmental literacy lessons. Teaching artists worked side by side with kindergarten teachers all five days of the program with the goal of handing off that role to each individual school’s art teacher in future years. To prepare teachers, Kristina Berdan, Young Audiences Education Director, trained teacher ambassadors, kindergarten lead teachers, and art/music teachers to use the arts as a teaching tool in their classrooms. “I used to think art was a product of a lesson,” said one kindergarten teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools after being trained in arts integration through Growing Up Green. “Now I think art is the process to achieve the objective.”

The team constantly listened, assessed, reflected, and revised, resulting in a comprehensive catalog of resources for teachers and the refinement of, in the second year, four unique residencies instead of the initial five, and then in its third year, one: Fiber artist Pam Negrin‘s The Lifecycle of Plants. Kindergarteners and their teachers explored nature with their real-life senses—looking, smelling, touching—to not just learn about our natural world, but experience it. Classrooms across the district were outfitted with custom-made embroidery tables where students could gather and stitch their observations, building with and learning from one another. “We think with our hands and when students are immersed in a lesson together, they begin to make their own connections,” said Pam. From sharing what they learned during the school day at home to internalizing and remembering more information, the effects on learning were so profound that once-resistant teachers embraced learning through arts integration and extended it into other content areas.

Embroidered tapestry illustrating the life cycle of plants

Growing Up Green combines the arts and time outdoors with making connections between humans and the environment and brainstorming solutions. “The program gets kids outside and thinking about the bigger picture and the combination of all the elements of the program supports the district’s goals,” said James Roberson, PGCPS Instructional Specialist for Environmental Literacy. And after the lessons have ended, classes are left with beautiful embroidered tapestries they can share with the school community. “The tapestries are a great way to showcase what they’ve learned.”

Our state was the first in the nation to approve an environmental graduation requirement for all Maryland students. In 2011, the school board created Environmental Literacy Standards that would support the growth of the planet’s next generation of stewards. Prince George’s County Public Schools is intentionally integrating these standards into the PreK-12 curriculum, and through Growing Up Green, they are successfully reaching the county’s youngest students. This is the first year that PGCPS is running Growing Up Green without Young Audiences’ support. “Young Audiences has been an outstanding partner over the last four years,” said Roberson. 

A child assembling a laser-cut, wooden birdhouse
FutureMakers helped kindergarteners make custom birdhouses!

“I’m really impressed by how different teachers have taken what they learned and run with it,” said Jhanna Levin, PGCPS Environmental Literacy Outreach Teacher. As a result of Growing Up Green, teachers in the district’s Autism Program, for instance, have embraced the art of embroidery, the fine motor skills it develops, and the calm it inspires. “It soothes the kids in a way they weren’t expecting.” Levin, new to the department, has taken the reigns of Growing Up Green and nurtured the development of teachers new to the program as well as veteran educators. She is constantly checking in and helping the teachers to do what works best for them.

She is holding a training session this coming January for lead kindergarten teachers to explore additional arts integration techniques for classrooms and it’s not just new teachers who are looking forward to it. “We’re talking about turning T-shirts into yarn and using dance for the observational piece,” said Levin. James Roberson added, “We’re really excited about what Jhanna brings to the program.”

Growing Up Green was a tiny seed that with research and tremendous effort and love, Young Audiences was able to sow. Through the amazing partnership we’ve had with PGCPS, we’ve seen the program evolve and take shape in a way that both works best for the district and stays true to the vision of Growing Up Green at its conception. We are extremely proud to see the district take charge and continue nurturing and developing this incredible program. Levin said, “There are teachers who have done this for three years now and they say, ‘Just give us the materials. We’ve got this.'”

Growing Up Green: Hip-Hop Poetry and Composting

 Growing Up Green: Poetry and Composting

Growing Up Green: Hip-Hop Poetry and Composting

Teaching Our Youngest Learners Environmental Citizenship Through the Arts
Part 2: Local Ecosystems

This Spring, Young Audiences wrapped up the initial phase of its pilot programming for Prince George’s County Public School District’s new arts integration initiative, Growing Up Green. We introduced the program in an earlier blog post, but here is a refresher for those who missed it:

The initiative is part of an exciting new partnership between Young Audiences/Arts for Learning and Prince George’s County Public Schools and is funded in part by a BGE Green Grant and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The program engages kindergarteners in meaningful and authentic outdoor experiences that help connect them to their local ecosystems and inspire them to learn more about protecting our environment. The arts provide the vehicle that the students use to demonstrate and communicate their understanding to the greater learning community of their school.

Bomani, a Young Audiences Teaching Artist, began his pilot program by using poetry to investigate the process of composting with five groups of Kindergarten classes at three different schools: John Hanson Montessori, Oxon Hill Elementary, and Benjamin Foulois Creative and Performing Arts Academy. Over 80 kindergarteners had the opportunity to literally get their hands dirty in hands-on learning while understanding everything from what type of trash can be composted to why we need to grow food. Read on to hear more about Poetry and Composting from Bomani:

“Growing Up Green was a learning experience for me. I had done residences with kindergarteners before, but never where the final project had to narrate a sequence. Usually, when I’m working with kindergarteners, we are having fun working with rhyming words, and we can make up definitions for them and write like Dr. Seuss, creating an imaginary world.

This workshop offered something new, a tangible, in-your-hands experience that’s different from my usual history- or social studies-based residencies. But what is the root of this imaginary world for this particular workshop? We start with a shared experience.

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Students learn the ingredients and components to the composting process. I asked the students what they already knew, and then we would question and discuss the most important things. It doesn’t really matter what the subject is, as long as kids have a shared experience to draw from, all getting to feel, touch, smell, discuss; when we start throwing out ideas, we can better interact with each other.

One of the reasons I love group creative-writing sessions is because the conversations that go on in a group setting are the same internal conversations that go on in a writer’s head. Showing that process to young people in a physical way, where they are acting out how ideas are communicated — ‘what about this idea, what about that idea, we should take this back, we should add that in there!’ — helps them to better understand complicated topics like composting.

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One student would forget one part, and another would remember and say, ‘Oh you forgot the part about adding the paper!’ And they would all respond ‘oh yeah!’ and a conversation about the process of composting would develop further, which would inevitably lead to other discussions surrounding composting, like ‘Why do we need more trees? Why do we compost in the first place? Why and where do we grow food?”

The writing process began with the teachers and I adding the “odd” lines — the first line — and then students brainstormed the second line for the couplet, coming up with the rhyming components. At first, I was worried about how heavy-handed the adults in the room would need to be for it to make sense, but the students came up with some amazing things! Here’s a great example:

“Put holes in the bin so the worms get air,
Holes in the bin show worms you care,
Put strips of paper and some leaves,
Paper and leaves come from trees,
Add food scraps and coffee grinds,
You just need some time
Put the top back on, they don’t like sun,
Composting is very fun!”

Usually, there’s one student in every class that starts off really nervous about moving their body, using their voice or raising their hand. One young lady at John Hanson Montessori was very quiet at first but over the course of the class, her teacher came up to me and said, “She’s completely opened up!” With younger students, they typically have less fear than older kids, but for many of these children, English is a second language so it’s sometimes hard to communicate quickly or expressively.

This one student was able to open up because I kept repeating, ‘someone tell me a bad idea’ or ‘someone say something that’s not exactly right yet, but you think it’s almost there.’ Giving the young lady that freedom made it easier for her to open up. She would raise her hand and say something, and I would say ‘Oh! That’s not quite right, but please keep trying, I love where you are going with that! Rethink that, talk to your neighbor and come back to me.’ She got used to the idea of not being afraid of the wrong answer because we are all collectively looking for the right set of words.

There’s a line in one of the songs where they rhymed the word “word’ with “serve” as a near-rhyme. The teachers all agreed that “serve” was not the easiest to rhyme with, but when we asked the kids to vote, they picked “serve,” so we went with it! I prepped the kids for this more difficult rhyme, saying ‘you know, if it doesn’t work out, it’s okay, we can always back-track, but since you all voted on it, we’ll try it out and see how it works.’ I let them huddle up, and I got back a whole bunch of excellent ideas about how to use the word ‘serve’! Below is the final line we used in the poem:

Composting is how we serve, and we use this rap to spread the word!

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One of the side effects of this workshop, let alone the main idea of composting, is that it gets kids really excited about words and about articulating thoughts. Kindergarteners were constantly trying to find ways to tie in words to create new ideas, really stretching themselves and questioning the meaning of words.

In all honestly we probably did underestimate the ability of one 6-year-old to use ‘serve’ in a rhyme, but with 30 of them together all talking about it, they figured it out! Each rap came out really well!

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Teaching Children Not to Be Afraid of Giving the Wrong Answers

Ever wondered why kids say they’re bored at school, or why they stop trying when the work gets harder? In this essential video on Fixed vs. Growth mindsets, Educationalist Carol Dweck explains how the wrong kind of praise actually *harms* young people. This short video is essential viewing for everyone — from teachers and education workers to relatives and friends — which promotes GROWTH rather than “fixed” mindsets in students.

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