by Jody Kerzman

Earth Day may be officially celebrated in April, but everyday is Earth Day in Kaia Hart’s first grade classroom. She starts teaching her students the importance of the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) on the very first day of school.
“I actually teach the three Rs more in the first month of school than I do all year long,” said Hart, who teaches first grade at Bismarck’s Solheim Elementary. “We talk about how to make our classroom an environmentally kind classroom right from the get-go. It’s hard for six and seven year olds to think beyond their own lives, so we talk about how being good to our environment starts right where we are and extends out. “

Hart has several lessons on recycling, which she saves for the month of April, but reduce and reuse are words her students learn to live by all year long.

“I teach my students to reduce by keeping their desks organized and our classroom tidy. This way they won’t lose their papers and supplies and, therefore, won’t need more,” explained Hart. “We only keep what we absolutely need in our desks. No extras! We share our resources like glue and crayons instead of getting new. Basically, we simplify, which is reducing the need for more.

“As for reusing, we often use scratch paper whenever possible and we always try to use the other side of our papers,” Hart said. “Our rule for reusing construction paper is if it is as big as your hand, it is reusable. If it is not, it goes into the recycling bin.”

As with many lessons in first grade, Hart has found a book that helps her students better understand the idea of living green. Written and illustrated by an Oklahoma kindergarten class, the book, “Our Class is Going Green” helps Hart start a conversation with her students about what they can do to save the earth.

“We read that book and then we brainstorm all the things we can do to reduce, reuse and recycle in our classroom, home, and neighborhood. Each student takes his or her idea and we put a book of our own together. We can all learn from each other.“ 

Hart hopes that while her students learn from each other, they’ll also teach others to take care of the earth.

“First grade really is the perfect time to teach kids these lessons, like using scratch paper, because they’re so excited to learn and to tell everyone what they’re doing and why. They are small lessons that maybe don’t seem like they actually make a difference, but they do. Just think if we all used scratch paper instead of taking a new sheet every time. And if you can convince a six-year-old he’s saving the earth by using the backside of his paper, you can bet he’s going to do it, and tell everyone else to do the same! And that just might be the secret to getting everyone to go green!”
The Best Lessons
Sometimes the best lessons aren’t learned in the classroom. In fact, one Bismarck first grade teacher has learned that sometimes students pick up the best habits while picking up other people’s trash. That’s why every spring, a few times a week, Beth Anderson takes her first grade class outside their classroom at Bismarck’s Centennial Elementary to pick up garbage.

“Our school is surrounded by some busy streets, houses, and apartment complexes,” explained Mrs. Anderson. “We spend a few minutes a few times a week picking up the garbage that blows out of garbage cans or that someone may have thrown on the ground. We also talk about the importance of not littering, and taking care of the earth.”

But that lesson doesn’t end when the garbage is collected. It’s something Mrs. Anderson talks about with her students all year long.

“If we start teaching kids about taking care of the earth when they’re young, they’re more apt to take it to heart and to do it,” said Anderson. “Kids are so compassionate in first grade. It’s the prefect age to talk about taking care of the earth, whether that’s recycling, not littering, or reusing a plastic bottle.”

And as every parent knows, six and seven year old kids can be pretty persistent. So teaching them these lessons now is a great way to get parents on board too.

“We want them to be so used to recycling that it seems strange not to do it,” said Anderson. “And kids this age can be great role models. They’re not afraid to call out someone who throws an aluminum can into the garbage instead of recycling it. They’re happy to tell everyone they know why they should be recycling. And who can say no to a kid?”

They also talk about other ways to conserve, like shutting off the water while you brush your teeth and turning off the lights when you leave the room. They are small things these students are learning can make a very big difference.

But Anderson’s lessons go beyond the ways kids can physically change the world. She also spends time talking about ways they can have an emotional impact. They learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and the change he dreamed of.

“Kids are horrified to learn that people were treated differently because of the color of their skin,” she said. “They just can’t imagine such a thing. And that’s great. They’re learning at a very young age about how to treat people and how to treat our earth. They’re so empathetic at this age. I wish I could keep them this age forever!”

The lessons all lead up to a big project on Earth Day. All of the first grade classes at Centennial Elementary do a recycling project, which they complete at home and present to parents and other students at an open house. Anderson says it’s the perfect way for students to share their newly discovered passion for recycling with others.

“I want them to realize they can be the change they want to see in the world. And I want them to know that even though they’re small, they can still make a big difference, one piece of trash at a time.”