By. Skylar L. Primm, Advisor/Lead Teacher at High Marq Environmental Charter School
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. You’re welcome here.” With these words, Alexis, an eighth grader, welcomes new and returning students to another school year at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello, Wisconsin. Alexis herself is only starting her second year at High Marq, but she has already been impacted by—and exerted an impact on—the school’s culture. From the time of her arrival at the school, when she told me her reason for coming to High Marq was “My mom made me” to today, when she embraces new students with open arms and an open heart, Alexis is a living example of the transformational potential of a culture of sustainability in our schools.
To transform our society, sustainability education must not be confined to the environmental science classroom. Rather, sustainability should be embedded within all our teaching. In our school, some of the sustainability questions students are currently investigating include: Are actions driven by activism sustainable? How do electric cars affect the environment differently from gas powered cars? What can we learn about sustainability from native peoples? How did the Yugoslav War affect the European economy? Am I making sustainable life choices for myself? The answers to these questions will cross disciplinary and cultural boundaries, and are likely to change the lenses through which students view the world, as well.
How do we begin to develop such a culture? At our school, we start from day one. Each year, we dedicate the first two weeks—roughly 5% of the school year—to establishing and reinforcing our school’s values in what we affectionately call “High Marq Boot Camp.” Those values include personal interdependence and interdisciplinary studies, both of which are foundational to sustainability education. Intentional community building activities, often led by veteran students, give us opportunities to learn about one another and feel comfortable, trustful, and safe. New students are partnered with returning ones in mentor relationships, providing them with a single point of contact and a role model as they navigate our nontraditional school. Every student also has an assigned weekly chore that gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility for maintaining the health of our classroom environment.
Community building activities at High Marq range from elaborate adventures to simple, spur-of-the-moment games. Tag and red light/green light are usually played by younger students than ours, but activities like these allow them to lower their defenses and just be kids together. Experiences like a scavenger hunt and blind trust walk teach students to rely on one another and embrace the unexpected. Our weekly field experiences during Boot Camp are also designed to foster community bonds and test leadership skills. This year, those experiences included seining for fish—which requires coordination and cooperation amongst six-student teams—and practicing canoe tipping and rescues—which calls for a great deal of trust and resiliency on the part of the kids. (Not to mention the new-to-some experiences of putting on waders and paddling a canoe!)
Boot Camp may be a one-time event, but the culture of a school requires constant maintenance and booster shots throughout the year. Each year, a group of six to eight new students join the High Marq school community. Some have been home schooled previously, others are siblings of current students, and some are just transferring in from a traditional school. Their individual needs are as diverse as their backgrounds, but one thing they will all have in common is being assigned a mentor. Veteran students volunteer for the job and are paired with mentees later in Boot Camp, after they have enough time to get a feel for their individual personalities. Throughout their first year and beyond, mentors serve as a sounding board for many of the new students’ questions and concerns. In future years, those mentees will mentor new students of their own. In this way, the collective knowledge and traditions of the school are handed down through the years.
We maintain a list of classroom chores, such as consolidating trash and recycling, maintaining bookshelf organization, and vacuuming. Veteran students are assigned as “chore monitors” to coordinate twice-weekly cleaning and organizing. Chores are generally assigned early on and remain consistent throughout the school year. These chores are, of course, necessary to maintain a healthy and pleasant learning environment. But our staff could do just as good a job (if not better). The more important, though less tangible, outcome is that students develop a sense of ownership over our shared classroom space. They also begin to hold each other accountable for actions that damage our space. It is usually simpler to stop someone from dropping crumbs in the first place than it is to clean them up later!
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills includes critical thinking and collaboration as essential for success in our shifting societal landscape. Sustainability education provides a clear path for practicing and honing these skills. It cannot all be about individual actions like composting or eating local. As a society, we must work together for a more sustainable future. Shifting a culture or building a new one from scratch is hard, and maintaining it requires attention and work. The benefits of that work, however, are immeasurable. To quote another of my students, Nic, from a recent field journal entry: “Hope for a better community and future is what High Marq stands for.”
About the Author
Skylar L. Primm has only ever taught in project-based schools. Since 2011, he has served as co-lead teacher at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello, Wisconsin, where students in grades 7-12 engage with a curriculum focused on independent project-based learning, weekly environmental field experiences, and student democracy. Skylar was a fellow at the 2015 Greater Madison Writing Project Summer Institute, where he honed his passions for student reflection and teacher research. In 2017, he received a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service. An erstwhile geologist, he much prefers teaching.