RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen

Back to School Special

A voice is a powerful tool. Having worked on some projects to exhaustion, I've been energized by an encouraging voice over the phone, and finished a brief conversation full of strength even barely remembering the words exchanged.

So, when Tina called a couple of months ago, it was her voice and not her words that stuck. Tina is coordinator of an excellent waste-reduction program in her town. She's keen on such things as putting worm bins in classrooms so kids can see worms turning food scraps into fertile dirt which then can grow food. And she's a gardener, which of course means she's an optimist.

But in this phone call, Tina's voice relayed discouragement. She had been talking to a teacher who wanted to teach kids how to prevent global warming. "I can't help but think there's nothing we can do," she sadly trailed off.

If Tina's discouraged, Dear Reader, we've got a problem.

For years, scientists have said that global warming could be caused by buildup of the large amount of carbon dioxide we dump in the air when we burn fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide buildup could trap heat, change climate, melt polar ice caps, make oceans rise and endanger coastlines. If these problems are to be solved, they said, we must burn less fossil fuel. Drive less. Consume less. Buy less.

Now we've survived another record-setting summer, complete with droughts and tornadoes and floods. If you take the prediction of global warming as a template and lay it down on the 1999 calendar, it looks like the direst forebodings are coming true.

Our government refuses to do anything -- even to endorse the international standards set at a 1998 conference in Kyoto, Japan. So it's up to us.

This column is dedicated to teachers who, whether they know it or not, influence the future. They can change attitudes even in the face of an uncooperative media and social policy. If you have a favorite teacher, please pass this column on.

Dear Teacher:

The most important thing we can do to prevent global warming is to respect the inevitable -- make that INEVITABLE -- laws of nature. The environment, Gaia, life, Creation. Call it what you want, it means the network of all organisms. Plants, animals, friends, elders, people of other cultures. We've proven again and again that humans and even science are subject to nature's unbending laws.

In the classroom, plan all year to teach respect for this force. Start with yourself, of course. Can you walk or bike to work? take public transportation? carpool? Teachers are often the coolest people kids know, and you teach with everything you do.

Use both sides of the paper. Make it heroic to mend broken things. Teach kids to patch clothes. Use things you found at yard sales or re-sale shops, and show-and-tell your class. Price isn't the point -- teach sustainability.

Every school year starts out with the tales of summer vacation. As the kids tell their stories, think about sustainability. While the kid with the fancy new house or the trip abroad might get the class's attention, be sure to praise the kid who stayed home, biked to the library, and read books.

After the days get crisp, we tell our kids harvest stories. You can teach sustainability in our food choices. Products like bananas, chocolate and coconut are grown on former rain forests and come to the grocery store by petroleum power while others -- grapes, pecans, and mint, perhaps -- come from close by. Let the kids see you bring your lunch, and make some of it local and in-season.

And speaking of food: Instead of rewarding the class for good work with pizza and soda, invite a good cook to class to teach the kids to cook using local ingredients. Kids love contrariness (have you noticed?) and your local farmer's market can provide your classroom with local growers to demonstrate their wares.

During the winter holidays, you'll have to get the kids' minds off what the advertisers want to sell. Bring elders to class to tell about Christmas past, or have kids interview grandparents. We all need to remember life before the mall. One school started an oral history project that resulted in interviews of school personnel, from principal to janitor to coach to lunch room cooks. It was a great way to teach that dignity doesn't necessarily come from owning lots of expensive stuff.

When spring's just around the corner, think of projects to benefit the community. Is the school yard big enough for an outdoor classroom, bird or butterfly sanctuary, or garden? Is there a park nearby that needs cleanup? Is there a place to plant trees? Is there a nursing home that would plant seedlings you raise in the classroom?

Ten years ago, a school in Rolla cut down oak trees to build an addition. The kids gathered acorns and planted them. Today, the young trees are still holding their own. In another project, an inner-city St. Louis school cleared a nearby vacant lot to plant a garden. These projects will benefit the school neighborhoods forever.

A Kansas City teacher started aluminum recycling, spending the aluminum money on bird feeders and bird seed. Think of schools with little wildlife gardens all over the nation! And, if you have the room, let some little patch on the school grounds go wild.

Sponsor a no-TV month and have the kids report every day on what they did instead of watching TV. Make it cool, and be sure you have a report, too.

Take the class to visit a business. Ask the business owner about their recycling. When you get back to school, discuss what things in the business contribute to a sustainable community. Many schools benefit by using leftover business materials.

There are four steps in making change. First we become aware of a problem. Next we resolve to change. Then we figure out how. Last, we make the change. If we're to use less fossil fuels, we must replace our status system based on consumption with status based on maintenance.

Change is possible, even in America. Cities build mass transit systems and preserve green space. Schools adopt recycling programs. Industries conserve water. We've done it before. It's beginning to sink in. That's step one -- awareness of the problem.

Finally, Dear Teacher: Keep communication open. Kids are always blurting out stuff they've heard on TV and it's our job to challenge, but not ridicule, ideas. Teachers routinely have the experience of hearing after many years that they did something to change a life. We can't give up hope.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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