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Green Your Classroom

Green your classroom and you’ll improve your health, your students’ health, and the health of the planet.

In your classroom, you’ve already mastered the 3Rs. You reduce the amount of trash that ends up in the dumpster by reusing every jar, plastic bottle, and can in science experiments and as paper clip holders, and you recycle every scrap of paper (after you make sure that it’s been used on both sides). But, creating a green classroom extends far beyond recycling. It’s all about changing the environment to make it healthier for you, your students, and, eventually, the world.

The most important green change you can make is cleaning the air. “The indoor air quality in a lot of school facilities is sub-par,” says Rachel Gutter, senior manager of the education sector with the U.S. Green Building Council. Poor air quality from mold, fumes from idling cars, and chemicals from cleaning products and air fresheners is particularly harmful to students’ lungs. “Children have an increased susceptibility to environmental toxins,” says Gutter, because “they take in more air compared to their body weight and [their bodies] can’t detoxify in the way that adults’ can.”

As you green your classroom, take our tips to clean the air, and address energy, water quality, and eventually green activism:

1. Add plants: Many common houseplants, such as, peace lilies, snake plants, and spider plants, improve air quality and improve responsibility in your students. (Note: snake plants and spider plants are non-toxic, however the sap in peace lily plants is toxic so don’t keep this plant around young children.)

2. Address real smell problems: Don’t use air fresheners. If you smell something unusual or see mold, don’t just mask the smell, ask the facilities management department to investigate. 

3. Clean green: If you want to turn cleaning day into a science lesson, make some green cleaners of your own. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant; add one part water to one part vinegar for an all-purpose cleaner. To get at tougher stains, combine four tablespoons baking soda with one quart warm water to make a cleaning spray that you can use on dirt, grease, wax, and mildew. One of the best ways to clean your air is to use green cleaning products. Buy Seventh Generation products at the store, or check out Teachers’ Classroom Cleaning Products.

4. Start an Idle-Free Zone: Get your kids involved in green initiatives by campaigning your school to have an Idle-Free Zone to keep the air around your school cleaner during pick-up and drop-off.

5. Lunch litter-less: Before lunch or snack, set out bins (weigh them first) for paper, plastic, food scraps, and other trash. Then, have students sort their trash into each bin and weigh each to find out just how much garbage you produced. Then, figure out how to dine without producing as much trash. Julie Johnston, sustainability curriculum designer with GreenHearted.org, recommends washing plastic utensils. Meaghan O’Neill, editor of TreeHugger.com, suggests using biodegradable napkins, utensils and plates, and starting an indoor compost project. (Learn more about classroom composting from the Cornell University comprehensive guide or start with this lesson that teachers kids about the process.

6. Go paper-less: Challenge your class to go an entire day without using a piece of paper. Do more group activities, maximize the computer, use Power Point to present information, fill up your white boards and chalkboards, and share books instead of using photocopies. You can go paperless by sending progress reports, notes, and announcements home via email. Set up an official teacher account and set limits (i.e. I respond to email once a day, from 3:30 to 4:00).

7. Do an energy audit: O’Neill recommends doing a green energy audit of your classroom. For younger grades, that could mean counting the number of lights that are on and figuring out how many you can turn off and still have enough light to work. For older students, calculate your class’s carbon footprint (use the tools at coolschoolchallenge.org or zerofootprint.net) to see just how much impact your changes will have. To save energy, Gutter recommends keeping your task lamps, computers, and other appliances that can be turned off to save energy on power strips so you can turn them all off at once as you leave for the day.

8. Stock green supplies: Ask parents to send in eco-friendly school supplies from major office chains, or online at Dolphin Blue, The Real Earth, Inc., Greenline Paper or New Leaf Paper.

9. Have a greater impact: High school students can join the Student Environmental Action Coalition or take the Scholastic/Lexus eco-challenge to win prizes for their ideas to tackle land, water, or air concerns. All students can get involved with Earth Force.

10. Get connected: Get more green ideas at Greenhearted.org or the Healthy Schools Campaign, chat with other teachers on the TreeHugger.com forum or the NEA forum. And, if your school is up for a renovation, check out the U.S. Green Building Council’s green building checklist.

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