March Message from Head of School Jen Danish: Environmental Stewardship and Collaboration

Last Friday, we welcomed our newly accepted families to Grace for a reception and an inspiring assembly led by Grade 4 centered on the theme of recycling at Grace and in Montgomery County. The energy in our wider community was palpable as our Grade 4 students taught us all about why recycling matters and what to recycle and what to throw away. Through a combination of media, including a stop-motion animated film and a musical performance, our students taught us a great deal about caring for our earth in this one directly impactful way. You can watch it here.

What was also very special about this performance was the way it exemplified several of our educational approaches and values in action. The musical portion of the assembly was perfectly in line with the Orff Schulwerk approach to music, which focuses on student creativity as well as meaningful and contextual experiences in music and movement. Our students not only created a wonderfully creative animated film (that featured a Gryphon instructing students on what can and can’t be recycled), they also created instruments from repurposed recyclables and performed original music in their newly formed “Recyclers’ Band.” The content also revealed collaboration between not only students, but also teachers — a homeroom teacher (Ms. Scott, Grade 4), our music teacher (Mrs. Smith), and our science and technology teacher (Ms. Comas). It was clear to see all of the many ways that teachers and students had worked together to teach the school about the ways to recycle. It was creative, multi-disciplinary, and fun.

This assembly is also a key example of Grace’s identity as a “green school.” In just a week we will submit our application to the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education’s Green Schools Program to receive designation for this important work in our program at all levels. Many thanks to Prek teacher Marisa Martucci and Spanish teacher Gavin Hymes for their hard work in putting this application together for Grace. Highlighted in the application are photographs and slides that show our year-long work with students in environmental stewardship. Much due to our amazing 11-acre campus, Grace students enjoy opportunities to garden, study in our rain gardens, clean Rock Creek, recycle weekly, gather compost, and consider how our willingness to care for our local home can make a huge difference in the health of our planet.

Almost 25 years ago, I taught at a boarding school in New Jersey and in my final years there, I co-taught a Grade 8 English/Science course focused on building place-based proficiency for our students. We received a grant to work with our students to design a course that would include journaling, observation, and outdoor walks to build a deeper connection with their most local ecology. The time I spent developing this course was the pinnacle of my teaching, as I was truly inspired by the depth of knowledge and engagement our students had with the land around them and the progress they subsequently made as close readers and astute writers and scientists.

It is no surprise that I have landed at a school with not only a vast campus with trees and a nature trail for students to enjoy, but also a deep commitment to making environmental education a central and interdisciplinary part of the program. When I had finished teaching the course in New Jersey in 1997, I was invited to write an article for an anthology of place-based education initiatives. In that article, I made a prescient observation:

As I look towards teaching in the twenty-first century, it strikes me that my students will need the skills to use the technology of the computer age. They will need to learn how to manage the maze of information that is available to them through the internet. But I also know from experience teaching this course that my students will need to know how to observe the natural world around them . . . In a world that continues to grow faster and more complex, the simple act of walking through a wooded area to see the change of seasons and understand the trees and flowers that are characteristic of a particular region opens up the possibility of developing a lifelong connection to place . . . It is easy to become spoiled by fast electronic images and to forget the calls of birds and the names of flowers that bloom where we live. But as teachers, we have the opportunity to take our students to the inner regions of the land we dwell upon and invite them to discover the possibility that awaits them.

Here at Grace, we are putting a focus on this connection to our place, and our stewardship of it, each day in our curriculum and practices. I look forward to seeing this work continue to grow with our Green School designation and our talented faculty who continue to consider all of the ways we can deepen environmental stewardship in our students.