Sitting around a table at Meyers Center BOCES in Saratoga, students, teaching assistants, and teachers were busy crocheting. They weren’t making afghans or shawls– but rather, they were turning plastic into possibility.
Little did they know they were also making history.
Using plastic bags that many people throw away, students cut them into strips. Each end of the strip was tied, and then another group of students crocheted the strips, row by row, until they became colorful purses and reusable shopping bags. Social studies teacher Ann Villet tells the busy students that 2.7 billion plastic bags are used each day globally; they take 20 years to degrade, and if they’re stuffed in a landfill, make that 1,000 years to degrade. While decomposing, they release toxins.
The students press on, more determined. After reviewing different projects through the Robert F. Kennedy’s Speak Truth to Power social justice curriculum, which was created with NYSUT, students here at the Washington, Saratoga, Warren, Hamilton, Essex BOCES had voted on recycling and reusing plastic bags to make fashionable bags. They want to sell them, and send donations to The Greenbelt Movement, which plants trees in Africa to aid in improving soil and agriculture, among other benefits. Founder Wangari Maathai had also started a movement to keep plastic bags out of landfills.
Retired horticulture teacher Bert Weber, local president for the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employees Association, showed students the impact of trees on soil. Their recycle projects began. Numerous teaching assistants, including Sandy Carner-Shafran, Nicky Naushahi, and Agnes Walter, began working regularly with the students on crocheting. Teachers like Villett, Jane Amorosi, Colleen Travis, and Maureen Clancy utilized the project in classroom lessons.
Students are collecting plastic bags throughout the community. Any bags not used for their handbag project will be brought to facilities that remake them into grocery bags.
They decided to enter a Speak Truth to Power video contest for middle and high schools showing how they emulate Nobel Prize winner Maathai.They were one of 150 video entries.
Thursday morning, while crocheting, they got a call on Skype from the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights. Speak Truth to Power director John Heffernan was on camera, and told the group they were getting famous in Washington, D.C. They kept on crocheting. One student leaned over to another and whispered: “Why would be famous in Washington?”
Heffernan said one of Maathi’s more famous quotes is that “Everyone is on the wrong bus.” However, he told the group, “You’re on the right bus.” That’s because they’d won the Speak Truth to Power video contest!
Cheers, clapping and shouting erupted. Heffernan told them their video would be part of this April’s TriBeCa film festival in New York City and they would be invited to attend for the April 29th showing of their video.
Student crocheter Angie’s Demming eyes widened. “That’s my dream come true! I’ve always wanted to go to New York City!”
Student Sean Cross told Heffernan that here in the U.S. people take down trees to build developments, rather than plant them.
“Trees create oxygen and renew the soil. When you consider how much impact she (Maathai) made, it’s incredible,” Cross said.
This student not only crochets, he sings. He belted out a Tracy Chapman song at the beginning of the video, “It’s Only Paper, It’s Only Ink.”
Maathai, he said. “went to individual homes and gave people seeds and educated them.”
Since he’d already passed his GED and was working, Cross wanted to drop out of school. But his culinary program and investment in this project motivated him to come back.
Carner -Shafran said last year she started introducing presentations about Fair Trade and child slavery. When principal Shawn Hunziker told her “Education spilled out of the classroom and into the halls,” it inspired her to find other projects with the support of teachers and teaching assistants..
“”This brings a positive light on our students.Students come here with a range of academic challenges,” she said. They will keep the theme going with other recycling projects, such as turning newspapers into gift bags.
Demming told Heffernan she now has her aunt recycling bags and has taught her how to crochet them as well.
“It makes me happy we’re doing so much and we’re going to better the environment,” said student Sarah Long.
Teachers can use Speak Truth to Power curriculum lesson plans to incorporate social justice issues into math, science, career and technical, social studies and other classes.