For everyone Seeing through the weeds

An environmental focus is top of the agenda at Truganina South Primary School. Photo: supplied

When it comes to sustainability, teachers and students alike are leading by example at this school, and winning awards for their efforts.

Simple symbols can be powerful. That’s why science teacher Vanessa Smith hit on the idea of adopting the cute frog that adorns the logo of her workplace, Truganina South Primary School, as a visual way in to her sustainability-focused lessons. Recruiting the aid of the school’s art teacher, Vanessa tasked her students with crafting a giant puppet of the long-legged creature.

“The kids took it to assembly and acted out the life of that frog, and how it would be affected if its habitat was choked with rubbish,” Vanessa says.

Currently on maternity leave, Vanessa says that environmental focus runs through the veins of the school. An enthusiastic supporter, she’s helped spearhead all manner of projects, from tree-planting days to beach clean-ups, to ‘nude food’ challenges whereby kids bring in lunch with little or no harmful wrapping. “That helps the parents get on board,” she says.

There is also a points system in play, where monitors travel around the school and check the bins in every classroom, to make sure recycling is happening. “Each week at assembly, we announce which team was the best recycler,” Vanessa says, noting that students have embraced the competition with considerable enthusiasm.

Every initiative they have carried out, Vanessa ties back to the overarching story of that frog.

Wyndham City Council have teamed up with the school on a number of projects, most notably National Tree Day, to help add a few more of the green-leaved carbon guzzlers to the reserve behind the school. “We’ve planted around 100 to 300 each year, so it’s really great for the kids to watch their progress, to watch them growing and know that they contributed to their local community.”

These community-minded endeavours were recognised in a major way last year at the Victorian government’s ResourceSmart Schools Awards, which recognise excellence in embedding sustainability in the curriculum. Truganina South took home the 2019 Student Action Team of the Year (Primary) award, and Vanessa was awarded Teacher of the Year in the same category.

“It was a really good feeling, to know that all the hard work the students and staff had put in was being recognised,” she recalls. “And it was also really good for the students to see that what they were doing had an impact, and that other people could recognise that their efforts towards the community, and the environment, was worthwhile. It meant something.”

It’s not just Vanessa and her colleagues inspiring the kids to look after their surroundings. It goes both ways. Several students came to her and suggested they do a clean-up of the oval after watching the ABC TV show War on Waste, hosted by Craig Reucassel. “The wind tends to pick stuff up sometimes, out of the bins. So, we did our own little war on waste, taking out rubbish bin bags and walking around in a big group, picking it up as we’d chant and sing, getting other people involved.”

Inspiration has multiplied exponentially, with all of the teachers banding together to help realise the students’ dreams. Led by the performing arts teacher, they even entered a mini-musical inspired by War on Waste into Wakakirri, Australia’s largest performing arts festival for schools. “It focused on five different aspects of the environment,” Vanessa says.

Truganina South Primary School students studying science in the veggie patch. Photo: supplied

Vanessa makes a point of linking each of these initiatives back to the overarching story of that frog. “It’s on the shirt the students wear every day, so it’s brought that message home to them. There’s a reason why we should be caring about the environment. It’s not just us, it’s about the animals too.”

With Vanessa on parental leave, teacher Tenille Roberts has taken over on sustainability duties, combining her science teaching hat with heading up the school’s Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden program. Again, it’s all about the holistic approach to sustainable education. The kids love getting dirty in the garden and learning more about how food grows then makes its way to their plates.

“It’s about creating that wonder,” Tenille says. “It’s a real eye-opener for the students, finding out how the vegetables they get in their groceries started out nine months before.”

It’s been an eye-opener for Tenille too, who has found that what grown-ups see as tiresome and menial chores can actually inspire wonder in kids. “One of my most successful lessons this year was weeding. The kids were so proud, that every single child wanted to pose with the weeds and send photos home to their parents.”

Students at Truganina South Primary School creating new garden beds. Photo: supplied

These real-world skills the students are picking up in the garden’s dirt help them build a vivid connection with their science lessons. “It’s not just learning it,” Tenille says. “They’re doing it. I’ve had parents contact me and say, ‘You know, my child now wants to cook, and they’re teaching me about the chemistry of water boiling, and how it turns into a vapour’.”

After a local store donated old newspapers, Tenille taught her students how to fold them just thickly enough to create little plant pots that could accommodate seedlings. “The kids were so excited that the newspapers they normally get in their letterbox, which then get chucked, could have this other life,” she says.

Even the switch to remote learning couldn’t hold them back. The staff have been delivering their own take on MasterChef, posting a video a week working up their favourite dish. Students have been having a crack, sending back videos of their own attempts. “We have a lot of students who have English as a second language, and they can connect to these lessons without really having to be proficient in English. I’m cooking in my backyard, and they can follow along. It’s so good to have that connection.”

This engagement fills Vanessa with hope. “My daughter will grow up in a world where people are more aware of how to do better for the environment,” she says. “We’ll continue spreading the message, leading by example, and hopefully then policymakers will change things so we all have better prospects for the future.”

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