Educator Spotlight: Designing Sustainable Solutions for New Homeowners

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Christine McCartney, this week’s Educator of the Week, teaches English at Excelsior Academy, a New York State Pathways in Technology Early College High School, situated within Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, N.Y. She worked with ninth-graders on an interdisciplinary project in which they created “green living” welcome boxes full of sustainable resources to support new Habitat for Humanity homeowners in their city.

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Christine McCartney teaches English at Excelsior Academy in Newburgh, NY. Photo by J. Ferrara

What inspired your Nat Geo Educator Certification Program capstone project, in which students connected with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit focused on housing, to support new homeowners?

Our city of Newburgh has been experiencing the decades-long effects of deindustrialization. The loss of industry has left our city with an increasing incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues, and high poverty levels, all of which can leave youth feeling hopeless and disempowered. Now, there’s a huge revitalization effort. I want to help our students join this effort by thinking deeply about the changes Newburgh is experiencing, adding their voices to the conversation about their community, and developing a mindset of empowerment.

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Excelsior Academy students regularly volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh. Photo by Elise Goings-Perrot

At our school, we have a big focus on our core values of community, intentionality, and trust. We do an annual project-based learning activity combining environmental science and English. This year, I wanted to extend our school’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh in a way that built on our students’ strengths and knowledge, connected to their science and literacy curriculum, and invited them to feel empowered as change-makers in our city.

Working with Habitat Newburgh’s volunteer and outreach coordinator, ninth-graders brainstormed how they could develop a sustainable program to benefit the organization. They researched, ideated, prototyped, and enacted their plan, which was to create “green living welcome boxes,” or boxes that provide resources to support a sustainable lifestyle, for all new Habitat for Humanity homeowners in our city.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.

How did your students decide what should go into the boxes and find the resources to fill them?

Our students considered how new homeowners in Newburgh can reduce their environmental impact and what support they might need. Groups of students researched five topics: conservation, waste management, transportation, eating and growing green, and local resources to support green living. They identified items that could help new homeowners start living green and completed fundraising campaigns to purchase those items. Students also created a map and informational brochure to help homeowners become eco-friendly residents.

Now, the next step is for students to think about how to make this project sustainable for the future. Going forward, we want to involve more community partners, such as stores, that could donate items for the boxes. We want students to practice creating real partnerships.

Students researched and selected items to support green living. Photos by Christine McCartney

Do you think that developing and completing this project is having an impact on the way your students see their community and their ability to get involved? 

They’re recognizing that they can have a voice and make a change. They’re learning that they can reach out and involve others in things they’re passionate about. Students have been working on letters to the editor of our local paper, and they’re excited to potentially get published so they can share their knowledge with others.

A ninth-grader places a call to a local community garden to learn whether they have a community compost drop-off. Photo by Christine McCartney

This project involved a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration, and it sounds like that is a major focus at your school. Do you have suggestions for other educators who want to develop interdisciplinary projects?

It’s really important to consider what everyone brings to the table—content-wise, of course, but also thinking about the interests and needs of the teachers involved. Having candid conversations on the goals for the project is crucial. Also, teachers can’t be afraid to get messy, since that’s the nature of project-based learning. There are points when you’re not sure what direction the project is taking, and you have to communicate and regroup frequently.

You have to put a lot of direction in the hands of the students. It’s hard to do that since we’re taught the opposite in our teacher training, but I’ve seen how much more powerful that is for students and for us.

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Christine McCartney works with students at Excelsior Academy. Photo by Elise Goings-Perrot

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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