Educator Spotlight: Empowering a School Community to Recycle

David Sweeney inspired his third-graders to advocate for recycling and trash pickup at their school and in their community. Students collected trash, classified it, and analyzed the results. They connected with school community members to share their learning about recycling. David moved to fourth grade with his students this year and continues to support them in caring for their school.

David Sweeney-2
David Sweeney teaches fourth grade at Cartwright School in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo courtesy James Furtney

What inspired you and your students to develop a recycling program in your school?

We read a story about the Plastiki, a boat built from plastic drinking bottles to raise awareness of plastic in the ocean. Students were amazed and became very concerned about the dangers of trash.

After reading the story, we went outside and picked up trash in our own schoolyard. Due to the winds in our area, trash that comes to campus stays on campus. Students were picking up handfuls of plastic bottles and chip bags. They felt that change needed to happen.

Students sorting trash
Students collected trash and sorted it into recyclable and non-recyclable materials. Photo by David Sweeney

Tell us about the trash collection and classification your students did. Did the results surprise them?

Before we began collecting the trash, I posed a question: “Should you pick up other people’s trash?” I asked students to share their opinions, and we had a great debate. I just facilitated the conversation, and they argued the topic on their own, which was a proud moment.

Students collected trash for four days and then began to classify it, sorting it into recyclables and non-recyclables. Then, they broke it down to glass, plastic, paper, wood, and metal. They created a graph explaining what they found. Students were amazed that the trash was 53% plastic. They realized they use bottles and other plastics so often that they don’t even notice how much waste they’re producing. Some students brought in reusable water bottles the very next day, which shows how much they want to change their world.

Trash sorting
Students found that the trash they collected contained lots of plastic and paper. Photo by David Sweeney

How did your students involve other members of their school community in this recycling project, which became your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone?

My students designed Lego people cutouts, which they carried around campus and used as conversation starters. When school community members asked about them, students shared their learning about recycling and picking up trash. They taught others to support and take care of the school. When we see students being the teachers, we know we are on the right path.

We asked our art teacher, Mrs. Lewis, if we could create “Respect Our Campus” and “Recycle” posters, and she supported us in doing that. We also connected with our school resource officer to share thoughts and ideas.

My class reached out to other students and changed their habits; we had second-graders through fifth-graders bringing us trash to count. They began collaborating with sixth-graders to create a public service announcement to share with the school. And we just confirmed that PepsiCo Recycle Rally accepted our application to be in their recycling program, which will help students continue working to improve their campus.

Recyclable pie chart
A student fills in a pie chart showing the proportions of different recyclable materials found in the trash collected by the class. Photo by David Sweeney

What impact did this project have on your students?

The impact on the students, I believe, has been life-changing. They have seen that even as third-graders, they can make a difference. My students feel responsible for their actions and the actions of others, and they are empowered to do their part in taking care of the world. They look at trash in a whole new way: they do not just ignore it on the ground. They pick it up and determine whether it can be recycled.

Many went home and shared their learning with family members, who sent in stories. Some families even started to recycle at home. This is huge for any teacher, to have students take their learning and share it with others.

When you show connections to real life, students want to take part. I never look at my students and think they can’t do something. I look at them and think, “How can I help them understand? What will it take to have those fireworks take place?”

A student illustrates a poster about recycling at school
Students created posters to spread the word about recycling at school. Photo by David Sweeney

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Do you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

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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